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What is a no-fly zone? In Ukraine, it risks starting a war with Russia, the US and NATO say

Forcing Russian planes from Ukraine airspace could shift war across European borders – and escalate the conflict to nuclear warfare

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Forcing Russian planes from Ukraine airspace could shift war across European borders – and escalate the conflict to nuclear warfare

Published Updated

Despite pleas from Ukraine – and support from the American public – the threat of provoking a war with Russia, including a nuclear exchange, makes it unlikely the U.S. and Western allies will establish a “no-fly zone” to keep Russian military planes out of Ukrainian airspace.

A no-fly zone prohibits military aircraft from flying through designated airspace. It can cover all or part of a country and it's meant to prevent air attacks, protect civilians, limit aerial surveillance and eliminate air protection for ground troops.

The prohibition can't simply be declared, it must be enforced. A no-fly zone is a risky combat operation with high probability that opponents will end up shooting at, and declaring war on, one another.

The U.S. is part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance. Any conflict between a NATO member and Russia would mean that all of NATO, acting under its collective defense agreement, would respond.

The no-fly airspace is monitored and controlled by military air forces, including shooting down intrusive aircraft and destroying ground-based air-defense weapons. No-fly zones usually do not directly target ground troop operations.

Though the U.S. and allies are giving military aid to Ukraine, President Joe Biden has emphasized that U.S. troops won't be sent to fight there and says a no-fly zone won't be used.

"A no-fly zone, which people often shorthand, essentially means us shooting down Russian planes and them potentially shooting us," said White House Press Secretary Jan Psaki said March 15.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has said any nations declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be treated as participants in the war. That could spread the conflict across Europe.

It could also escalate to nuclear war. Putin increased the alert levels of Russian nuclear forces in February, a move that implied a threat of nuclear retaliation.

Why does Ukraine want a no-fly zone?

According to international law, nations have authority over the space above their borders. However, Ukraine can't completely defend its airspace from Russia, whose attack planes outnumber Ukraine's by a significant margin.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly asked the U.S. and NATO to establish a no-fly zone for Russian aircraft over "significant parts" of Ukraine to protect civilians. That would make the U.S. and NATO responsible for keeping out Russian planes.

How can a no-fly zone be an act of war?

No-fly zones require a significant military commitment of aircraft and ground-based defense systems. Nations assume their no-fly zones will be tested and first establish their own air superiority, or control of the air without threat from air attacks or missiles.

"If there are defense systems in the enemy's territory that can fire into the no-fly zone, then we normally take those systems out," retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, told NPR in an interview. "That would mean bombing into enemy territory."

An analysis by Just Security says a nation declaring a no-fly zone must have air superiority to protect its pilots. Aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone in Ukraine "would be heavily exposed to Russian air and ground attacks," it says.

In a no-fly zone, it's likely that aircraft from both sides – from fighter jets to refueling tankers to surveillance planes – will be shot down. That would escalate the war between Russia and Ukraine to direct combat between Russia and NATO.

NATO is founded on the principle of collective defense. Article 5 of its founding treaty states that an attack on one member is an attack on all members.

It's too easy to make a mistake inside a no-fly zone

Even with advanced aerial combat systems, mistakes are easy to make during the enforcement of no-fly zones. Choices in establishing a no-fly zone are complicated.

In addition to shooting down Russian planes inside the no-fly zone, NATO would have to decide whether to destroy Russian radar sites, missile launch systems and anti-aircraft artillery.

Some of these are in Russia or Belarus but have the ability to fire into Ukraine, putting NATO pilots at risk. Destroying those systems would mean attacking those countries.

Radar tracking, which monitors aircraft in flight, presents another problem. It's legal for pilots to defend themselves if attacked or detected by radar in preparation for an attack. Pilots who find themselves targeted by radar have seconds to decide whether to fire first.

U.S. military personnel inspect the wreckage of one of two Black Hawk helicopters shot down by U.S. pilots in a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq in April 1994.
U.S. military personnel inspect the wreckage of one of two Black Hawk helicopters shot down by U.S. pilots in a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq in April 1994. Joan Piper, USAF

And pilots can make mistakes. Twenty-six people died when two U.S. F-15C jets downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in northern Iraq in 1994 after mistaking them for Iraqi helicopters violating a no-fly zone.

An investigation later determined that a collection of human mistakes and procedural errors caused the tragedy.

Polls: Do Americans support no-fly zone in Ukraine?

Polls show support for a no-fly zone, but percentages appear to differ depending on how the risks are defined.

Surveys taken by Ipsos for Reuters, for example, show broad support for no-fly zones in Ukraine. However, it was not clear if supporters were "fully aware of the risk of combat," Reuters reported. Other results from the same Ipsos poll showed strong opposition to deploying U.S. troops in Ukraine.

How Americans responded to different polling surveys about establishing a no-fly zone:

Reuters/Ipsos | March 7-8

Quinnipiac University | March 10-14

Other polls, however, reveal different sentiments. For example, a Quinnipiac University poll released March 16 showed:

NewsNation | March 21-22

A NewsNation survey showed support for a no-fly zone:

University of Massachusetts Lowell | March 15-21

However, a survey by the University of Massachusetts Lowell revealed 54% were against a no-fly zone:

Ukraine renews appeals for jets, air defense systems 

With the likelihood of a no-fly zone fading, Ukraine is making new requests for fighter jets and high-tech air defense systems from Western nations, including U.S. Patriot missiles.

It's also seeking NASAMS, a surface-to-air missile system from Norway, and Soviet-made S-300 missiles from Slovakia.

Have no-fly zones been used in other conflicts?

Nations have imposed no-fly zones in three wars:

  • Iraq | 1991-2003: The U.S., U.K. and France enforce no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf War.
  • Bosnia | 1993-1995: The U.N. declares and NATO enforces a no-fly zone.
  • Libya | 2011: NATO enforces a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya during its civil war.
A protester holds a placard calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine during a demonstration in Prague, Czech Republic, on March 15.
A protester holds a placard calling for a no-fly zone over Ukraine during a demonstration in Prague, Czech Republic, on March 15. MICHAL CIZEK, AFP via Getty Images

In 2015, President Barack Obama refused to impose no-fly restrictions in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad's attacks on rebels and Russian airstrikes against ISIS that may have targeted rebels.

Just Security notes that these no-fly restrictions were imposed after combat ended, with the exception of Libya. That no-fly zone was established just ahead of a major NATO push against Muammar Gaddafi’s government.

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SOURCE USA TODAY Network reporting and research; Associated Press; justsecurity.org; Global Firepower; Defense One

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