Cover: Denying Flight

Denying Flight

Strategic Options for Employing No-Fly Zones

Published Dec 27, 2013

by Karl P. Mueller


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Research Questions

  1. How were no-fly zones (NFZs) employed in past contingencies over Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya?
  2. What forms might NFZs take in the future, particularly if used a means of intervention in the Syrian civil war?
  3. What are the potential benefits and limitations of NFZs?

In recent years, discussions about external military intervention in local conflicts have often included consideration of no-fly zones (NFZs) as a policy option. In the past two decades, the U.S. Air Force has participated in three contingencies involving NFZs over Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya, and NFZ proposals have been proffered for some time as an option for intervention in the Syrian civil war that would avoid placing Western troops on the ground. This paper provides a preliminary look at NFZs as a strategic approach in such situations. It evaluates the possible objectives of NFZs, including (1) preventing the use of airpower, (2) coercing adversaries, (3) preparing future battlefields, (4) weakening potential enemies, (5) political posturing, and (6) signaling or creating commitment, and discusses the potential utility and probable limitations of each.

Key Findings

No-Fly Zones Can Serve a Variety of Purposes

  • Keeping a target state from using its airpower against civilians or others can both protect people in the short term and alter the outcome of a conflict in the longer term.
  • A no-fly zone (NFZ) can be used as a coercive lever to pressure the target to change its behavior or comply with other demands.
  • Maintaining an NFZ can contribute to preparedness for subsequent air operations through the collection of imagery and electronic intelligence, the development of bases, and familiarization and practice for forces.
  • An NFZ can play a role in undermining a target military economically and politically.
  • An NFZ can show sympathy or moral support for those it is portrayed as protecting and can satisfy the imperative to respond to a crisis or provocation.
  • Imposing an NFZ can muster domestic or international support for further military action.

But Their Potential Impact Is Limited

  • While denying the use of airpower may matter a great deal in conflicts involving relatively evenly matched forces, it is unlikely on its own to reverse the course of a more uneven fight.
  • NFZs should not be expected to be powerful coercive instruments, as they are a generally milder form of sanction than most other uses of military power and the costs they impose tend to accumulate gradually.
  • NFZs can involve prolonged and open-ended commitments of forces.
  • If the results of an NFZ appear unsatisfactory, it may be difficult not to escalate in pursuit of a better outcome.


  • Develop a more complete picture of the impact of no-fly zones (NFZs) in places like Bosnia and Iraq.
  • Further explore alternative approaches and concepts of operations for conducting NFZs alone and in conjunction with other operations.
  • Approach NFZs as a subset of a broader strategic category of "aerial occupation," and consider the connections between NFZs and measures such as no-drive zones, naval blockades, and punitive air strikes.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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