The debate over establishing a no-fly zone in Ukraine is becoming increasingly heated. We have seen Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on several occasions in official communiqués call on NATO to establish such a zone to restrict the flight of Russian aircraft over Ukrainian skies.
Ukrainians have heeded the calls of their leader and have flooded social networks with #closethesky, wherever they have the opportunity. The request has not fallen on deaf ears and among the Republicans, there is a debate on the advisability of establishing a no-fly zone.
However, beyond the clamor, from a military point of view: Is a no-fly zone necessary? Is it at least convenient at this time?
To get some context, let us establish what a no-fly zone is and what it would entail. A no-fly zone is a restriction by a military force on the airspace of another country, meaning that any unauthorized aircraft in that airspace will be considered a military target.
If Ukraine hopes to prevent Russian aircraft from taking off, a no-fly zone is no less urgent than the West sending troops to the ground, not to say that its effect would be the same.
A no-fly zone by NATO would conflict with the flight restrictions imposed by Russia at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine.
The imposition of a no-fly zone by the West would inevitably lead to a direct confrontation, since for the no-fly zone to be real, NATO has to be willing to shoot down Russian aircraft, which in turn are willing to shoot down Western aircraft, since in their view the West would be violating their restrictions.
Simply put, a no-fly zone would be interpreted as a declaration of war and millions of people would be dragged into a conflict of global (and nuclear) proportions that for the moment is only regional.
Russian Air Force in Ukraine
Let’s understand one thing, the Russian Air Force (VKS), unlike the Western Air Forces, is more of an extension of its Land Army, rather than an autonomous entity capable of generating strategic changes in the battle shift on its own.
“Russian air-warfare doctrine, plus a shortage of precision-guided munitions, all but forces its fighter and attack pilots to fly low and slow underneath cloud cover within just a few miles of Ukrainian troops,” explains David Axe, an aerospace defense expert.
According to Axe, “in Russian doctrine, air-to-air fighters exist briefly to control small swathes of the air in order to allow attack jets to fly in, drop their bombs, and fly out.”
In other words, while the U.S. uses its air forces to devastate enemy forces on the ground as much as possible, and establish absolute air superiority, as was the case in Operation Desert Storm; the VKS is there to serve tactical objectives as required by the Army (destroy a tank, a radio station, etc.). This is the main reason why the Russian Air Force, even having material superiority over the Ukrainian Air Force, has not played a major role in the war.
The truth is that the Russian air war doctrine, together with the lack of guided missiles in the VKS, is driving Russian pilots to the morgue, as they must risk flying low to hit their target. But this, at the same time, exposes them to the sights of the very numerous Manpads (man-portable air defense system) possessed by the Ukrainian Army and Territorial Defense, and supplied by the West.
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, 77 Russian aircraft have been shot down on its territory to date. Independent sources have been able to confirm at least thirteen of these shoot-downs. Among the confirmed shoot-downs are 6 SU-25 fighter-bombers, 4 Su-34 fighters, 2 SU-30 fighters, and 1 AN-26 transport aircraft.
If the West wants to help Ukraine, it must find a way to give it more anti-aircraft defense systems, both short and long range. In other words, Ukraine to win this war needs more Javelins, SAM missiles, and similar weapons to make up for its lack of aircraft.
Like the Stinger in the 1980s in Afghanistan, Western anti-aircraft weapons are causing a disaster among Russian pilots. In three weeks of the war, Ukraine has managed to shoot down at least 33 Russian helicopters, causing Russian pilots to have to shoot like this:
As seen in the video, Russian pilots are trying to fire their rockets at a parabolic angle, like an artillery piece, rather than firing them directly, as the second alternative involves getting closer to Ukrainian troops and risking being hit by a missile from a Manspad.
The reality is that the VKS has failed to establish air supremacy in Ukraine, while Ukrainian Armed Forces have managed to destroy several Russian units from the air, and especially with the use of drones such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2s.
The horrible Russian war doctrine and what would be involved in establishing a no-fly zone
Perhaps the most despicable part of the entire air war, is the Russian habit of bombing hospitals and other medical facilities. In Syria, the VKS was responsible for bombing over 100 hospital facilities, some as many as 3 and 4 times, and in Ukraine, it has bombed 18.
The Russian/Soviet war doctrine contemplates within its manuals the depopulation of a war area as quickly as possible. Thus, in Afghanistan, the Russians managed to completely depopulate entire regions in less than two days.
Although on the surface a no-fly zone might even appear to be a humanitarian response to this problem, it is most likely that Russia will not comply and NATO will have to intercede and attack Russian targets on the ground in order to stop the bombing.
There are more effective and less risky ways for the world to fight Russia
Manspad and long-range air systems are working, and they have Russian pilots scared, so the West has to see to it that more of them reach Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Army is not short of volunteers at the moment, but it is short of weapons, so ensuring that weapons continue to flow is a primary necessity.
It should be noted that there have been several desertions of foreigners from the Territorial Defense forces in Ukraine, among them that of a veteran of the French foreign legion who says: “We only had one cartridge per supplier, we had no helmets, we had no protectors, we had nothing (…) in the unit I was in, they all looked like boy scouts, at night they had bonfires, the white lights were on.”
Ukraine needs to attract professional soldiers. However, the supply problems they are reporting will make it very difficult to retain or even attract any professionals. The West must provide more weaponry and more professionals for such units.
At the moment, the Ukrainian government is offering an amnesty and a $48,000 reward to any Russian soldier who defects. Although we don’t know how successful this strategy has been, desertion is a risky business for a soldier, as he risks losing his life by fleeing his unit, and most likely being shot if Ukraine ends up being the losing side.
Yet, economics professor Bryan Caplan suggests that the West should make a more ambitious proposal and offer $100,000 bounty to each Russian defector and political asylum, to avoid being shot by Putin.
“Even in a magical scenario where all of the roughly 200,000 Russian troops in the vicinity take the deal, $100,000 per soldier is a mere $20 billion. That’s less than one-fifth of what Germany now plans to spend on defense in 2022 alone.”
Otherwise, the war does not seem to be going very well for Russia, the Pentagon estimates that in the three weeks of the conflict 7,000 Russians have perished, this is almost half the number of deaths the USSR had in 10 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
Bearing in mind that a large part of the Russian Army is poorly trained, it is not far-fetched to think that with good conditions of surrender and guarantees, hundreds would be encouraged to lay down their arms.
Although the situation seems extremely precarious for the Ukrainian people, with the right support there are less risky solutions to ensure Russia’s defeat than a no-fly zone that could throw the rest of the West into an almost certain war with a dictator at the helm of a nuclear power.