History shows that no-fly zones are a mixed bag as a military strategy, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, even as the United States and allies create a no-fly zone over Libya.
No-fly zones over Iraq, imposed twice, and in Bosnia over the last two decades showed that the strategy and the broad strategic goals were “at best incomplete,” the CRS report said.
Strategies in establishing a no-fly zone vary. Military forces can damage runways, preventing an adversary from mobilizing its air force while minimizing the risk of civilian deaths. Destroying actual aircraft requires getting within closer range of the targets, at increased risk. Targeting helicopters is much more difficult, as they are hard to locate and damage. It is believed Moammar Gadhafi’s helicopters are doing the most damage to Libyan rebels.
The price tag of imposing a no-fly zone varies —costs tend to be higher if the military must destroy air defenses first or the country’s geography is mountainous. According to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, establishing the Libyan no-fly zone will take at least a week.
Congressional opinions have varied. The no-fly zone over Libya received support from Sens. John McCain and John Kerry while others have dissented.
“It is doubtful that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. If the Obama administration is contemplating this step, however, it should begin by seeking a declaration of war against Libya that would allow for a full congressional debate on the issue,” Sen. Richard Lugar said in a statement.
Others have warned about oversimplifying the amount of work necessary to fully establish the Libyan no-fly zone. “You would have to remove the air defense capability in order to establish the no-fly zone. So it—no illusions here, it would be a military operation. It wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes,” said Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command.
With the no-fly zone in Bosnian Serb airspace, some international relief organizations were protected, but Bosnian Serb aircraft defied the flight ban and overran the U.N. safe haven at Srebrenica, killing thousands. And a decade-long no-fly zone over Iraq did not prevent Saddam Hussein from killing Kurds and Shiites.
FAST FACT: Costs of previous operations varied greatly. The no-fly zone in Yugoslavia, Operation Noble Anvil, was the most expensive, at $1.8 billion, while the operations in southern Iraq during the Gulf War, Operation Southern Watch, cost an average of $700 million per year.