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Lessons from no-fly zones in 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

    Writer: | Last updated: April 22, 2011

    Citation: Benard, Alexander, "Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-Fly Zones," Journal of Strategic Studies, September, 2004, Vol. 27, No. 3,454-478.SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1116005

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the paper in The Journal of Strategic Studies "Lessons from Iraq and Bosnia on the Theory and Practice of No-fly Zones."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related New York Times article "Pace of Attacks in Libya Conflict is Dividing NATO."

    1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.