A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/Limited War in Korea

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Limited War In Korea

When North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, in a surprise attack, they awakened the United States to the dangers of brushfire war in the nuclear age. The earlier crisis of 1948 in Berlin, Communist successes in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and China in 1949, and news of the Soviet explosion of an atomic device in 1949, had prompted the National Security Council (NSC) to issue a secret directive, NSC-68, in April 1950. It judged the Soviet Union to be bent on world domination. NSC-68 called for a massive increase in defense spending of 20 percent of the gross national product if necessary, the development of a hydrogen bomb, and the containment of Communism. The sustained American-led buildup of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe was unmistakable evidence of containment, but Korea would be the first test of revitalized American resolve.

Principal American air commanders at the outset of the Korean War, Major General Earle Partridge, left, Fifth Air Force, and Lieutenant General George Stratemeyer, right, Far Eastern Air Forces (FEAF).

A heavy reliance on the nuclear strike force left the Air Force ill-prepared to deal with a conventional war on the other side of the globe. Moreover, when Congress approved the use of force to repel the North Korean invasion on June 30, 1950, the absence of a formal declaration of war introduced the Air Force to the new tribulations of limited war. The few air combat units of Major General Earle Partridge's Fifth Air Force, the main combat force of Lieutenant General George Stratemeyer's Far Eastern Air Forces (FEAF), launched interdiction raids against advancing North Korean units from bases in Japan in an attempt to slow their headlong rush down the Korean peninsula. Armed reconnaissance by fighters against targets of opportunity increased their effectiveness.

The United Nations (U.N.) Security Council had called on member nations to aid South Korea on June 27, but for a time, the U.S. Air Force's thin aluminum line was the only help harassed American and Republic of Korean ground forces could expect. B-26s of the 3d Bombardment Wing from Johnson Air Base in Japan put the interdiction effort on an around-the-clock basis with night intruder operations beginning on the night of June 27. B-29s of the 19th Bombardment Group, based at Kadena, Okinawa, added heavy bombs the next day. Continuing interdiction strikes (40 percent of all missions) against overextended North Korean supply lines and desperate ground action supported by air strikes (60 percent of all missions) saved U.N. forces trapped in the Pusan Perimeter. This success in direct support of U.N. troops freed Air Force units for strikes against strategic targets in North Korea. Accurate bombing in all weather conditions and North Korea's small size allowed the B-29s to all but eliminate its industrial base by September 1950.

General Douglas MacArthur, named Commander in Chief of the U.N. Command in Korea on July 8, launched a surprise amphibious land ing at Inchon on September 15, coupled with a U.N. drive north from the Pusan Perimeter, clearing South Korea of North Korean forces. In early October the U.N. changed its objective from saving South Korea to unifying all of Korea under a pro-Western government. Before the end of the month, as MacArthur's army approached the Yalu River separating China from North Korea, signs pointed to probable Communist Chinese intervention. The Air Force switched to interdicting the flow of men and materiel across the Yalu bridges. The freezing of the Yalu River in January 1951, and rules of engagement that forbade American overflights of Chinese territory on the north end of the bridges, condemned the effort to failure. B-29s had to fly above 20,000 feet to escape antiaircraft artillery fire from the Chinese side of the Yalu, but they could not fire back. That altitude and bombs errantly falling on Chinese territory insured little success. Bombing became even more difficult when China escalated the conflict in November 1950 by sending Soviet-provided MiG-15 jet fighters, launched from safe sanctuary on lightning attacks against American aircraft, especially FEAF B-29s. The airspace just south of the Yalu River in northwestern Korea became known as "MiG Alley." The performance advantages of the MiG-15 in speed and altitude initially held sway over propeller-driven P-51 Mustangs (pursuit aircraft redesignated by the Air Force as fighters in June 1948), jet-powered F-80 Shooting Stars, and even newer F-84 Thunderjets.

Chinese Communist forces counterattacked on November 26, driving U.N. units back toward South Korea. For the U.S. Air Force, this meant a renewed concentration on interdiction, combined with a campaign to maintain air superiority against the MiG-15s. Air Force airlift brought 1,600 tons of supplies to Marines cut off at Changjin (more widely known by its Japanese name, Chosin) Reservoir and evacuated 5,000 wounded. After retreating, U.N. forces stabilized along the 38th parallel in early 1951 and the war deteriorated into a series of small, bloody battles, with no significant movement by either side. War objectives changed again. Peace talks opened in July 1951. They were backed by a new American strategy to force high rates of attrition on the enemy. It would be up to FEAF, now under Lieutenant General Otto Weyland, and U.S. naval aviation to carry the war beyond the front, to pressure North Korea and China into a ceasefire, substituting air power whenever possible for ground operations that inevitably resulted in high casualties.

This strategy presented new threats and complications for the Air Force. Doctrine dictated strikes against the enemy's industrial fabric, but the bombing operations of 1950 had destroyed these limited North Korean targets. Industries supporting the Communist war effort, located in

Korean War fighters. North American F-86 Sabres, top, and Republic F-84 Thunderjets, center, challenged Soviet MiG-15s, bottom, sent into "MiG Alley" in northwestern Korea by Red China, to menace FEAF B-29s. Rules of engagement forbade the fighters from pursuing the MiGs across the border.

