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Would a "No-Fly" Zone Create Massive World War III with Russia?

"A no fly zone is not a military half measure. Its full fledged combat." Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Would implementing a no-fly zone over Ukraine involve a “major escalation” and most likely spark a massive, dangerous, great power war with potentially unparalleled danger to the US and the world?

No Fly Zone

As the President of Ukraine continues to call for a no-fly zone, US military commanders and leaders experienced with what that would involve are likely hesitant for a number of critical reasons, given their responsibility to protect American lives. A no-fly zone, Air War Commanders explain, is an unmistakable act of war.

“Many folks assume that somehow a no fly zone is some sort of magical way to disperse an enemy without bloodshed. Nothing could be further from reality. In fact, a no fly zone is not a military half measure. Its full fledged combat, designed to deprive an enemy of its airpower. And it involves direct and sustained warfighting. I think it is important to get across it is not a silver bullet,” Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Deptula also commanded the air wars in Desert Storm as well as Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

Essentially, any no fly zone effort would not merely require the ability to clear the skies of enemy aircraft and maintain air patrols, but would instead require specific precision attacks on enemy air defenses. In the case of Ukraine, this would mean attacking and destroying large numbers of Russian S-400 mobile air defense systems and other weapons posing risks to aircraft. 

S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile Systems

S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile Systems

These risks are significant, given what is known about S-400 modernization. Modern or upgraded S-400 SAMS are capable of operating on multiple radar frequency, networking otherwise disparate “nodes” together with digital processors and of course greatly extending range of attack. Russian media reports their advanced S-400 and S-500 air defenses can even track and destroy stealth aircraft. 

This claim has not been verified and is believed by many US Air Commanders to simply be inaccurate in many ways, however it is indeed considered likely that S-400s would at least be able to track and potentially destroy US F-15s, F/A-18s and other non-stealthy 4th Generation air assets.

Deptula has commanded no-fly zone operations before.

“There is the whole issue of air defenses, the surface to air missile systems, the anti aircraft artillery and command and control communications nodes in what indicates hostile intent,” he said.

What Deptula’s experience suggests is that starting a no-fly zone would almost unavoidably involve US and NATO attacks on Russian soldiers, weapons and formations. This is a scenario which makes it difficult to envision there would be any way to avoid war with Russia, an extremely dangerous development potentially of great risk to Americans.

Russian Invasion

A Russian soldier is seen de-mining a site during a military drill [File: Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP]

“A no fly zone is actually an air occupation with attendant consequences. To give you a feel back in 1999, in that one year alone, when I was a Northern Watch Commander, we destroyed over 150 large caliber anti aircraft artillery guns, more than 30 surface to air missile radars over 15 surface to air missile launchers, and dozens of command and control and communications Vans,” Deptula said. 

Should NATO actually attempt to put a no-fly zone operation in place, it would seem almost impossible to avoid direct attacks on Russian forces and equipment, including the potential of having to attack air-defense systems inside Russia.

A former Air Campaign commander explained that Russia is almost certain to operate some of its S-400 air defense systems from Russian territory, making the need to destroy them virtually unavoidable. Russian-built S-400s have been extremely well modernized, according to many weapons developers familiar with their systems, so they operate at ranges wherein Russian-based systems could hold part of Ukrainian airspace at great risk. Essentially, a no-fly zone can’t exist without successfully eliminating air defenses and surface-to-air missile systems.

“When I was a commander of Operation Northern Rock, we didn’t shoot down any airplanes, but we completely eviscerated the surface to air missile defenses of Iraq, in the execution of that no fly zone. 

So absolutely. You know, those S-400 hundreds would have to be eliminated. And some of those were in Russian territory. The option of putting together a no fly zone is initiating full out combat operations with the Russians. And that’s not an escalation step that NATO or the United States wants to take,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Given these circumstances, it seems almost entirely self-evident that there would not be a way to implement or enforce a no-fly zone without starting a war with Russia.

Starting a war with Russia would of course introduce an entirely new sphere of dangers, to include significant risk to Americans. Put has not only put his nuclear weapons forces on alert but has been clear that a use of nuclear weapons would quite likely be an option. 

The War in Ukraine may in fact make Putin much more dangerous than may have been previously anticipated, given the performance of his military. Many observers, wargamers and war planners may have been of the view that any major ground or air war with Russia would be highly contested and perhaps even difficult to win, at least on the ground. Russian media consistently touts its modern weapons systems and Putin has of course already claimed to have demonstrated hypersonic weapons and other high-tech attack systems.

The performance of his ground Army in Ukraine, however, may lead some to rethink the kind of land-war threat any Russian force might present to NATO and the US.

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Intv. with Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula

Hello and welcome to Warrior Maven, the Center for Military Modernization. I'm Kris Osborn, very significant guest today and amazing American, the Commander of the Gulf War air campaign as well as Operation Enduring Freedom, retired Lieutenant Colonel David Deptula. He is a former F-15 pilot as well and currently serves as the Dean of the very prestigious Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies. Sir, it's a pleasure to have you thank you for your expertise.

David A. Deptula is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies.

David A. Deptula is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies.

Kris Osborn

What is your assessment of the likely to be ongoing debate about the question of a no fly zone? Clearly, there's a concern about not wanting an escalated confrontation between Russia and NATO in the West. At the same time when one simply looks at the numbers of aircraft, the number of US F 35s. The number of NATO countries now adopting F-35s, one has to think just in a cursory sense that the US and NATO would do quite well in the air against the Russian force.

