No Fly Zone for Darfur?



Some international crises are of a nature and intensity that measures to restore peace or to facilitate humanitarian activities adopt an increasingly military character.  This is the case in Darfur, where attacks on its population by militia forces controlled by the Sudanese government have created widespread suffering and destitution.  Numerous atrocities have passed unchecked but there is a burgeoning impetus for developed nations to take decisive action to end the carnage.  For many observers the obvious ‘solution’ is to employ superior military force to deter, prevent and if necessary punish offenders, and within the range of military options that might be available is the establishment of a No Fly Zone (NFZ) over Darfur.  For politicians responding to the flow of public opinion, initiating a NFZ holds some allure.  As air power is responsive, it is relatively quick to implement.  Against an opponent with limited military capabilities it is seen as irresistible and low risk, avoiding the entanglement that might accompany the deployment of ground forces into the crisis area; while with the bases of operation out of sight it may be viewed as straightforward and cheap to implement.  Finally, at least at a cursory level, previous NFZs mounted in Europe and the Middle East have appeared to be effective and therefore a political success.  It is therefore no surprise that when pressed to ‘do something’ in Darfur, politicians and commentators are drawn to the apparent attraction of a NFZ and in December 2006 it was even reported that Prime Minister Blair was in support of establishing a NFZ over Darfur.  Although such reports may have sent a political signal to the Sudanese government and generated anticipation within the development community, in military circles like comments raise concern among those who understand the practicalities involved with such a venture.  Therefore, before making further public statements that may raise false expectations or create a premature obligation to establish a NFZ over Darfur, policy makers might profitably consider the following points:


Understanding the Problem.  It is a regular fault when problem solving to concentrate on the implementation of a solution before the nature of the problem has been fully considered.  This leads to a focus on ‘how’ the problem might be addressed before it has been established ‘what’ needs to be done and ‘why’.  This appears to be the case with the suggestion of a NFZ for Darfur.  Instead of asking military staff to examine the practicality of establishing a NFZ over part of Sudan the government should clearly articulate what is the effect it wishes to achieve in Darfur, carefully consider whether the military instrument of national power is the best way to achieve that effect and then let military planners identify what courses of action might be suitable to realize that goal.  If the ‘answer’ is then indeed to create a NFZ then at least it is done on the basis of a sound mission analysis in pursuit of an identified purpose that would achieve the required effect.


The Need for a Correct Mandate.  It is imperative that the NFZ has a mandate that matches its purpose.  For example, would military forces be merely empowered to monitor compliance with the NFZ or to enforce it?  If it is mandated by a United Nations Security Council Resolution (and not all previous NFZs have been) is it under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter authorizing enforcement by ‘all necessary means’?  The nature of the mandate would influence which nations would be willing to participate in policing the NFZ and have practical implications encompassing the military capabilities required and what Rules of Engagement (ROE) nations would be content to allow their forces to employ.  Deciding on the need for a NFZ without establishing whether a necessary mandate could be secured would be putting the proverbial cart before the horse.


Threats to the Mission.  It would be a mistake to pursue the implementation of a NFZ on the grounds that it is risk free.  Military planners would obviously consider the threats to be overcome to fulfil the mission.  This analysis would encompass potential threats to the bases from which air assets would operate and what dangers there might be in the conduct of the mission.  Assuming a NFZ is policed by friendly aircraft then this analysis would consider whether there is an air and/or ground-based threat to those aircraft.  In broad terms, as the number of threats increases so does the range of capabilities required to defeat them, with a corresponding increase in the type and size of force required to police the NFZ.  In addition, if there is a credible threat to friendly assets then the government must also determine what level of risk it is prepared to accept in order to complete the mission.  Even with a robust mandate and sufficiently capable forces, if the level of acceptable risk is set too low the NFZ is undermined and it may not achieve the effect expected of it.  Therefore, governments should only commit to this option if they are determined for it to succeed.


The Practical Dimension.  Despite the perception in some quarters that a NFZ provides a ‘simple’ solution to the need for international action in Darfur, in reality there are numerous practical issues that genuinely create obstacles to establishing an effective NFZ over Darfur.  From a practical perspective it is illogical to compare the NFZ’s that may have been set up to cover Olympic or political events in developed Continents with the requirements of one over Darfur.  The Air assets employed and the infrastructure necessary to enable similar air operations over the Balkans and Iraq clearly indicate that establishing an effective NFZ over Darfur would be a colossal undertaking.  Crucial factors such as: the actual size of the NFZ (especially if enforcement is required), the duration for which the NFZ must be patrolled (both daily and in mission terms), the availability of suitable basing (not all airfields can support the operations of all types of military aircraft), the local infrastructure (its capacity to support military deployments) and the remote character of the region (significantly extending the distances involved in mission execution) all generate significant difficulties in implementing, conducting and sustaining a NFZ in central Africa.  These impediments are not militarily insurmountable but politicians and commentators should not underestimate the enormous effort required to establish a NFZ over Darfur - a task of a cost and complexity that raises the question of whether it is the best way to achieve the required effect (whatever that may be).


Realistic Expectations.  Whatever the political allure of a NFZ, enthusiasm for implementing such a measure should be bounded by an understanding of what is realistically achievable.  It is extremely difficult to guarantee the effectiveness of a NFZ.  Factors such poor weather, in-flight equipment failures, procedural mistakes or an opponent willing to take significant risk in order to infringe a zone may all result in occasions when a NFZ is breached.  It is also important to remember that a NFZ is not a ‘no drive zone’ and that land-based persecution or violence may still continue unhindered beneath a successful NFZ.  It is therefore important to shape expectations of the utility of a NFZ or the political and public repercussions that result from isolated NFZ violations or continued bloodshed might have unnecessary effect.  


It is easy to see the attraction of raising the possibility of a NFZ for Darfur; the Sudanese armed forces would be faced with a vastly superior military opponent and the nations contributing to the NFZ would be seen to be taking justified action to protect innocent civilians without committing ground forces to the area of conflict.  But political statements that raise the prospect of a NFZ over Darfur are premature and naturally cause concern amongst those with an understanding of the practicalities involved.  A military intervention to prevent further suffering in Darfur would be an ethical endeavour, but before any military option for the crisis in Sudan is explored the government must be clear on the effect that military action is required to achieve, it must also secure the mandate needed to facilitate that outcome and have the resolve to allow the military activity necessary to negate identified threats and to fulfil the given mission.  Political leaders must not underestimate the huge effort that would be required to establish a NFZ over Darfur, be willing to underwrite the substantial costs involved and have a realistic expectation of the NFZ’s utility.  Would it be possible to mount a credible NFZ over Darfur?  In all likelihood it is highly probable that given the necessary mandate, sufficient political determination and the required resources an international military coalition could establish a credible NFZ over Darfur, but the case for it and the securing of those enabling requirements is much less certain.              

Explore our related content