Expert Commentary

Lessons from no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia

2004 paper in the Journal of Strategic Studies on the dynamics of aerial campaigns over Iraq and Bosnia.

The 2011 decision by NATO and the United States to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya was met with both support and concern. The costs of entering another conflict, coupled with doubts about the effectiveness of the no-fly zone in achieving military and political outcomes, left policy makers and the public divided on the strategy’s merits. But many observers ultimately declared it a relative success.

The strategy in Libya incorporated lessons from prior conflicts. A 2004 Stanford University paper published in The Journal of Strategic Studies, “Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-fly Zones,” reviews the effectiveness of air-based campaigns in achieving military objectives both in Bosnia and Iraq, and makes recommendations for future policy makers in this arena.

The paper’s recommendations include:

  • A clear, unified command structure is essential. In Bosnia, during “Operation Deny Flight,” a confusing dual-key coordination structure provided inadequate authority and resulted in air forces not being given authority to assist in key situations.
  • To avoid a “perpetual patrol problem,” states must know in advance their policy objectives and the exit strategy for no-fly zones.
  • The effectiveness of no-fly zones is highly dependent on regional support. A lack of support from Turkey for the 1996 Iraq no-fly zone ultimately constrained the coalition’s ability to effectively enforce it.

The paper highlights a number of tactical and strategic errors in Bosnia and Iraq no-fly zones, but the author concludes that verdict “is not as bleak as the case studies might suggest. In fact, they could be tremendously successful in a whole host of situations if they are implemented properly.”

Tags: war, Europe, Syria

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