No Fly Zones: From a Foreign Policy Tool to Reducing US Capabilities


2013-06-25  by David A. Deptula, Lt Gen USAF (Ret)

Several No-Fly Zones are already in place.

Not in Syria where advocated by some in Congress—but in places like Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) Nevada over the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) premier combat training ranges; over Naval Air Stations Oceana, Virginia and China Lake, California affecting Navy and Marine Corps aviation as well; Goldsboro, North Carolina, the home of an F-15E fighter wing; Hill AFB in Ogden, Utah, home to F-16s fighters; Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, the home of B-1 bombers that provide America global reach and power; Oklahoma City, the location of AWACS command and control aircraft that would be central to a contingency no-fly zone; and several other locations where Congress has legislated through sequestration, de facto no-fly zones for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

The damage these no-fly zones are doing to our Nation’s combat readiness and hence security is not getting the same level of attention as the rhetoric of activists supporting a no-fly zone over Syria, but that damage is real. 

Over 30 squadrons in the U.S. Air Force are now grounded—along with their aircrews, maintenance, and training personnel.

The U.S. military’s premier air combat training exercise—Red Flag—has been canceled for the rest of the year.  The graduate schools for USAF, Navy, and Marine combat aviators have been canceled.

The sunset for American air power? While the Administration orchestrates sequestration but continues to talk of US global engagement, what is missing is a dose of reality. Credit Image: Bigstock

Testing and upgrades to F-22s, F-15s, F-16s, and other aircraft have been delayed.  Without testing, improvements can’t be made, and without upgrades our air forces atrophy and become less capable.  Training, testing, education, and exercising are vital to keeping our forces honed to a combat edge.

The excellence and high standard of those activities are what have in the past given the U.S. the advantage to retain its position as the world’s sole superpower.

As military equipment and technology around the world approach the level of our own weapons capabilities, we have long prided ourselves on the fact that our training is much better than that of other air forces around the world.  Not anymore.

Not when you have a good portion of U.S. Airmen around the world not flying.  Flying and maintaining proficiency in high-performance aircraft is not like riding a bike. It requires constant preparation and training to maintain superior combat capabilities that we as a nation have so prided ourselves in maintaining.

We now have a hollow force. 

The real danger is that the damage caused by the no-fly zones over U.S. airbases imposed by sequestration will not be recognized until those forces and personnel are actually required to be used in support of America’s vital national security interests in times and places unforeseen and impossible to predict.

There are two enduring tenets of our national security strategies over the years regardless of Administration party affiliation.

One, we maintain sufficient forces and capabilities to engage around the world to encourage peace and stability; and two, in the event we do need to fight, we will do so away from U.S. territory in a fashion that puts the other combatants’ value structures at risk.

In order to be able to accomplish both of these fundamental tenets, we need a set of robust, capable, and ready forces with a rotational base sufficient to sustain operations.

The U.S. Air Force has always focused its forces at being 100-percent ready. That’s the goal; because they can then provide rapid response to any crisis around the world and, if necessary, act as a precursor to further action with joint and/or coalition task forces.  Sequestration’s no-fly zones result in a disproportionate loss of national capability because it hinders the USAF’s role as America’s “first response force.”  The USAF is postured to deploy and employ quickly.  This quickness buys the Navy and Army time to spin up and steam to the fight.

Unfortunately, because there is little public awareness of what is happening, the hollow force that sequestration has imposed today won’t be realized until those forces are required.

What is so devastating about sequestration—and not readily apparent in a 20 second sound byte—is that it is now affecting U.S. capability to provide rapid response sufficient to meet the demands of our security strategy.  Said another way, we have a growing strategy-resource mismatch, and that dichotomy between what we say we want to be able to accomplish, and what we can actually accomplish is growing.  Without action to eliminate sequestration that mismatch will only get worse.

Sequestration was designed to be so irresponsible that Congress and the Administration would prevent its implementation.

However, a looming danger is that because its consequences are not immediately visible, it could now be viewed as a kind of “reverse base realignment and closure (BRAC) act” where Congress can claim to have cut defense, but without accepting any responsibility for the negative impact.  Congress has passed legislation to prohibit another round of BRAC that could be used to cut the excess infrastructure resident in our military, but they may be on a path to continue cuts on readiness instead.

Ultimately, as a Nation we won’t solve our fiscal challenges until we have a discussion of first principles.  Who is to determine what is the appropriate “fair share” of each of the elements of government?  Before we continue cutting, we need to establish priorities.  While all have opinions on solutions, we should seek guidance from principal sources describing the reason for our Government’s being—the Preamble to the Constitution—that states that the rationale for the formation of our government was to, “provide for the common defense, [and then to] promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Providing for the common defense is U.S. government job one.  Watching the debates over the deficit, listening to potential solutions offered to resolve the fiscal crisis, and witnessing the damage to our Nation’s security imposed by sequestration, all provide ample proof that too many people in leadership positions who should understand this do not.

Our military readiness is plummeting, especially our Nation’s airpower that underpins the ability of our entire military to operate where and when necessary.  Before contemplating costly no-fly zones in far-away places, we need to end the self-imposed no-fly zones over our own Nation.  Get the priorities straight.  Restore the readiness our military needs to execute our national security strategy as a superpower.

Eliminate the no-fly zones over U.S. air bases.

Dave Deptula is a retired Air Force lieutenant general. He was a commander of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, and a key officer in the planning and execution of Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Unified Assistance.  He is currently an independent consultant and senior military scholar at the Air Force Academy.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal