Lessons from no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia


April 22, 2011

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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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