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Would a no fly zone result in escalation or salvation for Ukraine?

Air Marshal Greg Bagwell

Former RAF Commander of Operations

04 March 2022

As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates and Europe confronts for the first time in a generation the realpolitik of a nuclear equipped Russia, some have either called for or ruled out military intervention. The ubiquitous No Fly Zone (NFZ) has been proffered as a limited military response to “level the playing field”. Indeed, I have turned to social media to add my considered support; this has met with stiff resistance, almost all of which has been based on a concern about escalation and the inevitability of nuclear war.

So, what is a NFZ and what are the pros and cons of its implementation.

NFZs are a rather recent invention, and have been employed in numerous circumstances over the last 30 years (Iraq 1991-2003, Bosnia & Herzegovina (1993-95), Libya (2011). Yet, each has been different in nature and conduct, and almost none of them restricted activity to policing air breathing assets. Perhaps most importantly, they were employed against far weaker adversaries who were not nuclear armed, which meant the benefits far outweighed the risks. Importantly, they offer politicians commitment without entanglement (no boots on the ground) and whilst they do not come cheap in terms of resource they do offer a clean containment strategy – notably the Iraq NFZs lasted for 12 years and, theoretically, could have been sustained indefinitely. Notably, all 3 of the NFZs above were established under UN auspices and not NATO Articles.

In their simplest form, NFZs require the constant surveillance of the relevant airspace (and possibly the airspace and airfields beyond) in order to detect, track, identify and intervene any system that penetrates the NFZ. The 24/7 surveillance needs to be backed up by sufficient fighter assets, either to deter incursions or, when one occurs, engage and chase off or, in extremis, shoot down

The problem with NFZs are threefold. Firstly the threat to enforcing aircraft can be such that it becomes necessary to engage and eliminate ground based air defence systems (missiles, launchers, command nodes, radars etc), and as the range of AD systems increase it becomes possible for them to engage enforcing aircraft from beyond the geographical boundary of the NFZ. Secondly, the suppression of air activity doesn’t necessarily stop military action on the ground and NFZ aircraft can find themselves owning the skies but merely able to watch as enemy ground troops operate below with impunity. These 2 factors increase the imperative to extend intervention against ground assets and thus create the equivalent of a “No Drive Zone”. And, finally, the enemy also gets a vote and they may counter a NFZ with action of their own which leads to escalation either in country or beyond. All 3 of these challenges are amplified in Ukraine because of the nature of the opposing forces; so let’s look at the practicalities and risks of a NFZ in Ukraine today.

It would be fair to say that the Russian Campaign has not progressed as expected, including the rather muted use of airpower. From what we can see from open sources the use of long range fires and artillery is proving far more destructive; moreover, Ukrainian air power remains in the fight. So, a cold analysis might suggest that a NFZ would have limited impact currently, but can Ukraine maintain any degree of status quo in the future? Just today we are seeing reports of airborne drops around key cities so Russian Air Superiority is approaching fast if not already present. Moreover, we shouldn’t underestimate the morale value of a NFZ both in terms of reassurance to Ukrainians and a threat to the Russian military.

To negate the ability for Russia to consider or justify escalation, the authority for the NFZ has to be irrefutable. My preference would be under UN auspices, recognising the challenge of Russian membership of the current UNSC. I am no diplomat, but there would need to be some way of making a NFZ mandate a global coalition endeavour, rather than applying the NATO brand. Once the authority is clearly established, the mandate and “rules” would need to be clearly communicated to make it very clear what is expected of Russia and what would be the consequences. To be crystal clear, any hostile aircraft making an incursion into Ukrainian airspace would be engaged; however, to further avoid escalation, the ROE may have to be relatively restrictive otherwise. For example, whilst hostile ground based systems could and would be targeted, this could be restricted to those on Ukrainian soil only. This clearly results in the potential for longer range systems based in Russia/Belarus to target enforcing aircraft, however, this could be minimised through tactics, use of 5th Generation aircraft in more exposed areas , and, in any event, Russian mis-steps so far suggest these systems may not be as deadly as the marketing brochure suggests. But with these controls in place it would be entirely reasonable to describe the NFZ as defensive in nature.

If the NFZ was to avoid the temptation to engage ground forces generally, then a sensible compromise would be allocate restricted operating zones to Ukrainian air assets such as the TB2 drones, in order for them to continue their very effective air to ground actions. In effect, the “NFZ coalition” would be responsible for air-to-air activity, and Ukraine all air-to-ground (except for any SEAD required to maintain safe operations). Operating locations would be a challenge and use of Ukrainian airfields should be avoided, other than for emergencies. There would need to a be a degree of integration or co-ordination established between the NFZ and Ukraine command and control, ideally for surveillance and network communications; however, I am confident that sufficient early warning surveillance and tanker support could be provided from relative safety.

It is impossible to cover every facet of the operation in this short article but I believe that there is sufficient merit in the benefits and practicalities of implementation of a NFZ that it should be firmly on the table for discussion. The most disappointing aspect of the debate so far is that we have done exactly what Putin thought we would do, and if we aren’t going to change his calculus now, then when? I fear that the opportunity to establish a NFZ is fast receding, and that if the situation worsens into a humanitarian crisis and a prolonged siege of major cities, we will be completely impotent. It would appear that we have much to relearn on conventional deterrence vs nuclear escalation in the context of Russia – if the West can’t stomach that debate now, it better get an appetite quickly because next time we might not be able to hide behind Charters.

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