While discussions about the merits and risks of implementing a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine have likely filled the Pentagon’s halls, senior Department of Defense officials and President Joe Biden are reiterating that U.S. forces will not be fighting in Ukraine.
Any move to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine would place the United States and NATO on a direct collision course with Russia, a scenario which introduces the possibility of escalation into a U.S.-NATO vs. Russia world war. The risks involved in such a possibility are almost beyond imagination, given its potential scale, scope, and global implications.
However, Russian attacks are killing children and civilians with impunity, as long-range air and missile strikes hit apartment buildings, residential areas, and Ukrainian government buildings, according to multiple media reports. Russian military operations are escalating the crisis toward catastrophe and forcing thousands of ordinary Ukrainian citizens to pick up weapons and fight the invading Russians with remarkable tenacity.
Is the thought of actually pursuing a no-fly zone gaining traction in Washington? There are a few interesting dynamics to consider. First, the United States and NATO would likely have a significant advantage in the air. Assuming stealth aircraft could succeed in locating, destroying, or eluding Russian air defenses, something which seems realistic, the aerial military balance would greatly favor NATO. But the result of such a conflict may simply come down to numbers. Russian press reports consistently say that only twelve fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters have been built, while there are plans to add about seventy more in coming years. Thus, even if the Su-57 were able to rival the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and there is no real indication that it could, Russian fifth-generation aircraft would be operating at a significant deficit. The United States alone operates hundreds of F-35 fighters which, if joined by European allies, would be capable of forming multiple expansive, multinational F-35 formations across a wide operational envelope to pursue air superiority operations. Using long-range targeting sensors and precision-guided air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, F-35 fighters might be able to target and destroy large numbers of Russian fourth-generation fighter jets at safe standoff distances.
Should air supremacy be achieved, advancing Russian ground forces would be extremely vulnerable to counterattack and could potentially be disabled or completely eliminated from the air. Is there a U.S. and global will to consider this option and take such an enormous risk? As long as Russia continues to murder children, it seems the possibility at least merits consideration.
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.