#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

Reviewed By Dr Peter Layton

Stephen Wrage and Scott Cooper, No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2019. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 166 pp.

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This is an excellent little book on no-fly zones. No Fly Zones and International Security is arguably the seminal work on the subject, but it may be on a subject whose time has passed. The book may be both the first word and the last on this particular type of air power operation.

No Fly Zones and International Security falls within the genre of strategic studies but does not use any particular theoretical framework. Instead, the authors opt to integrate history, current affairs, technology and the operational level of war into a most comprehensive analysis. In this process, the two authors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience having been involved with no-fly zone issues and their study for decades. Stephen Wrage is a Professor at the US Naval Academy and specializes in American foreign policy and strategies. Scott Cooper flew EA-6Bs for the USMC including in most of the no-fly zone operations this book explores.

No-fly zones are explained as seizing another country’s airspace and applying to the airspace specific rules and regulations. So understood, no-fly zones are a form of occupation more akin to naval blockades or maritime exclusion zones than to the placing of ground forces in another country. This means no-fly zones are somewhat out of sight both to the population of the country impacted and to the country employing them. Their impact on the domestic politics of either country is accordingly somewhat muted, making their lifting less pressing; they can continue for many years. No-fly zones are a way of exerting military pressure, but they do so in a quasi-benign manner that places the onus to escalate to direct conflict on the state whose airspace has been seized. No-fly zones are then a soft form of coercive diplomacy, a military power tool or method that lies somewhere between economic sanctions and war in the conflict continuum.

The book initially delves into the doctrine, nature, types, tactics, strategies, and ethics of no-fly zones. This provides the background necessary for in-depth analysis and careful assessments of the no-fly zones in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. The Iraq chapter covers mostly Northern and Southern watch; the former when labelled Provide Comfort I was where no-fly zones originated. The Bosnia chapter is more expansive, moving from the short-lived 1992-93 Operation Sky Monitor to the major air campaign over Kosovo in 1999. Libya is even more so with the no-fly zone only fleetingly appearing before turning into a significant military intervention albeit conducted almost entirely by air.

The inclusion of much more discussion than solely about no-fly zones in the Bosnia and Libya sections does highlight that the history of no-fly zones is somewhat meagre. On the other hand, including such information directly related to air power helpfully places no-fly zones into context. The three history chapters also end with a useful lessons learned section that nicely summaries the issues for busy people and policymakers.

The book’s last chapter looks forward to whether no-fly zones have a future. As part of this, it also discusses no-fly zones that could have happened in Darfur and Syria and explains why they were not implemented. This highlights that the relationship between no-fly zones and strategy is worth exploring.

The book is at some pains to not claim no-fly zones are a strategy instead of seeing them as ‘an option, a tactic or a tool.’ As such, they offer states a relatively low-cost way to ‘do something’ without becoming deeply involved while retaining the ability to modulate air operations as necessary and withdraw very quickly if needs be. This brings to mind Eliot Cohen’s 1994 comment that ‘[a]ir power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.’

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A US Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle from the 53rd Fighter Squadron is met by maintenance personnel at Aviano air base, Italy, after a mission over Bosnia to enforce the No-Fly Zone on 1 June 1993. (Source: Wikimedia)

In terms of gratification, the book makes it clear that no-fly zones by themselves can achieve little; they need to be part of a much larger and aggressive joint campaign to have a decisive impact. In this, no-fly zones can realistically have no real strategic objective in and of themselves. At best, they can be a conflict management tool that freezes in place the status quo. At least so far, they have been used only in intra-state conflicts.

In intra-state conflicts, no-fly zones arose and have been used mainly for humanitarian protection purposes. This cuts back to the ‘do something’ imperative liberal states feel when the global media discerns significant human rights violations occurring. Since Iraq and then Afghanistan, military interventions by Western powers have become less appealing, but this has not made doing nothing in the face of genocide and mass atrocities suddenly attractive. States still feel a moral obligation, and under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, some international pressure, to respond. No-fly zones can signal an interest in an issue, but as the book makes clear, they do not in themselves prevent or stop humanitarian disasters.

R2P is starting to appear as a rather quaint notion of a gentler, kinder time. No-fly zones were an American idea carried out with allied support to mildly enforce particular Western rules, albeit the United Nations generally endorsed these. Rising great power China is unattracted to supporting such humanitarian interventions as they involve intervening against authoritarian governments mistreating their people. China under Xi Jinping is increasingly more likely to aid authoritarian governments than stop them committing human rights abuses as its endorsement of Syria’s Assad regime reveals.

Russia, the perennial troublemaker of the modern era, is similarly inclined. Indeed, had a Syrian no-fly zone been implemented, Russia would have been one of the nations it would have been directed against. No-fly zones may now simply be an anachronistic artifact of a liberal rules-based order that has crumbled.

The book concludes on a sombre note in arguing that the Russian use of surface-to-air missiles systems in the Donbass in shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and 19 Ukrainian military aircraft created and then policed a no-fly zone, that has since been ratified under a cease-fire agreement. China has now extended this innovation by installing similar missile systems on its newly created islands in the South China Sea. There are now effectively no-fly zones above and for 12 nautical miles (the claimed territorial limit) around these new artificial constructs.

No-fly zones started out as a device associated with humanitarian protection during civil wars. They may now be morphing into a device whereby authoritarian states can make territorial land grabs.

No Fly Zones and International Security makes an outsized contribution to what is admittedly a small field and not just in terms of discussing no-fly zones. It is one of the few books discussing in a comprehensive, balanced, insightful and well-argued way the application of contemporary air power. The book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of applying air power in the modern world.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: A US Air Force EF-111 Raven from the 429th Electronic Combat Squadron flies over the Alps of Northern Italy while on a mission during Operation DENY FLIGHT in 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)