A No-Fly Zone is a Dangerous Lunacy

By Noah Schwartz

A fighter jet from Qatar during air operations over Libya in 2011.
Image Credit: Courtesy Photo Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn/DVIDS

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a mass slaughter of innocents and widespread destruction of the country. This has sparked a fierce public debate over the role of America as a protectorate of the innocent and guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty. 

With many Americans having the understandable urge for the government to “do something” in the face of such horrors, the idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine has been proposed by both American and Ukrainian politicians. 

A no-fly zone involves the enforcement of an area where combat planes are not allowed into an airspace. This is usually done to protect civilians on the ground. However, it also serves the strategic purpose of stopping one country from achieving air superiority and keeps a conflict on the ground.

40% of Americans approve of a no-fly zone. Rephrasing the question to ‘Should the U.S. military shoot down Russian planes flying over Ukraine?’ causes American public support to dip to 30%

While 40% may not seem like a vast swath of the population, it should also be noted that another full 30% of the population has no real opinion on the matter. 

Support for (or lack of vehement opposition to) a no-fly zone is not surprising. Many Americans’ perception of air power is based on the recent history of the United States as a hegemon that can reach out and strike across the globe with impunity. 

The last case of a large-scale no-fly zone was over Libya in 2011, immediately preceding the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi. A no-fly zone over Ukraine would not be enforced with as little contestation.

Even proponents of a no-fly zone acknowledge that enforcing a no-fly zone could not be done bloodlessly. Richard D. Hooker conceded in a recent piece advocating for one that “a no-fly zone means suppressing enemy air defenses, and that some Western pilots and aircrew would be lost.” 

This seems like a long way of stating a simple fact: implementation of a no-fly zone means conflict between two nuclear powers. Once this begins, it will be difficult to maintain a conventional war given Russia’s stated intent of using tactical nuclear weapons should they feel threatened. 

To President Biden’s credit, he has categorically ruled out the implementation of a no-fly zone. However, this has not stopped more hawkish critics of the administration from demanding the President take a harsher line. 

27 foreign policy thinkers signed a letter to the administration calling for a “limited no-fly zone.” This letter provides few clarifying details on how the implementation of even a ‘limited’ no-fly zone could be brought about without triggering a larger conflict with Russia. 

The letter’s only suggestion is that “NATO leaders should convey to Russian officials that they do not seek direct confrontation with Russian forces.” If only it were that simple! 

NATO ‘conveyed’ to Russian officials that it would not be wise to invade Ukraine before the conflict started and this did nothing to change Putin’s course of action. There is no amount of public signaling that could convince Moscow that a Russian plane shot down by NATO is not tantamount to war with NATO.

This is the world of defense intellectuals, where escalation by itself is the strategy. Raphael S. Cohen at the RAND Corporation argues that “by ruling out a no-fly zone now, the United States loses potential leverage for a future settlement.”

Cohen accurately points out in the same article that Russian analysts believe Putin would go nuclear and that a no-fly zone “would also incur risk, potentially nuclear escalation.” 

According to this logic, there is a decent chance the actual policy of a no-fly zone could lead to a nuclear war but the abstract idea of a no-fly zone can’t be ruled out because it could help America gain leverage. 

“While American policymakers are rightfully hesitant to implement a no-fly zone policy,” Cohen explains, “it could be a strategic mistake to say so in public.”

This is an example of technostrategic discourse, a term coined by Carol Cohn about the way Cold War nuclear theorists used language and logic in an obscurantist way. 

In reality, the logic is really quite simple: a no-fly zone is a bad policy and President Biden is correct to call it a bad policy. In times of great pressure and with limited communication between Washington and Moscow, it is wise to clearly lay out America’s intentions and goals. President Biden should not be ashamed for taking the end of the world off the table.

Despite some loud proponents, an overwhelming amount of foreign policy intellectuals still oppose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. President Biden needs to continue to hold strong against calls from hawks who are still deeply in love with the bomb.

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese grand strategy and Left Realism.

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