How Do You Make a No-Fly Zone?

Drop some bombs, then fly in circles.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libya conflict.

Two Libyan Air Force Mirage F-1 fighter planes

American politicians are debating whether to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from bombing rebels. The Pentagon and White House advisors warn that such an operation would be complicated and tantamount to war, while several senators say it could be accomplished with relative ease. How do you set up a no-fly zone?

Drop some bombs, then fly in circles. Generally speaking, the first step in creating a no-fly zone is to blow up nearby anti-aircraft guns, missile batteries, radar installations, or anything else that might be used to shoot down a no-fly air patrol. Not every military commander takes that step: NATO planes didn’t wipe out the air defenses in northern or southern Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia, prior to launching patrols. But Defense Secretary Gates has made it clear that he won’t send combat planes into Libya without first laying the proper groundwork. If his plan were put into action, the United States would destroy Qaddafi’s defenses, then send pairs of fighter jets, mostly F-15s and F-16s, to fly around the country in irregular patterns for six-hour shifts. If the pilots were threatened by ground-based fire, they would engage in evasive maneuvers—quick acceleration, climbing, diving, and sweeping—to thwart the gunners before noting their position and responding with missile strikes.

It can take a lot of planes to operate a no-fly zone. Gates told a Senate panel on Monday that a single aircraft carrier would be insufficient for the task. A carrier usually hosts around 80 combat jets, which would be enough to make regular patrols in the area, but the United States would also need a wide array of support planes to keep things running smoothly. In past no-fly missions, the E-3 Sentry looked for enemy planes, the HC-130 was available for search and rescue, the KC-135 provided refueling capacity, and the RC-135 scanned for enemy radar activity. These are all large, four-engine aircraft that resemble the Boeing 707. They don’t take off from or land on aircraft carrier decks. (There are some smaller aircraft that could serve the same functions from an aircraft carrier, although they have less powerful instruments and can’t stay in the air as long.)

Some fighter pilots get pretty stoked about patrolling a no-fly zone, because it’s one of the few missions that might actually lead to air-to-air combat. (The last American flying ace—that’s a pilot who shoots down five or more enemy planes—earned his title during Vietnam.) But those looking for a dogfight in the no-fly zone have usually been disappointed. NATO pilots shot down just one Iraqi plane during the 1990s, and it had barely entered the zone when it was destroyed. After that incident, neither Saddam Hussein nor Slobodan Milosevic wanted to risk his expensive aircraft in a showdown with American pilots, so they kept their planes on the ground and hidden as best they could. Pilots report that no-fly zone patrols involve a few hours of boredom, and a few minutes of excitement evading any ground-based defenses that weren’t destroyed ahead of time.

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Explainer thanks Tom Parker of the U.S. Naval War College and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.