Lieutenant General David A. Deptula (Ret.)

Well, Chris, let me offer for your audience some perspectives on just what a no fly zone is and what it entails. Many folks assume that somehow a no fly zone is some sort of magical way to disperse an enemy without bloodshed I'd tell you that nothing could be further from reality. In fact, a no fly zone is not a military half measure. Its full fledged combat, designed to deprive an enemy of its airpower. And it involves direct and sustained warfighting. 

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I think it is important to get across it is not a silver bullet. In to be effective. It's got to be a part of a grand strategy with well defined objectives. It's not cheap, it's not risk free, and it requires significant preparation in smart execution. And probably the best way to kind of convey the magnitude of just what a no fly zone entails is a talk about some of the key elements. 

So putting a no fly zone in place involves bringing together commanding control aircraft airborne warning and control aircraft or navy equivalent the E2s. It involves bringing on board intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to provide situational awareness these are aircraft like that Global Hawk, remotely piloted aircraft, EP threes, RC 135, rivet joints, electronic and communications intercept aircraft, MQ-9 Reapers and U2s and so on and so forth. 

And then there is suppression of enemy air defense aircraft, these will be aircraft like the EF-18G, from the Navy, F-16s, and F-22s. And then there are the counter Air aircraft. And generally these are what people think about what occupies a no fly zone, those would be F-22s, F-15Cs, if you bring the Europeans into it, it would be refile and typhoon. 

F-35 Missile

An F-35 Lightning II launches an AIM-120 missile released from an internal weapons storage bay over a controlled sea test range in the Pacific Ocean.The 412th Test Wing recently published the technical report on the F-35 Automatic Ground and Collision Avoidance System and have recommended it for fielding; seven years ahead of schedule. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Okula)

On top of that you now have strike assets, F-35s, F-15Es, F-16s, B1s, and so on and so forth. And of course, you've got to refuel all these aircraft, depending upon on how long you want to enforce a no fly zone. 

These KC-135s, AC-330s, and so on and so forth. Plus, you've got to have a combat search and rescue capability in the event, any of these aircraft go down. So all of these aircraft now need to be employed By understanding the answers to a variety of different questions. 

The first one is just what are the critical US national security interests at stake that are worth the expenditure of us blood and treasure? Treasure? 

No Fly Zone Desired End State 

Secondarily, what's the desired end state? 

Who's the engagement authorizing authority? 

What are the command relationships among the coalition forces? In other words, who's in charge? 

What are the rules of engagement? 

Where's the area of coverage? 

Is it's going to be overall Ukraine, the area east or west of the Napa River? 

What's the duration of the coverage? 24/7? Daytime only nighttime only? 

How about the anticipated duration? 

Are we talking about days or months? 

And then there's the whole issue of what are the elements subject to engagement? 

Are these just Russian aircraft only military only cargo carriers from other countries? 

Are they liable to be hit on the ground? Or do they need to be airborne about airfields? 

Then there's a whole issue of air defenses, the surface to air missile systems, the anti aircraft artillery, command and control communications nodes in what indicates hostile intent, you know, when I was a commander of the no fly zone in northern Iraq,  if my airplane was illuminated by a hostile enemy radar, we'd blow it up. Then there's the issue of helicopters. Do we need to wait for them to go in flight or can we kill them while they're stationary? 

Fleeing Irpin, Ukraine, March 2022

Fleeing Irpin, Ukraine, March 2022

So as you can see, there is a lot more to a no fly zone than just declaring airspace to be free of an adversary. It's a no fly zone is actually an air occupation with intended consequences, and to give you a feel back in 1999, in that one year alone, when I was a northern watch commander, we destroyed over 150 large caliber anti aircraft artillery guns, more than 30 surface to air missile radars over 15 surface to air missile launchers, and dozens of command and control and communications vans. And that's not all of it. 

There's a lot more but just in the interest of time, I'll stop there. So the establishment of a no fly zone over Ukraine would unquestionably be a major escalation, where Ukraine would gain NATO as a co belligerent without the precursor of a formal Alliance, and in effect, his political use of airpower would mirror the entangling alliances that brought Europe into World War One and that's something that I don't think we want to repeat.

Kris Osborn

Roger that, sir. Well, gosh, as an F 15 pilot and a leader who probably oversaw and ran no fly zones in Iraq, I'm interested in your thoughts on this. I mean, clearly there would be the the imperative to clear the air of enemy aircraft. But then as you point out, there'll be a need to use stealth and take out enemy air defenses, a lot of discussion about the effectiveness of those S-400s and the hemispheric way in which they can operate to shut down the air air areas. 

So my question to you would be, this would involve also, given the number of precision guided land weapons and land weapons in general rockets and artillery that Russia is firing, wouldn't you need to truly engage the ground as well? 

Lieutenant General David A. Deptula (Ret.)

That was my point, Kris, in laying out all of those surface targets that we eliminated. When I was a commander of Operation Northern Watch, we didn't shoot down any airplanes. But we completely eviscerated the surface to air missile defenses of Iraq, in the execution of that no fly zone. So absolutely. 

You know, those S-400s hundreds would have to be eliminated. And some of those were in Russian territory. So this gets to the issue of, you know, what we're talking about in the option of putting together a no fly zone is initiating full out combat operations with the Russians. And that's not an escalation step that NATO or the United States wants to take.

 Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization