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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

A NATO ‘No-Fly Zone’ Over Ukraine Means an Air War with Russia

No-Fly Zone F-35 Ukraine
F-35 JDF. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

A No-Fly Zone over Ukraine is a Bad Idea: Confucius exhorted aspirants to wisdom to call things by their proper names, and to ensure their behavior conformed to the language they used. Rather than obfuscate, in other words, they should label things in accurate, plainspoken language and shape their actions accordingly. For him, clarity and candor constituted the soul of upright conduct.

Indeed. Were the great Chinese sage among us today, he might advise posterity to eject the phrase “no-fly zone” from the lexicon of Western options for helping Ukraine against Russia. This anodyne language misleads where it should elucidate; it camouflages unpleasant operational, strategic, and political realities. It implies that friends of Ukraine, chiefly the United States and NATO, should take charge of grounding the Russian Air Force over Ukraine, and that the allies can do so on the cheap and at minimal risk.

Taking over the aerial fight would mean war with a major rival. Lowballing cost and risk is an especially egregious sin when making and executing a strategy. Yet the phrase no-fly zone connotes all of this.

The no-fly zone is a historical analogy of recent vintage, and specific implications come with it. In 1991-1992, Western powers imposed northern and southern no-fly zones on post-Desert Storm Iraq, citing the need to safeguard Iraqi minorities from the depredations of Saddam Hussein. In ensuring years coalition warplanes flew thousands of sorties to suppress Iraqi air defenses. Also in 1992, the UN Security Council imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina to shield beleaguered Bosnians and UN peacekeepers from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s air force. And in 2011, the Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians during a civil war against Muammar Gadhafi.

Judging from these instances, a no-fly zone is a measure an external great power, or coalition of external great powers, undertakes, at little cost and risk to itself, to prevent a local bad actor with no meaningful air force from abusing its citizens or immediate neighbors. Its enforcers may enjoy explicit sanction from the UN Security Council, as in the case of Bosnia and Libya, or sometimes not, as in the case of the Iraq no-fly zones. A no-fly zone may be worthwhile when the circumstances fit. But do those sound like the circumstances in Ukraine?

Hardly. In Ukraine, the antagonist is a near-peer competitor, not a regional despot with a weak military that can be overpowered by Western air forces. Russia is a Eurasia-spanning power with a heavyweight, nuclear-armed military. Likening it to past targets of no-fly zones might delude influential voices—policymakers, lawmakers, public opinionmakers—into a disastrous course of action. Small wonder the Biden administration has sternly refused to countenance a no-fly zone over Ukraine. That’s the sane posture.

Confucius would urge everyone to call such a measure what it is: an all-out air war. That, not gauzy talk about no-fly zones, represents the basis on which deliberations about policy and strategy toward the Russo-Ukraine war should proceed. The proper historical imagery to guide such deliberations includes the Battle of Britain, the Anglo-American combined bomber offensive against Nazi Germany, and Cold War battles in the skies over Korea or Vietnam. These clashes pitted serious air forces against one another, and they came with grave costs and perils. Now throw in the very real potential for nuclear escalation.

Estimates of feasibility, rewards, risk, cost, and opportunity costs would probably come out quite differently if informed by the world wars and Cold War rather than low-grade skirmishes from the post-Cold War era. Sobriety would result.

None of this is to say friends of Ukraine should stand by while the Russian Air Force rules the sky over that embattled land. They should arm Ukrainian defenders with whatever can help them contest Russian control of the air. It’s doubtful NATO member states will donate or sell their own combat aircraft, a pivotal part of the common defense should the Russo-Ukraine war escalate to a general European war. But they should supply Ukraine with all the surface-to-air weaponry it can handle.

Help Ukraine help itself, rather than take over the air war and risk seeing the conflict escalate to Armageddon.

What to call such outreach? It’s more leaden than glib as a venture in branding, but let’s call the campaign what the U.S. Air Force does: defensive counterair. Defensive counterair refers to active defenses such as surface-to-air sensors, fire control, and missiles, as well as to passive measures such as hardening likely targets against attack, dispersing forces to limit the damage from aerial bombardment, and moving around to keep a hostile air force guessing about its targets’ whereabouts. That’s how to equip Ukraine against Russia—and it’s a rectification of names that Confucius could only endorse.

Augment Ukraine’s capacity for defensive counterair and you could give the Russian Air Force a really bad day. Or a string of them.

And that’s how to stand against a bully.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone.

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James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. A penny tossed to the wind

    March 25, 2022 at 4:15 pm

    Remember how you felt – the strange sensation – when you came across these opening sentences and read them:

    Confucius exhorted aspirants to wisdom to call things by their proper names, and to ensure their behavior conformed to the language they used. Rather than obfuscate, in other words, they should label things in accurate, plainspoken language and shape their actions accordingly. For him, clarity and candor constituted the soul of upright conduct.

    Did you feel it resonate within you?

    Even just a little strange that there was something in this that opened up a world that was unexpected, in this website of weaponry, and it was good? Just for that moment while reading it?

    It opened up a glimpse, or an avenue, and if you are lucky: a world, of calm, and sensibleness.

    Doesn’t that feel better than the mongrel complex sensations, though passionate perhaps, or strong, when beginning to read an article about machinations of carnage.

    I have no doubt that within us all, bar the very tiniest of few, we have this deep desire and alliance with peace.

    Worldwide. No matter the country.

    That’s life. That’s the human way. That’s the place we have arrived at after we as a species began the long walk towards today, from when we first stood up on two feet and trod the changing continents.

    Yet our national leaders, whom we elect or select from the street, instantly become international leaders, have their heads done in, and represent the tiniest few – those who resonate deeply with the desire to kill – in manufacturing war.

    It’s a very basic equation. Yet it is completely out of whack. Humans worldwide don’t want to kill. Yet leadership has wanted and continually wants to act for those tiniest few who do.

    One of the ways the great machination of war has been maintained, indeed escalated in severity to an immediately impacting disastrous extent by going nuclear and chemically and biologically sick, is by a particular use of words.

    Your wife, daughter, son, father, friend, becomes not a person but “collateral damage”…

    But you know all that. And you came here to read about war, and enjoy the feelings, at a distance from the incoming missile, of what these articles give you, not another comment about peace. It is fascinating and captivating, admittedly (and the weapon-head ‘industry’ of war relies on that, too, to capture a mind and hold it hostage for life, even if by the study of it with intention to stop it.)

    Hopefully though this bit is allowed: if we can’t for now alter the insane machination and capture and hostage-taking of minds, and redirect the weapon-head machine, leadership could perhaps consider the entry point towards peace as being its use of words.

    Words frame thoughts. Words harness and capture, in their way, a thought, a type and direction of thought, a resonating or new thought, and put clothes on that thought so you can experience the thought.

    Change the words, you change peoples’ thinking. Change thinking, you change behavior.

  2. Sam McGowan

    March 25, 2022 at 9:15 pm

    I wonder if Holmes understands that supplying a belligerent with weapons is an act of war of itself? We let Communist Bloc nations get away with it in Vietnam because we were afraid of a wider war. In this case, it can’t get any wider. By aiding Ukraine, the US and NATO nations are flirting with World War III. I flew missions into Lod Airport in Israel in 1973. We knew full well we were susceptible to being shot down by Egyptian and Syrian fighters. We were counting on the Israeli Air Force to protect us. Fortunately, the Arabs left us alone.

  3. Commentar

    March 25, 2022 at 10:38 pm

    Heh, heh. In 2011, an NFZ in libya was initially turned down at UN, and countries scenting blood (france especially) flayed the ones who opposed it and a second attempt was allowed to successfully push it through.

    Result was the triumph of religious-anarchy-primitive groups like the libyan islamic fighting group and today, some of them are still busily fightin’ while western intelligence and military advisers enter and leave as they like.

    The gold in libya’s state bank disappeared overnight and today many migrants making a beeline for europe pass through libya.

    Now, this favorite tool called NFZ is more or less a given for ukraine (before 2022 is out) , just exactly like libya. Results won’t be much different either, but with the risk of nuclear armageddon taking place in europe.

    But who cares, it’s them euros who’d be dealing with the dangerous isotopes in the air they gonna breathe in.

  4. Naem

    March 26, 2022 at 3:22 am

    This war has exposed western hypocracy and cowardness.
    Russia is not doing anything out of the ordinary or illegal that has not been done already by the worlds most powerful country repeatedly.
    Russia is just following precedent set by USA to attack and destroy at will Defenseless and weak countries but when it comes to going against equal opponent then tuck your tail and appear submissive and adapt policy of “not my problem”.
    What happen to defending democracy and protecting liberty? In that sense ,America has failed miserably and cowardly as a world leader.
    America has destroyed and sent those weak Muslim countries to stone ages,Destroyed livelihood of millions ,maimed and killed millions including thousands of babies ,created misery and dark future that will take probably 100 or so years to get back to same level when they were attacked all this unprovoked and in the name of protecting America’s self interest and turf.
    No,no condemnation or protest world has seen by these western societies every time turn on news media.
    Where were these white western supposedly civilized societies when America was raping those poor defenseless Muslim countries unopposed or criticized .
    ohh ,I remember,they were all in a coalition to take part in a crime against defenseless inferior none white people who weren’t important or are terrorist.
    Is it Race or superiority thing or what?
    Worried about nuclear Armageddon ,well America is the only civilized country in the world to use nuclear bomb against civilians.
    So, why is it alright for America to attack unprovoked but not for Russia?
    I think China should be next to take what is rightfully theirs militarily as well.
    If someone came from thousands of mile away and tried to encourage mutiny or create problems in America’s so called backyard,What do you thing America will do? Guaranteed the same response or judging from past history a merciless response.
    This world has been unfortunately divided and deemed backyard by powerful countries and defenseless countries has no saying in it.They are all played politically.So if you want to play that game then those powers have to respect those rules.
    Western counties can not punish Russia for what America has done numerous times without any objection from these European countries and their citizens.
    Refugees from Ukraine are welcomed with open arms and highly sought but refugees from these unprovoked attack and destroyed Muslim countries were prohibited and borders were closed for them.
    World can not ask for war reparation for Ukraine from Russia because America has not paid trillions of dollars to citizens of those destroyed Middle East counties and Afghanistan either.
    Please do say that America has spent billions of dollars on those countries because it was all either spend on continuation of war or to please those countries corrupt leaders not given to families of affected unjust ,cruel and illegal wars directly.

  5. R Legget

    March 26, 2022 at 6:51 am

    Most leaders are not after war for war sake or just murderous conflict. Leaders use armed conflict to achieve specific goals. Russia Invaded Ukraine for multiple reasons. The greatest reason now is that NATO gave Ukraine a type of NATO status then took it away in 2018. Having the Ukraine as a buffer between the expanding NATO and Russia is now essential for Russia. Its supposedly equivalent to having nukes in Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. I hope that the war end quickly. That Russia Ukraine go to the bargaining table. My worst fear is US NATO jumping in to the conflict. If such a conflict was to prolonged, China would likely back Russia. China has the means to cut off the manufactured good to the west, we the west would be finished in 3 months. Russia export’s of Urea fertilizer, has been stopped, prices have gone from 600$ a tonne, to 1000$, as a reaction of stained resources all fertilizer price have near doubled. How much would a loaf of bread cost then? What are the risks of so much of American planes and tanks vehicles, command and control systems hardware, software being manufactured in China? 1. No replacement parts, if China does not want to provide, meaning China to a large degree can influence American policy. 2. Back door off switches built in. Time America and its partners build a new sub market of manufacturing free of non partner control.

  6. Alex

    March 26, 2022 at 1:59 pm

    It is clearly not Sherlock who does not understand that Russia has all the means to destroy the so-called “no-fly zone”.

  7. Johnny

    March 27, 2022 at 12:20 am

    An excellent analysis. A no-fly zone is not possible without taking an immense risk.

    In general those who support this rely absurdly on the deterrent power of mutually assured destruction, but fail to understand that such deterrence only works against rational, mentally stable people with values where one’s own survival is something cherished. We have no evidence that Putin exhibits such characteristics today.

  8. Alex

    March 27, 2022 at 11:22 am

    A mentally healthy person in the rank of president will not become hysterical and allow himself statements of the level of a kindergarten. Watch your Biden. True hysteria. At the same time, Putin, all of Russia and many countries from China to South America just laugh at Biden.

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