No Fly Zone


A no-fly zone is an area in which aircraft are not permitted; domestically, this may be over areas deemed to be of national or personal security, so that flying aircraft over Buckingham Palace in the UK or the Taj Mahal in India are prohibited as is flying over various nuclear research centres around the world. However, in the military context a no-fly zone is an airspace that is either a mutually accepted demilitarized area or the assertion of supremacy by one country over another. In effect, while the former is an extension of domestic law to an internationally binding agreement on the province of influence in the air, the latter is a violation of another nation’s freedom to fly in its own air space in order to maintain control over an target nation’s territory, make reconnaissance missions, or to remove any possibility that an enemy may use its air force either against its own civilians or against its enemies.

No-fly zones have been used in recent interventions in Iraq (1991-2003) and in the ex-Yugoslavian polities (1994), and in Libya (2011), reflecting a belief in their usefulness perhaps – however, the ethical issues cast up may provide sufficient reasons for reconsideration of their use.


Since the advent of air forces in the First World War, dominance of the skies has been considered a critical aspect of modern warfare. Initially, control of the enemy’s skies related to the ability to reduce or to negate the enemy’s ability to make reconnaissance of military manoeuvres, but, as was seen most dramatically in the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, control of the skies also permitted promiscuous attacks on military and civilian forces; military superiority in the air became part of strategic thinking for it would permit greater flexibility for ground troops and their logistics as well as observations of enemy movements. As technology improved, the control of airspace permitted either more precise bombing or attacks on targets, or as the fear and policy of the interwar years explicated, to wreck havoc on civilian centres to create maximum disruption and destruction (see Aerial Bombing).

In recent years (1991-2003), no-fly zones have been imposed by the USA, UK, France, and Turkey on Iraq to offer protection to Kurdish populations in the north of Iraq (36 degrees lat.) and the southern Sh’ia population (32 degrees lat) from Saddam Hussein’s regime; these were not mutually agreed upon demilitarized zones by the then Iraqi government and the other four – rather they were assertions of control by the latter on the domestic actions of the Iraqi government (for good or ill).

In effect the no-fly zones were acts of intervention over another nation’s territory and interestingly, the UN General Secretary Boutros-Boutros Ghali called such zones illegal, for they had not been ratified by the UN. Legality is only one part of military ethics, however, for whether something is illegal or not is a separate matter from whether it is moral or not; the Allied forces in this context believed that they were acting ethically in protecting relatively undefended and vulnerable people against an aggressive government that had a history of attacking the Shias and Kurds.

A no-fly zone was however imposed by the UN over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993-95 to contain the multifarious Yugoslavian wars of secession, ethnic cleansing, and territorial aggrandisement. After monitoring five hundred violations of the UN sanctioned no-fly zone, NATO forces were permitted to engage with unauthorized flights, a policy that led to the first NATO air battle over Banja Luka (28th February 1994) in which NATO planes (American F-16s) downed five Jastrebs of the Serbian forces, which were returning from a bombing raid on a Bosnian factory. Although the policy was successful from NATO’s perspective in halting fixed-winged flights, it was not successful in halting helicopter flights – and accordingly, the belligerent sides in the conflict used a loophole in the policy to their advantage, even using civilian camouflage (e.g., Red Cross signs) to fly under the cover of the no-fly zone.

The no-fly zone was not, however, a demilitarized zone – while helicopters were used by the belligerents to transport officers and materials, NATO began using their legal mandate to control Serbian airspace to launch attacks on Serbian forces: in that respect, the no-fly zone was no longer a neutral, demilitarized zone but an active military arena exploited by NATO forces to defend their own positions or those of defending Croatians. In 1994 around Goražde, Serbs and NATO forces clashed – Serb frustration with the no-fly zone being used by NATO to attack Serb positions led to two NATO jets being hit by surface to air missiles, one, a British Harrier being shot down. Later that year, the Serbian air force in turn violated the no-fly zone and attacked Croatian targets. At the time, Croatian airspace was out of bounds for the NATO forces; the UN then passed a resolution permitting the extension of the no-fly zone over Croatian territory and NATO forces attacked Serbian airfields.

