A No-Fly Zone Would Risk Direct Confrontation With Russia
Targeting air defenses on Russian territory could quickly lead to a war with Russia.
If the United States or NATO actually attempted to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, it would be almost impossible to avoid direct attacks on Russian forces and equipment, including air-defense systems inside Russia.
A former Iraq and Afghanistan air campaign commander explained to the National Interest that Russia is almost certain to operate some of its S-400 air defense systems from Russian territory, making the need to destroy them virtually unavoidable. Russian S-400s have been extremely well modernized, according to many weapons developers familiar with the systems. This would allow S-400s on Russian territory to target aircraft in parts of Ukraine. Essentially, a no-fly zone can’t be implemented without successfully eliminating hostile air defenses and surface-to-air missile systems.
“When I was a commander of Operation Northern Rock, we didn’t shoot down any airplanes, but we completely eviscerated the surface-to-air missile defenses of Iraq, in the execution of that no-fly zone,” Lt. Gen. David Deptula (Ret.), Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told the National Interest in an interview. “Those S-400s would have to be eliminated. And some of those are in Russian territory. The option of putting together a no-fly zone is initiating full-out combat operations with the Russians. And that’s not an escalation step that NATO or the United States wants to take.”
Given these circumstances, it seems almost certain that there would be no way to implement or enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine without starting a war with Russia. Of course, a war with Russia would introduce entirely new dangers that would greatly threaten the security of the United States.
The war in Ukraine may have made Putin much more dangerous than before, particularly due to the performance of his military. In addition to putting his nuclear forces on alert, Putin has suggested that using nuclear weapons in a conflict with Western powers would be an option. Outside of the nuclear risks, many observers and military experts believe that any major conflict with Russia would be highly contested, at least on the ground. Russian media consistently touts its modern weapons systems, and Putin has already claimed to have demonstrated hypersonic weapons and other advanced attack systems. The performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine, however, may have led some to rethink how strong Russia’s ground forces are.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.