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Air Power Lessons from the Korean War

The silvery F-86 Sabre flashed through Korea’s skies and racked up a 7-to-1 kill advantage over the MiG-15 in a pure air-to-air, fighter-versus-fighter, eyeball-to-eyeball battle campaign.

The straight-winged, utilitarian F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderjet hauled bombs and rockets to support ground troops and journeyed behind the front lines to strike land targets in a sharply focused air-to-ground effort.

The lumbering B-29 Superfortress went the distance behind enemy lines and carried out longer-range strikes on strategic targets in a relentless bombing effort, adjusting tactics as conditions changed.

When the Korean War began June 25, 1950, the USAF was not ready to deploy forces over vast distances in a short time. The Navy had a presence in the Pacific, but did not have an aircraft carrier forward-based in Japan as it did in later years.

What the Sabre, Thunderjet, Shooting Star, and Superfortress had in common was that they were more than good enough for the duty handed to them. With the exception of the Sabre, they did not represent the cutting edge of technology. They were good enough and they existed in sufficient quantity. Although the number of Sabres committed to the battle was never high, a limitless number were available back in the States. Sheer numbers overwhelmed the foe.


The “Tyranny of Distance”

When the Korean War began June 25, 1950, the USAF was not ready to deploy forces over vast distances in a short time. The Navy had a presence in the Pacific, but did not have an aircraft carrier forward-based in Japan as it did in later years. “We were always looking at the tyranny of distance,” said Col. James McCallister, a Korea-era airlift wing commander. “We needed to span oceans to get into combat, and once we got there, we needed to be able to reach any target we wanted to reach.”

In the period prior to the Korean War, many in U.S. industry, Congress, and the Pentagon were saying the aircraft carrier was obsolete. The Air Force, a newly independent service branch as of Sept. 18, 1947, was enjoying a period of dominance in U.S. military affairs. Proponents of the B-36 Peacemaker superbomber were wielding influence on Capitol Hill, while supporters of a new class of aircraft carrier, led by the United States (CV 58) faced an uphill fight. Even after the “revolt of the admirals” in 1949, when naval aviators sought to advance the cause of the carrier, the Air Force retained its heavyweight status. The United States never earned a “USS” in front of her name because she was never commissioned, or even completed. The “bomber generals” won their B-36 and scuttled the new carrier by convincing others that the aircraft carrier had seen its heyday.

C-119 Flying Boxcar

A U.S. Far East Air Forces C-119 Flying Boxcar of the 314th Troop Carrier Group prepares to leave Japan with the group’s 70,000th ton of cargo hauled during the Korean War. The Korean War showed the need for strategic and tactical airlift. National Archives photo

Yet off both coasts in Korea, aircraft carriers displayed a capability for rapid movement, flexibility, and varied responses to changing threats and targets. “The carrier gave us a forward presence, much farther north than the front lines,” said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Tissot, who flew F4U-4 Corsairs from carriers. “We could move quickly to respond to a change in the situation. We could change our battle order or our fuel or ordnance load on little notice to adjust to changes on the ground.” The adaptability of a carrier and its carrier air group were demonstrated on May 1, 1951, when AD-4 Skyraiders from USS Princeton (CV 37) attacked the Hwachon Dam on North Korea’s Pukhan River. Factors of preparation, training, time, and distance make it unlikely a similar mission could have been mounted by land-based airpower.

In the early phases of the war, when the standard USAF fighter in the Far East was the F-80 Shooting Star jet, propeller-driven fighters were needed to combat North Korea’s Yakovlev and Ilyushin prop planes. The Air Force was able to round up 145 F-51D Mustangs. In order to get them across the Pacific Ocean, it had to cocoon them in semi-storage on an aircraft carrier deck and allow weeks for the transition while depriving the Navy of a deck that could have been used for combat operations. “This took weeks,” wrote Air Force historian Mark L. Morgan in a paper, “and – more often than not and despite protective efforts – upon arrival the fighters required extensive maintenance because of salt air exposure and corrosion.”

When the Korean conflict began, air-to-air refueling was an experiment. That changed because of the exigencies of war. On July 6, 1951, the first refueling of tactical aircraft on a combat mission took place over Korea when three RF-80A Shooting Stars with modified tip-tanks able to accept fuel met up with a KB-29 tanker offshore of Wonsan, North Korea. Using in-flight refueling, the RF-80s doubled their range and were able to photograph valuable targets in North Korea. By war’s end, F-84G Thunderjets were being similarly refueled and the Navy was fielding a tanker version of its AJ-2 Savage carrier-based attack bomber.

In effect, the Korean War demanded of the United States that it develop and refine air refueling. Both Britain and the United States were making advances – oddly, their adversary of the era, the Soviet Union, was not – but Korea gave air refueling an urgency that required a higher priority than in the past.