China and the Soviet Union, were off limits to aerial attack. The Air Force had to operate under the rules and restrictions of limited war and could not bring SAC's massive nuclear power to bear. FEAF B-29 Superfortresses, supported by tactical aircraft, bombed targets all over North Korea with conventional weapons, including radar-directed high-altitude strikes against enemy troops forming for attack. They blurred the lines between tactical and strategic air power, proving the value of George Kenney's "seamless" approach.

After China's intervention, both the United States and the U.N. sought a more limited objective, that of a negotiated truce. Dissatisfied, MacArthur advised Congress that "there was no substitute for victory," and contradicted national policy. On April 11, 1951, President Truman fired MacArthur, replaced him with Matthew Ridgway, and in the process changed the nature of air warfare in Korea. The Air Force would still interdict the flow of supplies to Chinese units along the 38th Parallel and provide close air support to U.N. forces opposing them, but it would now also pressure the enemy into a settlement by inflicting maximum losses of men and materiel. The "police action" had become a war of attrition.

The Fifth Air Force's new commander, Lieutenant General Frank Everest, believed that interdiction was key to reducing the impact of Chinese offensives and U.N. ground losses. MiG-15s outnumbered F-86 Sabres over North Korea by five-to-one in 1951. Thus the Air Force's losses climbed as B-29s operated mainly at night. Complicating its air superiority campaign were air bases which the Chinese tried to build in North Korea to support their own forces and which FEAF was compelled to target. F-86s engaged MiGs in air-to-air combat and B-29s cratered the air bases' runways, forcing Communist jets to continue flying out of China and limiting their ability to challenge because of their short range. However, any bomb damage was quickly repaired by enemy labor units and necessitated continuous return missions. Interdiction, although costly, racked up long lists of destroyed trucks, trains, rail lines, and bridges, including the heavily-defended Yalu crossings. Nonetheless, supplies still reached Communist front lines in quantity by night. Medal of Honor recipient Captain John Walmsley, Jr., of the 8th Bombardment Squadron gave his life using his searchlight-equipped B-26 as a beacon to direct other B-26s while they bombed an enemy supply train on September 14, 1951. As it had in Operation STRANGLE in Italy during World War II, the Air Force learned that no air campaign was tougher than interdiction.

By the spring of 1952 the Chinese had won the battle of interdiction and the Americans had failed in their attrition strategy along the 38th Parallel. Communist representatives, first at Kaesŏng and then at Panmunjon, stalled peace talks and demanded mandatory repatriation for prisoners-of-war. General Weyland proposed to break the impasse by expanding the air war against North Korea. As U.N. casualties climbed and negotiations dragged on, the new American commander in Korea, General Mark Clark, accepted Weyland's proposal. In June 1952 he ordered the bombing of the Suiho Hydroelectric Complex, previously "off limits" and one of the largest facilities of its type in the world. It was a major exporter of electricity to Chinese industries across the border. A four-day onslaught over Suiho and other hydroelectric plants cost North Korea 90 percent of its power system. Through the remainder of 1952, the Air Force attacked 78 cities and towns identified as supportive of a number of military functions, chiefly supply; however, to limit civilian casualties and weaken morale it alerted their inhabitants.

In Korea, as in World War II, the bombing of critical targets attracted the enemy's air force into the sky, where it could be engaged. Intelligence revealed that China had a thousand MiGs ready for combat and Fifth Air Force fighter squadrons, for the first time in the war, did not have to go hunting―the "game" came to them. A new version of the F-86, the F model, gave Air Force pilots superior performance to go along with their better training and tactics. In May and June 1953 the F-86Fs achieved a 133-to-1 advantage in combat kills over the MiGs. Individual scores rose, with Air Force Captain Joseph McConnell, a B-24 navigator in World War II, topping all pilots with 16 confirmed victories in only four months.

Three developments in 1953 brought peace to Korea. In March Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, a major obstacle, died. In May, Air Force bombers increased the frequency of their attacks again, striking North Korean irrigation dams that, when breached, washed away railroads and highways and threatened the nation's rice crop. At the direction of President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Dulles asked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to warn China that the United States intended to use tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and might unleash SAC against Chinese cities if a settlement was not forthcoming. On May 27, 1953, China agreed to an armistice in Korea. It went into effect on July 27.

The Korean War should have taught the United States that nuclear weapons had limited use in conventional wars, but the appeal of the new hydrogen bomb, first tested in November 1952, and plans for a new all-jet intercontinental bomber, the B-52, continued to dominate strategic thinking. TAC sought a new generation of fighters (the "century series," including the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-104 Starfighter, F-105 Thunderchief, and F-106 Delta Dart) with supersonic speeds, but also adapted them to carry tactical nuclear weapons. The Air Force realized that while turbojet technology was the future, it alone was no substitute for good training, tactics, and aggressiveness. Military casualties in Korea of over two million for both sides, including more than 54,000 dead Americans, belied the judgment that this was a "limited" war―Americans learned firsthand the costs of war in Asia. Air Force aircraft had dropped 476,000 tons of explosives to achieve a standoff. Korea exposed the Air Force to the reality of post World War II warfare, where conventional (non-nuclear) air power would be used to "influence" an enemy, not to destroy it.