Korean War, Air Combat in

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KOREAN WAR, AIR COMBAT IN. When the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on 25 June 1950 the North Korean army was supported by a small but effective force of Russian-built aircraft. In the emergency, President Harry S. Truman directed the U.S. Far East Command to act as the United Nations Command and assist in repelling the communist aggression. The U.S. Air Force's Far East Air Forces and the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet and First Marine Air Wing were the major elements of UN airpower, which also included Royal Australian and South African air force fighter squadrons, Royal Thai and Royal Hellenic air force troop carrier detachments, and a growing Republic of Korea air force.

The Korean conflict has been called the first jet air war. In the initial weeks American jet pilots quickly destroyed the North Korean air force, so establishing an air superiority that was critical during the summer months of 1950, as UN ground forces were driven into a perimeter around Pusan in southeastern Korea. By 15 September 1950 when U.S. forces launched a bold amphibious invasion at Inchon, the combination of UN ground defenses, strategic air attacks against North Korea, air interdiction operations against extended enemy supply lines, and very strong close air support decimated the initially victorious North Korean army. This permitted a march into North Korea, which turned into retreat in November 1950 when Chinese MIG-15 jet fighters appeared at the Yalu River and overwhelming Chinese armies poured into Korea.

After November 1950 the MIG-15s sought to establish air superiority, but their efforts were thwarted by U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre fighter screens, which destroyed 792 MIGs in air-to-air combat at a cost of seventy-eight F-86s shot down. UN airpower also provided extensive close air support to outnumbered ground forces and, equally important, proved effective in interdicting the movement of communist troops and supplies to the battle area. By June 1951 UN forces defeated communist ground offensives, thus setting the stage for truce talks the following month.

The air war in Korea called into question the United States' deeply held tenets of air doctrine that emphasized the efficacy of strategic attack against enemy vital industrial centers. The North Koreans had few industries against which to concentrate strategic bomber attacks. Moreover, when air strikes destroyed existing industrial areas, the North Koreans obtained supplies from their Soviet and Chinese allies. When the strategic campaigns had destroyed North Korean industries, air leaders turned to aerial interdiction to produce decisive effects on the battlefield. Operation Strangle, the interdiction effort against the North Korean road and railway system that lasted from 18 August 1951 until the summer of 1952, represented an attempt to isolate front-line troops from their sources of supply. U.S. analysts eventually realized that as long as the United Nations and communist armies remained locked in a stalemate on the front, supply requirements remained so low that airpower alone could have little effect on communist fighting capabilities.

After the talks stalemated in mid-1952, UN air forces were authorized to wage air pressure attacks inside North Korea, culminating in the destruction of several irrigation dams and resultant flooding. Early in 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower indicated that the United States might act even more forcefully. This warning may have led the communists to accept the military armistice agreement ending hostilities on 27 July 1953.

During the three-year Korean War, UN air forces flew a total of some 1,040,708 air sorties of all kinds and expended approximately 698,000 tons of ordnance in combat. The United States Air Force missed opportunities to learn from the Korean experience. Slightly more than a decade later, in the Vietnam War, airmen attempted to apply strategic airpower against a foe that was not susceptible to its effect.


Bruning, John R. Crimson Sky: The Air Battle for Korea. Dulles, Va.: Brassey's, 1999.

Crane, Conrad C. American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950–1953. Modern War Studies. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Futrell, Robert Frank. The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1983.

Thompson, Wayne, and Bernard C. Nalty. Within Limits: The U.S. Air Force and the Korean War. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996.

Warnock, A. Timothy, ed. The USAF in Korea: A Chronology, 1950–1953. The Korean War fiftieth anniversary commemorative ed. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program in association with Air University Press, 2000.

Y'Blood, William T. Mig Alley: The Fight for Air Superiority. Korean War fiftieth anniversary commemorative ed. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000.

Anthony ChristopherCain

Robert FrankFutrell

See alsoAir Force, United States ; Air Power, Strategic ; Aircraft Armament ; Aircraft, Bomber ; Aircraft, Fighter .