One reason why air refueling was needed: Korea was the beginning of a transition from large bombers carrying out most missions to smaller, tactical warplanes doing the job previously performed by the heavies. As a result of an Oct. 23, 1951 mission in which several B-29s were shot down or heavily damaged by MiG-15 jet fighters, by November 1951 the Superfortresses were relegated to night missions. In addition, it was being discovered that a tactical aircraft with its range extended by air refueling could carry out many of the missions previously performed by heavy bombers. In effect, the Korean War demanded of the United States that it develop and refine air refueling. Both Britain and the United States were making advances – oddly, their adversary of the era, the Soviet Union, was not – but Korea gave air refueling an urgency that required a higher priority than in the past.

Some in the Air Force and in naval aviation, then, began to talk about the need for an aircraft assigned to work full time as a tanker. Boeing built 816 propeller-driven KC-97 Stratofreighter tankers, derived from a transport, and they entered service while fighting in Korea was under way. The purpose-built KC-135 Stratotanker made its first flight Aug. 31, 1956, and continues today to give longer legs to U.S. military aircraft, proving the Korea-driven lesson that a filling station in the sky is the key to global reach. Inspired by Korea, the Navy has sought on several occasions to get land-based tankers, but never did so.

At the time of the Korean conflict, long-distance deployments of large numbers of fighters – the “Fox Able” crossings of the Atlantic and “Fox Peter” trans-Pacific flights – lay ahead in the early and mid-1950s. Not yet a part of Air Force capabilities was the potential to move aircraft, supplies, and people readily from stateside garrison to a combat zone thousands of miles away. Korea taught the need not just for tankers, but for far-reaching cargo haulers like the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III. In addition to forming a strategic air bridge to distant battle zones, airlifters like the C-5 and C-17 can help a tactical air wing or ground combat battalion to get overseas quickly and arrive ready to fight.

Aerial Refueling

Operation High Tide, which saw the aerial refueled strike missions, began in May 1952 when 12 F-84Es flew non-stop from Japan to bomb targets in North Korea. In the same year, aerial refueled Fox Peter operations began flying F-84s non-stop across the Pacific. The need for the Air Force to perfect aerial refueling became obvious during the conflict, but it took some experimenting to find the best method. The F-84E shown here could refuel its outboard tanks through a “probe and drogue” system, but each had to be refueled separately, and the tank’s location on the wingtips made it a difficult process. U.S. Air Force photo

Jump ahead to Operation Desert Shield, the build-up of U.S. forces in Desert Storm in 1991. After being used on a very small scale in Korea, air-to-air refueling was now a routine part of everyday military operations. F-15C Eagle fighters of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing made nonstop 15- to 18-hour refueled flights from Langley Air Force Base, Va., to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on just a couple of days’ notice. Had that capability existed when Korea started, North Korea’s early seizure of Seoul and advance southward to the Nakdong River might have been prevented.


Forward Air Control

In World War II, experienced combat pilots served as air liaison officers with Army infantry units for the first time. They could speak the language of their brothers overhead in P-47 Thunderbolts and other close-support aircraft. Radios common to those on the ground and in the air began to appear, enabling pilots to talk directly to troops they were supporting. Troops also received support from small liaison aircraft like the Piper L-4 Cub, but their primary mission was artillery spotting rather than the broader mission that emerged from Korea – forward air control.

In the first days of the Korean War, movement by North Korean forces was swift and locations changed hourly. The standard U.S. fighter in the Far East, the F-80, was too fast for effective air-to-ground surveillance. Tactical air control parties on the ground tried to direct the F-80s, but were hindered by terrain and a constantly shifting tactical situation. Air Force commanders in Japan requested slower aircraft to pinpoint targets for the fast jets. Initially, a handful of airmen performed this mission with fragile Stinson L-5 Sentinel liaison aircraft.

These early forward air controllers, or FACs, located a T-6 Texan and spotted targets for a series of F-80 strikes that were credited with destroying 17 North Korean T-34 medium tanks. The FAC unit evolved into the 6147th Tactical Control Group, the “Mosquitos,” which operated both standard T-6 trainers and much-modified LT-6G FAC versions. Tactical air-control parties continued to operate on the ground, and C-47 Skytrain transports participated in FAC activity as airborne command posts.

The grim, gritty business of close-quarters fighting on the ground with a Mosquito circling overhead became testimony to the fact that forward air control was a tactic of the future. During the Vietnam War, building on lessons from Korea, FAC pilots in O-1 Bird Dogs, OV-10 Broncos, and other aircraft were directly and intimately involved in the fighting. In the years since, with quantum improvements in technology, virtually every military aircraft in inventory has intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, while joint terminal air controllers on the ground have satellite communications. This means that any military aircraft, even a huge B-1B Lancer loitering at 40,000 feet over the battlespace, can function as a forward air controller.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...