In the 1990s, it was the mot du jour in defense and policy circles as the Bosnian War raged and the international community attempted to prevent Saddam Hussein’s air force from attacking Iraqi Kurds in the North and Shiites in the South.
As rebels in Libya battle forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the term “no-fly zone” is once again topping international agendas as armies of diplomats and defense strategists engage in frantic rounds of discussions to try to hammer out a coordinated response to the conflict in the oil-rich North African nation.
Libyan rebel commanders as well as diplomats, who have broken ranks with Gaddafi, have pleaded for the imposition of a no-fly zone to ground the Libyan air force and prevent it from attacking its people.
But the US has been uncharacteristically reticent about any no-fly zone enforcement that would see Washington shouldering unilaterally the bulk of the responsibility.
“The Americans want to make sure that if there is a no-fly zone, they won’t be the only ones to enforce it,” said FRANCE 24’s Guillaume Meyer, reporting from Washington.
“This time, they want to make sure it’s an international effort and that’s exactly what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been saying over the past few days.”
So what exactly are no-fly zones? What would their enforcement entail? And why is Washington so reluctant to go it alone this time?
A relatively new tactic with a mixed track record
No-fly zones are authorized under Chapters 39 and 42 of the UN Charter, which states that in case of “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression,” the UN Security Council can take “action (that) may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”
Given the vagueness of the no-fly zone definition, military experts say the devil lies in the details.
A relatively new tactic, no-fly zones were imposed in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s with mixed results.
During the Bosnia War for example, it failed to prevent Bosnia Serb ground forces from conducting the Srebrenica massacre.
Some experts note that Gaddafi’s airpower comprises of mostly Cold War-era aircraft in disrepair and that the Libyan dictator is more likely to use ground forces or helicopter gunships that hug the terrain and can evade aerial counterattacks.
A no-fly zone over Libya, according to Gary Li of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, presents its own sets of challenges.
“The question of whether a no-fly zone over Libya would be effective is a tricky one. It would depend on what are the specific authorized rules of engagement,” said Gary Li, from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“If the purpose was to protect civilian areas, the no-fly zone would focus on urban areas such as [ the Mediterranean coastal cities of ] Tripoli, Benghazi and Zawiya. Libya is a very large country and you have to be very specific about the coverage.”
Different choices at different prices
In a study entitled “Selected options and costs for a no-fly zone over Libya” published earlier this month, Todd Harrison and Zack Cooper of the Washington-based Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) examined three coverage options.
The first, an extensive “full no-fly zone” would cover all of Libya. A second “limited no-fly zone” focuses on the northern third of Libya, above the 29th parallel, and a third “stand-off no-fly zone” would involve protecting coastal areas using air and naval vessels operating beyond Libyan territory.
A vast North African nation covering about 680,000 square miles, more than 90% of which is desert or semi-desert, Libya has vast tracks of low population density areas in the south. About 90% of the country’s population lives in less than 10% of the country’s total area, primarily along the coast. More than half the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi.
“The problem with enforcing a no-fly zone on Libya is that it’s a very large operation,” said Daniel Keohane, a military expert at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies. “You need at least a hundred jets, you need aircraft carriers and you need to be very sure of your targets because you don’t want civilian casualties.”
Budgets are an important factor for countries confronting a financial crisis. In the US, some experts have noted that the Pentagon – and the ordinary tax-payer - has been straddled with the bills from Iraq and Afghanistan. They would like to see Washington’s European and Arab allies footing a heftier chunk of the bill.
According to Harrison and Cooper, the cost of a no-fly zone is directly linked to its coverage area.
Implementing a full no-fly zone per week, according to Harrison and Cooper’s estimates, would cost between $100 million to $300 million. A limited no-fly zone, on the other hand, would cost between $30 million to $100 million per week.
A stand-off no-fly zone would take advantage of the fact that most of Libya’s population centers lie along its coast and would entail the use of ship-based Aegis radars and land-based AWACs aircraft to track hostile aircraft at long range. Harrison and Cooper estimate that this approach could cost in the range of $15 million to $25 million per week.
The beginning of the end
While military strategies and their bills are important, past experience shows that political considerations trump other factors.
The critical question: do no-fly zones work?
In Iraq for instance, the northern and southern no-fly zones did not stop Saddam Hussein from wielding power for over a decade until the 2003 US invasion.
“The real question is…where does it end?” noted Keohane. “You need an exit strategy. Military planners always want an exit strategy.”