What would a 'no-fly zone' mean for Ukraine?

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Ukrainian soldiers help a fleeing family crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)
Ukrainian soldiers help a fleeing family crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

No-fly zones. Big rhetoric around three simple words.

From Iraq in 1991 to Libya in 2011.

But what does it take to establish a no-fly zone?

Today, On Point: Ukrainians pleading to close their skies.

"Please stop the bombings, how many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?" Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Is escalation inevitable? Or can NATO find another way to assist Ukraine?


John Kornblum, former U.S. diplomat with a focus on Russia and Europe, dating back to the Nixon administration. Signatory of the Open Letter Calling for Limited No-Fly Zone in Ukraine.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, retired U.S. Air Force officer, commander of the U.S.-led no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies. (@Deptula_David)

Also Featured

Doug Feith, former assistant secretary of defense for policy for president George W. Bush.

Transcript: What History Tells Us About No-Fly Zones

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: We're talking about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s repeated call for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or at least to close the skies, as he says, over Ukraine. What would that actually mean? What are the potential benefits? What are the risks? And are there other ways to help Ukrainians as Russia continues to rain down bombs on Ukraine's cities? I'm joined today by John Kornblum. He served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and also assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Lieutenant General David Deptula joins us as well. He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and commander of the U.S. led no-fly zone over northern Iraq, back in the early 90s.

Gentlemen, I'd like to actually spend quite a bit of time reflecting on what history has to say about the use of no-fly zones here. So let's go back to the early '90s. Because of course, the first no-fly zone that we've been talking about was established over northern Iraq in 1991 to protect ethnic Kurds. A year later, then President George H.W. Bush announced a second no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH [Tape]: And therefore, the United States and its coalition partners have today informed the Iraqi government that 24 hours from now, coalition aircraft, including those of the United States, will begin flying surveillance missions in southern Iraq, south of the 32 degrees north latitude to monitor the situation there. This will provide coverage of the areas where a majority of the most significant recent violations of Resolution 688 have taken place.

The coalition is also informing Iraq's government that in order to facilitate these monitoring efforts, it is establishing a no-fly zone for all Iraqi fixed and rotary wing aircraft. This new prohibition will also go into effect in 24 hours over this same area. It'll remain in effect until a coalition determines that it is no longer required.

CHAKRABARTI: President George H.W. Bush there. Lieutenant General Deptula, walk us through how that happened. First of all, what was the first thing that needed to be done on the ground before even coalition jets went into the sky to patrol Iraqi airspace?

DAVID DEPTULA: Well, the first thing that needs to be done is the preparation of all the elements that go into sustaining, actually establishing and then sustaining a no-fly zone. So it's important to recognize there's significant preparation involved. And let me share with you and give your audience some feel for what's required to do that. First, you've got to have command and control aircraft in the airspace, or monitoring the airspace is a better way to say it, such as the airborne warning and control system, which is known as AWACS.

Then you have to have a sufficient number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft like the RC-135 Rivet Joint, which listens to communications, as well as electronic signals emitting from adversary surface to air missile systems, and data lengths and other command and control communications. Today, we also use the RQ-4 Global Hawk High Altitude Drone, MQ 9s, U-2s and the like. Then you've got a set of aircraft that are known as suppression of enemy air defense aircraft. These are planes like the Navy's EF-18G, that jams acquisition radars and also employs high speed anti-radiation missiles against enemy surface to air missile systems.

Also, F-16 CJ's. Again aircraft that are configured specifically to deal with an adversary surface to air missile threat. Then you've got the counter airier craft. These are the airplanes that defend against other, well, not other, but against the adversary aircraft that might incur into the area that's being protected by this no-fly zone. Back in the case of northern Iraq, F-15 C's, as well as F-16s, were the principal U.S. aircraft used in conducting this kind of a no-fly zone. Today, we'd use F-22's and F-35's because of their stealth characteristics.

Then you need a series of strike assets. These are aircraft that can carry weapons, to a large degree. Principal aircraft that we use in northern Iraq was the F-15 E, F-18s, as well as F-16s. And of course, you've got to be able to refuel all these airplanes to sustain operations. So you've got tanker aircraft like the KC-135. In Northern Rock, we operated with our coalition partners, the Royal Air Force. They had Nimrod Tankers. And then on top of all of this, you've got to have a combat search and rescue capability provided by helicopters like the HH-60 in the event that an aircraft happens to go down.

CHAKRABARTI: And would you require ... just to sort of try to link it now to briefly to proposals about what might be used in Ukraine. I mean, would you require all of that support no matter what the no-fly zone is, even if it's like a humanitarian corridor, as some have called for?

DEPTULA: Well, it's a great question. Let me let me offer and pose this situation to you. I think the Russians are up to attacking over 44 hospitals, 161 schools, and their most recent atrocity involved an attack on a shopping mall in Kiev. So, given their callous and intentional heinous behavior, what makes anyone think that they wouldn't shoot down a humanitarian airlift operation? I mean, given their behavior, I would expect them to do that.

Which then requires for for any such kind of a humanitarian airlift to succeed, without getting those airplanes shot down, they would require a significant amount of combat aircraft that could protect them and defend them against Russian air attack. So, you're going to introduce combat aircraft, regardless of what you call the air operation. Whether it's a humanitarian airlift or not, one has to analyze the enemy that we're going up against. And they've demonstrated that not only are they not concerned about civilian casualties, they're intentionally attacking civilians to kill them.

CHAKRABARTI: Ambassador Kornblum, I'm going to come back to you in just a second here. But I do actually kind of want to get a little bit more of the logistical expertize from Lieutenant General Deptula here. So in Iraq, for the no-fly zone. Two quick things. One is, What specifically was the mission? Was it to engage with and shoot down any? I mean, we heard President Bush there a little bit earlier, but any Iraqi aircraft or missiles? And how effective was the no-fly zone back in the early '90s?

