(Editor’s note: Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, President Zelensky has all but begged for NATO and the US to establish a No-Fly Zone over his country’s airspace to prevent the Russian air force from establishing air dominance over the country.  Thus far, both the US and NATO have declined. We invited retired Air Force Lt Gen David Deptula to give us his views on whether such a No-Fly Zone could be established and what it would take in terms of air assets.  Lt Gen Deptula is imminently qualified to offer his views on this vital subject.  He was the principal attack planner for Operation Desert Storm’s air campaign in 1991, the commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001 and was twice a joint task force commander.

He is a fighter pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours–400 in combat–including multiple command assignments in the F-15. He was the Air Force’s first three-star chief of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). He has also served on two congressional commissions outlining America’s future defense.  Lt Gen Deptula is a graduate of the University of Virginia.)


A No-Fly Zone Means Direct and Sustained Combat With an Adversary

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, perhaps the most repeated request by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for assistance in the defense of his country against Russia’s invasion, is for the stand-up of a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Many people assume that somehow a no-fly zone is a relatively risk-free and simple means to disperse an enemy from conducting hostile operations over a particular area of interest—nothing could be further from reality.

A no-fly zone involves direct and sustained combat with an adversary and is established to eliminate all enemy airpower in a designated area and may include associated areas where enemy air operations originate. However, it is not just about shooting down adversary airplanes and missiles, it also involves eliminating the enemy’s ability to shoot down friendly aircraft executing the no-fly zone,  which means engaging and destroying enemy radar sites, command and control centers, surface-to-air missile systems and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). A no-fly zone is not a “silver bullet;” it is not cheap; it is not risk-free; and it requires significant preparation, smart execution, and to be effective it must be an element of a strategy with well-defined objectives.

Every no-fly zone to date has been unique to the situation—northern and southern Iraq 1991-2003; Bosnia and Herzegovina 1993-1995; and Libya 2011, 2018, 2019. However, there are common elements among all of them. A brief review and description of what goes into executing and sustaining a no-fly zone yield an appreciation of the magnitude of effort that would be required to establish one over Ukraine.


Photo; Dod. Luxembourgian-registered NATO E-3 AWACS flying with three American Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft in a NATO exercise.