A no-fly zone or no-flight zone (NFZ), or air exclusion zone (AEZ), is a territory or an area over which aircraft are not permitted to fly. Such zones are usually set up by a foreign power in a military context, somewhat like a demilitarized zone in the sky, and usually prohibit military aircraft of a belligerent power from operating in the region. Aircraft that break the no-fly zone may be shot down, depending on the terms of the NFZ. Air exclusion zones and anti-aircraft defences are sometimes set up in a civilian context, for example to protect sensitive locations, or events such as the 2012 London Olympic Games, against terrorist air attack.
No-fly zones are a modern phenomenon. They can be distinguished from traditional air power missions by their coercive appropriation of another nation's airspace only, to achieve aims on the ground within the target nation. While the Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted prototypical air control operations over contentious colonial possessions between the two World Wars of the 20th century, no-fly zones did not assume their modern form until the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
During the Cold War, the risk of local conflict escalating into nuclear showdown dampened the appeal of military intervention as a tool of U.S. statecraft. Perhaps more importantly, air power was a relatively blunt instrument until the operational maturation of stealth and precision-strike technologies. Before the Gulf War of 1991, air power had not demonstrated the “fidelity” needed to perform nuanced attacks against transitory, difficult-to-reach targets—it lacked the ability to produce decisive political effects short of total war. However, the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise in aerospace capabilities engendered by the technology revolution made no-fly zones viable in both political and military contexts.
Past no-fly zones
Following the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and other states in the first Gulf War, the United States along with allied nations established two no-fly zones in Iraq. The US stated that the northern no-fly zone was intended to prevent attacks against the Kurdish people by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and that the southern no-fly-zone was intended to protect Iraq's Shia population. The southern no-fly zone originally extended to the 32nd parallel but was extended to the 33rd parallel in 1996.
This military action was not authorised by the UN.
The Secretary-General of the UN at the time the resolution was passed, Boutros Boutros-Ghali called the no-fly zones "illegal" in a February 2003 interview with John Pilger. In 1996 France withdrew from the operation, with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine saying that "there is no basis in international law for this type of bombing".
The United Nations found that in 1999 alone 144 civilians were killed by US and UK bombing. Reports from Baghdad say that more than 1,400 civilians were killed in the US and British attacks in the NFZs. An internal UN Security Sector report found that, in one five-month period, 41% of the victims were civilians.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1993–1995
In 1992, the United Nations Security Council passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 781, prohibiting unauthorized military flights in Bosnian airspace. This led to Operation Sky Monitor, where NATO monitored violations of the no-fly zone but did not take action against violators of the resolution. In response to 500 documented violations by 1993, including one combat violation, the Security Council passed Resolution 816, which prohibited all unauthorized flights and allowed all UN member states to "take all necessary measures...to ensure compliance with [the no-fly zone restrictions]." This led to Operation Deny Flight. NATO later launched air strikes during Operation Deny Flight and during Operation Deliberate Force.
Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia
A 2004 Stanford University paper published in Journal of Strategic Studies, "Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-fly Zones," reviewed the effectiveness of the air-based campaigns in achieving military objectives. The paper's findings were: 1) A clear, unified command structure is essential. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, during "Operation Deny Flight," a confusing dual-key coordination structure provided inadequate authority and resulted in air forces not being given authority to assist in key situations; 2) To avoid a "perpetual patrol problem," states must know in advance their policy objectives and the exit strategy for no-fly zones; 3) The effectiveness of no-fly zones is highly dependent on regional support. A lack of support from Turkey for the 1996 Iraq no-fly zone ultimately constrained the coalition's ability to effectively enforce it.
As part of the 2011 military intervention in Libya, the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone on 17 March 2011. The resolution includes provisions for further actions to prevent attacks on civilian targets. NATO seized the opportunity to take the offensive, bombing Libyan government positions during the civil war. The NATO no fly zone was terminated on 27 October after a unanimous vote by the UNSC.
Libya, 2018 and 2019
A no-fly zone was declared by the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the country's south during the LNA's offensive in the region in 2018. It was later re-implemented for 10 days in 2019 as the LNA established control over oil fields in the region. The LNA declared another no-fly zone in the country's west, during the 2019 Western Libya offensive. These no-fly zones can be distinguished by the fact that they are implemented by one belligerent party to a civil war on another, instead of being enforced by a foreign power.
Civilian air exclusion zones are communicated in NOTAM, NOtice To AirMen. A NOTAM for an AEZ will include map coordinates and altitudes for the borders, as well as a short explanation. As NOTAMs are used to communicate various events, an AEZ NOTAM will specify it is an exclusion zone. Concerns about possible air attacks on the 2012 Olympic Games in London led to many precautions and layers of protection, including airspace zones that could be entered only with permission. No-fly zones are often put in place for events such as the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit.
- Air supremacy
- List of airliner shootdown incidents
- Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses
- Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen#Other effects
- Long, Robert A. (June 2012). The Coercive Efficacy of Air Exclusion Zones Myth or Reality (PDF) (Thesis). United States Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Retrieved 31 January 2019.
Fortunately, a more complete concept, the Air Exclusion Zone (AEZ), will satisfy those seeking clarity.
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