The risks, benefits, requirements and steps to enforcing a no-fly zone, explained.

Turkey is moving to implement a coalition no-fly zone in Syria to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians from Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes in Idlib province. This comes after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in North Syria. Turkish retaliation strikes have eliminated nearly 330 Assad regime fighters.

When conflict gets ugly, civilians are the most helpless victims. No-fly zones are often one of the first suggested options; whether to protect civilians or to negate enemy airpower support.

Turkey and NATO allies collectively enjoy a strong airpower advantage over most adversaries.

No-fly zones are attractive options, given the perception of lower cost and risk compared to other military options.

But setting them up is hardly simple. If anything, it’s a complicated intersection of cost and risk.

Here’s how no-fly zones really work.

What’s a No-Fly Zone? 

A no-fly zone is a specific airspace that is “off limits” to any flight-related movement. It requires a clear policy that specifies which activities are not allowed in the zone. If the policy is violated, a form of punishment is carried out.

This can involve fighter-jet interceptions which escort planes away, force them to land or shoot them down.

Why are No-Fly Zones set-up? 

There are many reasons, but they’re primarily used to repel adversary aircraft attacking people on the ground, chiefly friendly military forces or civilians.

Setting up a no-fly zone can negate the opponents military advantage, pressure them to make concessions, relieve people under attack, demoralise an adversary’s air force or be the first step to a coming invasion. 

No-fly zones can come hand-in-hand with blockades or international action to weaken an adversary.

Does a No-Fly Zone work?

Usually, no-fly zones are effective if it denies an opponent with a significant air force their use in a given region.

But if opponents have too strong an air force, setting up said no-fly zone can be challenging.

A no-fly zone has the ability to significantly change the balance of power on the ground.

If an opponent uses airpower heavily, while the other does not, the no-fly zone can level the playing field while giving a chance to forces on the ground that were under heavy aerial observation or attacks.

On the other hand, if airpower is not very significant to an opponent, creating a no-fly zone won’t do much, unless the mission also includes destroying adversary targets.

What do you need to set up a No-Fly Zone?

Generally speaking, a country requires some form of international approval when implementing a no-fly zone, which can be from the United Nations Security Council or another regional intergovernmental body like NATO. This gives it legitimacy. 

Next, a no-fly zone needs rules of engagement: a specific list of guidelines that determine how to enforce the no-fly zone. This includes who can and cannot fly in the area, as well as the process of determining whether someone is in violation of the no-fly zone, not to mention the escalating actions a country can take to respond to them.

A no-fly zone requires a significant military commitment. That means planes, pilots, maintenance and logistics personnel.

There’s also a strong need to pre-empt the opponent by trying to keep up to date on any military movements on their part, like transporting surface-to-air missiles into the no-fly zone. This requires Turkey to have several reasons to believe Russia was behind Thursday's attack on Turkish troops.

In the case of an airplane being shot down or going down due to mechanical failure, rapid response rescue units need to be in the area to retrieve plane crews or pilots.

This all requires forward operating bases to house them, military infrastructure to keep them operational, and a secured logistics supply chain to keep them supplied.  

What are the risks of a No-Fly Zone?

While some see few risks to implementing no-fly zones, there are in fact many.

Pilots are at risk, especially if they are able to bring in shoulder-carried surface-to-air missiles into the no-fly zone which are difficult to detect until they launch. Air defences, missile installations, naval cruisers, destroyers and submarines outside the no-fly zone can all fire from a stand-off distance.

That’s why no-fly zones usually begin with a military operation to clear out air defences, or create a secure buffer around it before putting it into effect. This can be expensive, entail high-risk and consume expensive missiles or bombs.

More dangerously, air defences and anti-air missiles are getting more and more sophisticated; which is what drives the global pursuit of stealth aircrafts with reduced radar visibility.

But even setting-up the no-fly zone isn’t enough. Opponents may try to adapt tactics or try forms of deception. For instance, in the first Gulf War, Iraqi planes would violate no-fly zones to trigger plane scrambles and reaction, and then withdraw into recently prepared surface-to-air (SAM) traps in wait.

Too long a no-fly zone also risks a growing mission, whether to attack forces on the ground as well. The Libyan 2011 no-fly zone eventually started to include coalition air strikes against government forces to protect the opposition and civilians.

In 1994’s Yugoslav war, nearly all military aircraft were on the Bosnian Serb side, so implementing a no-fly zone seemed logical to force an earlier end to the conflict and talks. But in spite of the forced parity, the worst abuses still occurred, including the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

When does a No-Fly Zone end?

No-fly zones come to an end when the situation changes and they are no longer required. Often, this change needs to be forced for the reason that no-fly zones in and of themselves don’t have an impact on political change.

While no-fly zones are limited-risk options with the potential to change the balance of power on a battlefield completely, they are only part of larger political and military strategies. This makes them the mean to an end.