DEPTULA: OK, well, it is a wonderful question. The purpose of the no-fly zone was to prevent the Iraqis from using aircraft to attack the Kurds in the North, quite simply. With respect to its effectiveness, it was very effective. And I can tell you that at least during my time there, while we didn't shoot down any Iraqi aircraft, because none attempted to penetrate the no-fly zone because of our presence. A no-fly zone does have attendant consequences for the area in which it's imposed over.

Just to give you some sense of what occurred in '99 when I was a Northern Watch Commander, we destroyed more than 140 large caliber NI aircraft artillery guns. We destroyed more than 30 surface to air missile radars. We destroyed more than 15 surface-to-air missile launchers, and we destroyed dozens of command and control vans in command and control facilities. Just as an example, among many other elements of the Iraqi integrated air defense system. So what I want your audience to understand is don't think that this is just about shooting down airplanes. It's also about protecting the no-fly zone force, which means eliminating the surface-to-air missile threat, as well as their command and control elements that would be posed against the no-fly zone.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And indeed, earlier you had said that it also would include, you know, targeting where the enemy's air operations originate, which is also quite interesting. But Ambassador Kornblum, I appreciate you listening along here with me. We'll get to the no-fly zone over Bosnia in just a second. But what reflections do you have when you when you listen to what Lieutenant General Deptula describes as the efforts that went into creating that no-fly zone over Iraq?

JOHN KORNBLUM: Well, it's very interesting, as you said, and that was a very specific case. I took part, was actually quite directly involved, in the management of the no-fly zone over Bosnia, especially after 1994. And that was a much different situation, but also in many ways more complicated because there were NATO forces under a U.N. flag on the ground at that time, and many of them were taken hostage because of the no-fly zone. And so we had to also negotiate over the safety and ultimately release of the hostages.

There was a very complex political military, if we can call it that operation. So again, yes, this is all very complex stuff. But the United States is the most experienced and most powerful country on the planet, and we should be in the business of doing complex stuff. And that's why, again, you go back to the letter, that maybe it's the basis for this discussion. I think that the letter breaks very clear that the signatories understood how complex this was. But at the same time, the point that we simply cannot sit by and watch a country being sort of erased from the face of the Earth.

CHAKRABARTI: I note that in Bosnia, that was a no-fly zone that was established as at the time, Admiral Mike Borda pointed out, a NATO no-fly zone that was operating in what he called an out of area location, right? Non-NATO airspace, essentially. But that also did lead, there were significant engagements in that no-fly zone. I'm thinking, you know, you mentioned this earlier, Ambassador Kornblum, the shooting down of an American pilot in 1995, Captain Tom O'Grady was downed as he was helping enforce that no-fly zone over Bosnia. He had to spend six days hiding behind enemy lines before being rescued. So here's a moment, his homecoming, featuring President Bill Clinton and John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[Tape]: Captain O'Grady was flying over Bosnia, doing his part to deny the skies to those who were drained death and destruction upon that war torn land below. But as we all know. In the early morning hours of two June, the cause of Captain O'Grady's life took a dramatic turn. And for six long days, people around the world, his family, his friends, every American, waited impatiently for news of his fate.

CHAKRABARTI: Ambassador Kornblum, I'm wondering how much you recall that event and what it meant. Or what impact it had, if any, on the mission of that no-fly zone over Bosnia.

KORNBLUM: Well, I recall it very well, I was sitting in the State Department much of the time doing my part in trying to help and manage it. It didn't change history as such, but I think we can say that after several years of frustration, and literally tens of thousands of deaths at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs, who were every bit as ruthless as the Russians seem to be today, that it was the introduction of NATO air power and in particular, the sponsorship shows the support of it by the United States. Which did slowly turn things around, and it took us still between the beginning of the no-fly zone, it took us over two years to finally end the war through a negotiated settlement, by the way.

But without that air power I have in my head right now many discussions that we had, and some of them were not the most agreeable ones, with our NATO allies over use of this air power. It was the use of that air power, which in fact probably turned the direction that the Bosnian War was taking. I know that I was one of the main negotiators of the agreement. We knew that we couldn't do that without the support of the air power.

So again, I'm going to go back to the point. I agree completely with the complexity of it and the points that General Deptula has made. And the point I think that we were trying to make in this letter was this is not a simple question. Do you do it, or you don't do it? This is a very complex political, military diplomatic situation. And it should be within the realm of the possible for these immensely experienced countries before NATO to come up with a strategy which helps us protect the people on the ground.

Right now, it's a disaster. In Bosnia, by the way, it was a disaster to tens of thousands of people were killed, including 7,000 one day in Srebrenica. And so we understood very much what the stakes were, and that's why we pushed very hard to do what we did. And I would hope that our letter stimulated a discussion which we're having here today on the kinds of things that we can do to make sure that those kinds of numbers aren't repeated in Ukraine.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Lieutenant General Deptula, we've got about 30 seconds before I have to take that next break. But just respond directly to what Ambassador Kornblum has said a couple of times here now that NATO's and particularly the United States military, can do complicated things. So why not something over in the Ukrainian skies?

DEPTULA: Well, first I agree wholeheartedly with the ambassador's intent, which is to assure that the Ukrainians can achieve and maintain air superiority over Ukraine. The question becomes: Do you want to engage NATO in direct combat with Russia in order to be able to do that? Or is there a way to do that providing by providing the appropriate equipment to the Ukrainian Armed Forces for them to be able to accomplish that objective themselves?

This program aired on March 22, 2022.


John Ringer Freelance Producer, On Point
John Ringer was a freelance producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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