I’ve already discussed why a no-fly zone can’t work in Ukraine, but I’m going to elaborate because people continue to misinterpret what it really means. To summarize my original argument: The bulk of the damage in Ukraine is being done by Russian missiles and artillery, neither of which would be affected by a no-fly zone. (Planes can’t shoot down cruise missiles.) But implementing a no-fly zone, and potentially shooting down a Russian plane, would mean world war—something we can’t risk.
Digging deeper, the danger of a no-fly zone isn’t even the threat of shooting down Russian aircraft. There’s this fantasy that NATO declares it, and Russia is what, suddenly too afraid to fly over Ukraine to risk war? The reality is much nastier. Take this one bit from this morning’s Pentagon briefing:
There are two reasons the Pentagon highlighted this point. One, it pours cold water on Ukraine’s desperate requests for fighter jets from Poland and other former-Warsaw Pact NATO countries. Ukraine doesn’t need manned jets. It needs drones and anti-air missiles—two of the three most effective weapons in their current arsenal, along with anti-tank missiles). But there’s a second reason this matters: it means that any NATO aircraft over Ukrainian airspace would immediately be at risk of multiple missile attacks. So the first thing NATO would have to do is eliminate those surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries—much easier said than done since those are all mobile systems.
But it’s even worse than that! Russian anti-air missiles systems, like the S-400, can have ranges up to 400 km, which means that NATO planes would be in danger from anti-air defenses inside Russia. So now what? You’ve got to take out Russia’s anti-air threat currently in Ukraine, and you have to target those systems in Russia proper. We’re no longer talking about the death of a Russian pilot or two that might test out the no-fly zone. We’re talking about a sea of missiles taking down NATO aircraft, and NATO having to kill Russian troops on the ground in large numbers. That's not a limited engagement, but an all-out war.
This is standard in all no-fly zones. When NATO imposed one over the old Yugoslavia, targeting Serbia’s savagery against its breakaway province Bosnia-Herzegovina, it had to engage in a massive bombing campaign to take out hostile air-defense systems.
The operation was carried out between 30 August and 20 September 1995, involving 400 aircraft and 5,000 personnel from 15 nations. Commanded by Admiral Leighton W. Smith Jr., the campaign struck 338 Bosnian Serb targets, many of which were destroyed. Overall, 1,026 bombs were dropped during the operation, 708 of which were precision-guided.
For context, Russia has fired 700 to 800 guided missiles (of all kinds) at Ukraine thus far. And that was against tiny Serbia, with a fraction of the equipment the Russian army is currently fielding. In order to protect its planes, NATO would have to launch an exponentially larger and broader campaign against threats to allied planes. There is no other way.
And again, for what? Perhaps Ukraine is pushing this as a way to literally drag NATO into the war, to better shoulder the burden of fighting and dying, and with a technically and tactically superior force. That’s understandable! The pressures of living and dying in Ukraine today are unbearable, as Russia purposeful targets residential buildings, maternity hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure with the direct purpose of terrorizing the country into submission. It’s reasonable for them to ask for a broader war. But if the world must avoid a wider, and potentially nuclear confrontation, then we have to resist those calls, as callous and heartbreaking as it seems.