Understanding No-Fly Zones And Their Implications

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The pressure on President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya is growing. Leaders from the Arab League called on the U.N. Security Council Saturday to impose a no-fly zone over the country. Former paratrooper and Afghanistan war veteran DB Grady discusses how no-fly zones work — and where such an intervention might lead.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The pressure on President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya is growing. Yesterday, leaders from the Arab League called on the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over the country. It's one of the few times the league has called on outside powers to intervene in the Arab world.

There are only a handful of countries that have the resources to do it. The U.S., of course, is one of them. And on Friday, the president was asked about that possibility.

President BARACK OBAMA: NATO will be meeting on Tuesday to consider a no-fly zone, and we've been in discussions with both Arab countries, as well as African countries, to gauge their support for such an action.

RAZ: So what would a no-fly zone entail? Well, DB Grady, a former paratrooper with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and a veteran of the Afghanistan war, recently wrote an article in the Atlantic magazine answering that very question.

And as he explains, a no-fly zone isn't just a place where planes aren't allowed to fly; it's a military intervention.

Mr. DB GRADY (Former Paratrooper; Afghanistan War Veteran): Step one is going to be to make sure that our guys in the air are safe. In order to do that, you're going to have to launch missiles against surface-to-air missile sites that the Libyans might have, fighter jets that the Libyans might have, runways that the Libyans are using to launch these fighter jets. It's a bombing campaign from day one.

RAZ: And then only after that do you have airplanes continuously flying in the air to make sure that no Libyan planes are up in the air at all.

Mr. GRADY: That's correct. It's constant aerial surveillance. To give an example from, say, Bosnia, 100,000 sorties were flown to maintain that no-fly zone. So that's what we're looking at in Libya. We're looking at a sustained and very significant investment of our air power over that country.

RAZ: Could the U.S. do this, obviously with NATO, with relatively little risk, either financially, or in lives, or even the risk of losing political capital?

Mr. GRADY: Financially, there's no getting around the fact that this is going to be an extraordinarily expensive operation. Whenever you involve air assets and missiles, you're talking serious dollars.

When it comes to American lives, we're pretty safe from the air. The men that we have on the ground are going to be JTACs or joint terminal attack controllers. Whenever you hear about laser-guided weapons, these are the guys pointing the lasers.

Those guys will be at risk. We'll have Delta guys on the ground, Special Operations forces on the ground. But it's unlikely that we send in, say, the 82nd Airborne from day one.

That said, I'm unaware of any no-fly zone that's been imposed by the United States that didn't ultimately end up with military intervention that actually put soldiers on the ground: Bosnia and Herzegovina started out as Operation Deny Flight.

Once you launch that first missile, the shock is gone, and then it's very easy for mission creep. It's very easy to move on from there.

RAZ: You mentioned Bosnia and Iraq. I mean, both of those no-fly zones that the U.S. led did, in fact, lead to eventual military intervention. So I wonder if, in a sense, a no-fly zone in Libya is a kind of a slippery slope.

Mr. GRADY: Oh, absolutely, and that's one of the things that I have argued in the past. If you look at Iraq, we established the no-fly zone in 1991. The no-fly zone ended in 2003 with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Once we get started in Libya, I would say that it will also involve ground troops. It's going to become a war.

RAZ: That's DB Grady. He's a former paratrooper with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and a military analyst.

DB, thank you so much.

Mr. GRADY: It's a pleasure.

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