However, the enforcement of the no-fly zone was also creating more angry backlashes on the ground, with the Serbian forces rounding up hostages and using some of the them as ‘human shields’ against further NATO bombing, a ploy, along with targeting NATO planes with SAMs, that temporarily reduced NATO’s enforcement of the no-fly zone. The hostage taking prompted NATO to temporarily suspend attacks – a move that permitted the Serbs to pursue their military goals, and in July 1995 under the cover of one of these pauses in operations to quell the Serbian war machine, Srebrenica fell and eight thousand Bosnians were massacred, followed by another twenty five thousand Bosnians in surrounding villages. Following a temporary ceasefire mediated by ex-US President, Jimmy Carter, NATO strengthened its claim over the no-fly zone after a Serbian mortar attack on Sarajevo’s marketplace (28th August 1995) with Operation Deliberate Force in August and September 1995, which involved massive attacks on Serbian forces. While the siege of Sarajevo was lifted by the NATO action, 153 Serbian civilians were killed compared to only four of their military by the NATO counter-attacks.

Ethics of no-fly zones.

The military concept of a no-fly zone thusly creates several ethical problems. Mutual agreements on demilitarizing certain areas is not much of an ethical problem and usually reflects some ethical considerations in the first place, but to demand that an entire airspace be removed from the theatre of war does suggest a move towards total war in which the attacking force presumes to secure an absolute control over the enemy’s movements de jure or by threat of force: such a no-fly zone is the equivalent of demanding that a certain range of countryside be not used by the enemy; this would seem a rather preposterous imposition and one not likely to be accepted by the target nation without reaction. Naturally, if the enemy can riposte such a demand the policy is rather an empty one; however, if the demand is backed by the potential of overwhelming superiority it becomes more problematic – in effect it is a demand for unconditional surrender of a third of a country’s armed forces.

Secondly, to effect such a policy may require the destruction of land based defences that would impede the formation of a no-fly zone. This was seen in the case of Libya’s Civil War (2011), in which UN-backed nations used their air wing to target and destroy the target’s air defence systems, flying an average of around 190 sorties per day. Controversially, the targets also included land-based armaments such as tanks that the attacking forces believed were a threat to the civilian populations in rebel held cities. Putatively, the justification for targeting tanks (rather than planes in the sky) is the principle of discrimination – that aggressors should not directly attack civilians or their properties; however, critics considered that the policy stretched the notion of a no-fly zone to imply a commitment to one side of the civil war, a ploy that generates much ethical and political controversy.

While the logistics of a no-fly zone are more complex than first consideration, could such a policy ever be justified in the first place? The UN Secretary, Boutros Boutros Ghali’s comment that no-fly zones over Iraq were illegal merely reflects that lack of a UN mandate for the policy; however, UN mandates are not the symbol of moral truths for they are subject to political wrangling as much as domestic legislation – in the Libyan (2011) case, UN Security Council members China and Russia abstained from voting in favour of the policy, an omission that permits various political interpretations. If the UN secretary had called the earlier no-fly zones immoral, then there would be an identifiable ethical problem to be dealt with rather than a lack of political or legal will. In 2011, the Libyan no-fly zone was considered the right policy but soon political wrangling emerged with Arab states being concerned about Western intervention.

The justifications for the no-fly zones imposed over Serbia, Iraq, and Libya ostensibly turned on their reading of the targeted nation’s domestic policies – implying and explicating in UN resolution that each regime could not be trusted to act fairly towards elements of its own people, or rather peoples whom the government deemed internal trouble-makers and enemies or rebels. For instance, there were serious allegations of chemical weapons use against the Kurds and Iraqis, and allegations of war crimes against Serbian and Libyan forces. In effect from a military ethics standpoint, the goal of protecting population considered vulnerable to attack overwhelmed the political and territorial sovereignty of the Iraqi state. This was a moral trump card concerning priorities of values – the lives of another nation’s people were seen to be of a higher status than the political integrity of the state in which they live.

Against the moral idealism of the no-fly zones, an alternative view prefers to look at the political and territorial integrity of nation states and to assert an absolutist non-intervention.

Indeed, the UN articles proclaim the sovereignty of political and territorial integrity and implicitly any attack on or an intervention in a sovereign state is a violation of the first order (Article 2(4), Article 2(7)). It is a breach and an implicit declaration of war for any other state to intrude upon the affairs of another member. However, it could be argued that the UN Articles present a presumptuousness of national homogeneity that is in fact rare as well as an assumption that the nation state is the international equivalent of an individual person and hence possessing similar rights as a person; political assumptions are always controversial, but in this case, they lend themselves to awkward ethical problems – should a distinct people under threat from its state be supported and defended from military action by third parties? That was the problem in Iraq and in Yugoslavia, and while the former did not receive UN backing for a no-fly zone, the latter did, which creates an issue of inconsistency. Why protect one people but not another? In response, the Allied forces could proclaim that they acted consistently in their attempts to intervene to save lives regardless of the legal position; however, other peoples have not been afforded such protection despite patent threats to their existence (most notably in Rwanda in 1994 in which 800,000 people were massacred).

On the other hand, are such protectionist and interventionist measures so ethically guided after all? Belligerent powers are often found to be guilty of using moral cover for other exercises – a closer look at what happened in Iraq in the 1990s is not so clear cut as the Allied position as propounded by the UK Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair: “The aircraft are performing a "vital humanitarian task that will give minority peoples the hope of freedom and the right to determine their own destinies.” In the Iraq inquiry, the UK Foreign Minister is quoted as saying that the purpose of the no-fly zones was to “create places and conditions in which refugees can feel secure … We support the territorial integrity of Iraq …” The position sounds ‘forked-tongued’ – a no-fly zone is an intervention into another nation’s territory.

For the journalist John Pilger, who toured Iraq, the reality was very different. Kurds and many Iraqi military positions had been hit by Allied bombing raids in what became the largest US-UK bombing campaign since the Second World War: “Between July 1998 and January 2000, American air force and naval aircraft flew 36,000 sorties over Iraq, including 24,000 combat missions. In 1999 alone, American and British aircraft dropped more than 1,800 bombs and hit 450 targets.” (Italics added). This could barely be construed as an exercise in demilitarizing an air space to protect a people against its own government – the no-fly zone was used to weaken Iraqi military capacity. In 2001, UK Ministers were still adamant that the no-fly zone was to secure protection for the Kurds and Shi’as, but the same report ignored the combat missions that had been flown into Iraq, and the report that 50,000 Turkish troops had been permitted in to the Kurdish areas ‘to patrol’ them and who proceeded to commit atrocities, nor do the mainstream reports explain that the Turkish air force was permitted to bomb Kurds in Northern Iraq, as testified by US and UK pilots.

Strategically, as was seen in the Yugoslavian conflict, a no-fly zone does not necessarily neutralise an enemy and it may indeed encourage the enemy into less conventional or more immoral strategies including the taking of hostages to redress the imbalance of military power that a no-fly zone generates. For the utilitarian thinker, the costs of no-fly zones have to be weighed against their protracted benefits – adjustments would then have to be made for reactions to the policy and their expected costs in terms of human life and destruction of property. When the zone is enacted by a powerful nation or group of nations, the chances of the no-fly zone being successful is naturally higher, particularly if the alliance eliminates the targets defences – yet such a policy is subject to the obvious criticism that a powerful country or alliance becomes a bullying, hegemony that may easily exploit its firepower and control over other countries’ skies to ensure that its foreign interests are furthered, which raise the perennial question as to whether international and military ethics can be separated from politics.

Indubitably, as technology improves the temptation increases to deploy no-fly zones over countries at war or peoples engaged in civil conflict, but the application of technology to secure military goals does not equate to moral application – arguably, the justification of a no-fly zone rests on the premise of last resort, one of the key conventions of just war theory: if a belligerent is committing atrocities against innocents, there is a growing consensus that the use of a no-fly zone protected and patrolled by other nations is justifiable. Nonetheless, as with all interventions, the employment of a no-fly zone has to be balanced with the potential for unpalatable counterproductive effects.

Alexander Moseley

John Pilger interview, accessed March 2011.
John Simpson, The Wars Against Saddam.

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Fri, 4 Mar 2011 12:19

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