(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.


The first elements are the command-and-control aircraft like the E-3A, airborne warning, and control aircraft (AWACS). The AWACS provides warning to friendly aircraft executing the no-fly zone of intrusions into the airspace and directing the most rapid intercept possible to comply with the established rules of engagement. Next, there are aircraft required to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) of enemy actions whether they are communications, electronic emissions, enemy air defenses becoming active, etc. These aircraft can be unmanned like MQ-9 Reapers, and RQ-4 Global Hawks, or manned ISR aircraft like the RC-135 Rivet Joint, EP-3s, U-2s, and/or others.

The next vital element of a no-fly zone is aircraft that are required for the suppression of enemy air defenses. These are specialized aircraft like the EF-18G, and F-16CJs that can home in on adversary air defenses and eliminate them. Then there are the counter-air aircraft. These are the aircraft that people normally think about populating a no-fly zone—F-22s, F-15Cs, Typhoons, Rafales, etc. These are the aircraft that would intercept and shoot down adversary aircraft and/or missiles attempting to penetrate the no-fly zone. Strike aircraft are also required to hit a variety of potential targets related to the enemy integrated air defense system (IADS) and other adversary elements depending on the situation. Example strike aircraft include the F-35, F-16, F/A-18, F-15E, B-1, MQ-9, cruise missiles, etc. Of course, air refueling aircraft like the KC-135, A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport, KC-10, etc., are required to keep all the aircraft participating in the no-fly zone airborne. Finally, a critical element is the combat search and rescue capability in the event that friendly aircraft are incapacitated, and the aircrew recovered. These could be any of a variety of rescue helicopters, and/or CV-22s, along with specialized refueling aircraft.

A No-Fly Zone is a Complex Endeavor Involving Many Different Kinds of Aircraft

From this basic overview of the mission types and example aircraft involved, it should become clear that a no-fly zone is a complex endeavor involving numerous different types of aircraft as well as space systems to provide all the critical elements required to ensure mission accomplishment. The successful execution of a no-fly zone requires not only all these aircraft performing their individual missions well, but also adhering to a set of operating standards that must be clearly identified and understood by everyone participating. These operating standards are developed by answering all the questions that define a particular operation. Some of these include the following:


  • What are the critical, national security interests at stake worth the potential expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure?
  • What is the desired end-state of the operation and how will it be identified?
  • Who is the engagement authorizing authority (who decides on firing a missile or dropping a bomb; is that decision made centrally, or delegated to the pilots)?
  • What are the command relationships among coalition forces (who is in charge)?
  • What are the rules of engagement (ROE), and how are actions to be managed in the no-fly zone)? In a multi-national no-fly zone operation, there may be several different sets of ROE.
  • Where is the area of coverage; part of the country, all of the country?
  • What is the duration of the no-fly zone coverage?
    • Operational times: 24/7; daytime only; some random variation of hours/days?
    • Entire operation: Weeks; Months; Years? The answer to this question and the previous three will have a determining impact on the number of aircraft required for the operation.
  • What are the enemy systems subject to engagement?
    • All enemy aircraft or military only; cargo carriers from other countries; etc.?
      • Do enemy aircraft have to be airborne to engage, or if they are on the ground are they subject to engagement?
    • Airfields—military; civil; both; regional?
    • Air defenses—SAMs; AAA; Command & Control; Communications?
      • A hostile act or hostile intent requirement, or not?
    • Helicopters—in-flight; stationary; in transition?
    • Theater Ballistic Missiles—preparing to launch; post-launch; in garrison?


 A No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Means Armed Conflict With Russia

A no-fly zone comes with attendant consequences. As an indicator, in 1999 when I was the Operation Northern Watch Commander, we did not shoot down any enemy aircraft, but we eliminated the IADS(Integrated Air Defence Systems) in northern Iraq and destroyed more than 140 large caliber AAA guns; more than 30 surface to air missile radars; More than 15 SAM launchers; and more than 10 SAM command and control vans, among other elements of the Iraqi IADS because all of them committed or were involved in hostile action against the no-fly zone participants.

The establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine would involve the participants in direct combat with the Russian military. Ukraine is not a NATO member and NATO incorporating a no-fly zone over Ukraine without a formal alliance would risk thrusting Europe and the U.S. into war with Russia. Accordingly, the U.S. and NATO have rejected this option. However, at its core, a no-fly zone is a means to establish air superiority. That is what President Zelenskyy made very clear when speaking to a joint session of Congress on March 16th when he said, “I have a need—I need to protect our sky.” Given these facts, it is imperative that the U.S. and NATO stop being deterred by Putin’s rhetoric and transfer fighter aircraft, associated munitions, spares, surface-to-air, and surface-to-surface missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and all other elements of equipment and training necessary to enable the Ukrainians to achieve air superiority over their nation now.

SOFREP Asks A Series of Follow Up Questions

SOFREP: You mention the political difficulties of NATO imposing a No Fly Zone over Ukraine as a non-NATO country, would the UN be a more appropriate organization to do so?
Lt Gen Deptula: The UN could pass a resolution to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but Russia would likely veto that measure.
SOFREP:  The Russian S-400 missile is said to have a range of 250 miles, which means it could remain in Russia and Belarus and be fired deep into Ukraine.  Since they would be located outside the confines of the NFZ, how could they be suppressed without firing our own missiles into Russia or Belarus? Or would the NFZ have to be shrunk to a size that accounts for their ranges?
Lt Gen Deptula: The rules of engagement would have to be established regarding the limits of response to hostile acts against the aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, but every airman participating has the inherent right of self-defense, and therefore can respond against the source of the aggression regardless of the originating location.
SOFREP: How do you assess the ability of the F-35 and F-22 to counter or evade the S-400 system?
Lt Gen Deptula: Much better than any other aircraft in the world’s inventory.
SOFREP: You mention the importance of SAR assets to recover downed pilots and aircrews within the NFZ.  That would seem to indicate that US(NATO) forces would have to be based inside Ukraine, given the operational range of SAR assets. Would that be required in your view?
 Lt Gen Deptula: Not necessarily. With sufficient air-refueling assets, the SAR aircraft could be based outside of Ukraine.
SOFREP: Ukraine is a very large country and it would seem that enforcing an NFZ over it would require the substantial deployment of aircraft of various types to carry out this mission for a sustained period. How many aircraft do you think would be required and what would be the mix of types that would be needed? 
Lt Gen Deptula: The number of aircraft involved to establish and maintain a no-fly zone 24/7 across the entirety of Ukraine would be in the high hundreds with an appropriate mix to ensure all of the capabilities that I highlighted in my article are present throughout the 24/7 coverage period.
SOFREP: The Russian air force has been largely absent so far from the invasion of Ukraine and discussion of an NFZ in Ukraine presumes that it would involve US(NATO) fighters going nose to nose with Russian fighters. What would you imagine the Russian response to an NFZ would be? Would they contest it bitterly or stop flying and rely instead on their anti-air missiles as a countermeasure?
Lt Gen Deptula: Given the response of Putin to date in the direction of Russian operations in Ukraine, I would expect that the Russian Aerospace Forces would contest the no-fly zone the best that they could with both fighters and surface-to-air missile systems.

*David A. Deptula, is a retired Air Force lieutenant general with over 3,000 flying hours—400 in combat. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, was the commander of no-fly-zone operations over northern Iraq, orchestrated initial air operations over Afghanistan, and is now Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, and a senior scholar at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development.