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What is a no-fly zone

What is a no-fly zone, and how do they work?

File photo of the F-35 Lightning II planes arriving at Edwards Air Force Base in California
REUTERS/Tom Reynolds/Lockheed Martin Corp
The phrase “establish a no-fly zone” can sound calm, civilized and achievable. But establishing and maintaining this control can become complicated by a range of tactical errors, misunderstandings and miscalculations that are impossible to anticipate and could lead to unwanted escalation.
  • What is a no-fly zone?

    Image copyright: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

    A no-fly zone affects the airspace above a country or area. It restricts aircraft, both carrier and military, from flying over the zone.

    No-fly zones are maintained through intense surveillance, military build up, and use of force should aircraft enter the restricted space. These actions could be seen as a dramatic escalation of war, which is why the US and NATO are resisting the measure in Ukraine.

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  • Have no-fly zones worked?

    The concept of no-fly zones emerged during the Cold War. Since the early 1990s, there have only been four times the bans have been implemented by the US and its allies. It’s hard to calculate their effect, but no zone of its kind has ever stopped a war.

    1991 to 2003: The US, UK, and France instated two no-fly zones against Iraq after the first Gulf War. 

    1993 to 1995: During the Bosnian war, NATO led a no-fly zone effort to protect civilians.

    2011: A no-fly zone was backed in Libya by the UN Security Council during the country’s 2011 civil war.

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  • Why does Ukraine want a no-fly zone?

    Image copyright: Reuters/Sarah Silbiger
    "I call on you to do more."

    On March 16, 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addressed the US Congress and again requested that the US establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or at least some portion of it.

    “Is this a lot to ask, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask? A humanitarian non-fly zone, so that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities.”

    Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the US Congress

    Ukraine wants a no-fly zone to protect civilians, and to get international assistance against the Russian military.

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  • Why a no-fly zone is risky

    There are several reasons why implementing a no-fly zone is risky, but we’ve narrowed down a few significant ones:

    1️⃣ A no-fly zone would require the US and NATO to shoot down Russian aircraft in the airspace over Ukraine. That would dramatically escalate the conflict and involve the US and NATO in a conflict with Russia, who is a nuclear power.

    2️⃣ Russia has one of the largest air forces in the world, and containing it would require a ton of resources, personnel, and money.

    3️⃣ A no-fly zone over the entirety of Ukraine wouldn’t stop Russia from shooting long-range missiles from its border with the country.

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  • What is NATO?

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, is a security alliance. Its North American and European members agree to use political and military means to protect one another.

    1949: Year NATO is formed after the signing of the Washington Treaty

    30: Members in NATO

    5: Article in the Washington Treaty that declares an attack on one member is an attack on all

    9/11: Terrorist attacks in the US that triggered Article 5 for the first time

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  • Keep reading

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