Lieutenant Colonel Price T. Bingham, USAF (Ret.), is a former Combat Fighter Pilot, Aviation Expert, and frequent commentator on Air Force and joint issues.
During the first year of the Korean War, U.S. airpower resumed the key role that it had played in the Allies’ defeat of the German army in World War II.1 This article explains why U.S. Air Force airpower was key to the United Nations Command’s ability to defeat the North Korean invasion and then rescue U.S. Army forces from disaster when the Chinese intervened. Too often, the critically important role airpower played in Korean ground operations has been neglected, a shortcoming this article intends to correct.2 It also illustrates that Army commanders in Korea had a poor understanding of airpower and that this caused them to make decisions that handicapped the effectiveness of U.S. airpower, making the Korean War much more costly than it needed to be. The Army’s failings in Korea continue to have important policy implications today given the threat posed by North Korea, since Army doctrine still does not recognize the key role airpower, in the form of air interdiction, must play in order to defeat an opposing army at the lowest possible cost.3
The North Korean Invasion
On June 25, 1950, a 135,000-man North Korean army—organized, trained, and equipped by the Soviets—employing 150 T-34/85 tanks, artillery, and trucks, and supported by its air force, launched a surprise invasion of South Korea. Although shocked by news of the invasion, initially the United States was confident that the Republic of Korea (ROK) army could handle the invasion. As a precaution, the commander of Far East Command (FEC), General Douglas MacArthur, soon to be named commander of United Nations Command (UNC), ordered Far East Air Force (FEAF), commanded by Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer, to provide air cover for the evacuation of American nationals. On June 27, patrolling Fifth Air Force (5AF) F-82s based in Japan and commanded by Major General Earle E. Partridge engaged and shot down four North Korean aircraft. As powerful North Korean forces began overrunning the lightly equipped South Korean forces, FEAF was ordered to begin bombing attacks against North Korean forces who were moving rapidly down the peninsula.4
In addition to employing airpower, the United States began deploying Army forces from the 24th Infantry Division, which was on occupation duty in Japan. Task Force Smith, the division’s initial deployment, was quickly defeated by a tank-equipped North Korean attack and forced to withdraw.5 As the North Koreans exploited this victory and continued to advance, more Army forces under the command of Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker, Eighth U.S. Army in Korea (EUSAK), began arriving. Yet even with these reinforcements, U.S. and ROK units were forced to continue their retreat.
From the very beginning, Air Force effectiveness was handicapped by the availability of airfields.6 There were only five improved bases in the South, along with six primitive short sod strips. The two bases suitable for the F-80, Kimpo and Suwon, near Seoul, were quickly captured by the North Koreans, making it necessary for F-80s to fly from bases in Japan.7 The 310 miles from Itazuke to the Seoul area gave F-80 pilots little time to search for targets. Even so, the first 24 F-80 sorties on June 28 caused significant damage when they found the roads crowded with North Korean tanks, trucks, artillery, and troops.8 B-29s and B-26s based in Japan also began bombing and on June 30 inflicted severe damage on North Korean tanks, trucks, and other vehicles stuck in a traffic jam waiting to cross the Seoul railway bridge.9
Given that its focus was on the defense of Japan from a possible Soviet attack and not fighting an army offensive in Korea, FEAF had only 22 B-26s, 12 B-29s, 70 F-80s, and 15 F-82s available for missions in Korea. Moreover, like the Army in Japan, training for fighting an enemy army had received little attention. Recognizing the urgent need for more airpower, FEAF requested reinforcement from the United States, including 164 F-80s. However, due to its shortage of F-80s and the problems with basing, the Air Force substituted 150 F-51s.10
Initially, an even higher priority for the Air Force than attacking the invading ground forces was ensuring control of the air. As a result, many bomber sorties were devoted to attacking North Korean airfields rather than their ground forces. To prevent enemy aircraft from attacking the bombers and ROK forces, F-80s began flying patrol orbits at 10,000 feet over the Han River. Fuel reserves meant that these aircraft could stay on station for only 15 to 20 minutes before returning to Japan, but on the way home they would attack any North Korean forces they saw moving south.11
Their attempt to win the war quickly by moving in accordance with Soviet doctrine exposed North Korean forces to devastating air interdiction attacks. Almost every FEAF sortie destroyed some enemy target. Air interdiction had this effect because it could exploit North Korea’s reliance on motorized vehicles and trains. Unlike close air support where enemy forces were dispersed, dug in, and often well concealed, forces attempting to move rapidly were out in the open and often concentrated, making them far easier for Airmen to locate and destroy.
Airpower’s ability to exploit traffic jams caused by bridges destroyed by air interdiction was evident when, from July 7 to 9, aircrews claimed 197 trucks and 44 tanks destroyed.12 To augment aircraft flying from Japan on July 10, FEAF converted six F-80 squadrons in Japan to the F-51s. The first F-51s in Korea were stationed at Taegu Air Base (AB), followed soon after at Pohang AB. The F-51’s ability to fly from bases in Korea allowed them to carry more weapons (for example, napalm, which proved especially effective at destroying tanks), while also being able to devote more time to looking for targets. Brigadier General Timberlake, deputy commander of 5AF, explained the basing advantage on July 8, stating, “One F-51 adequately supported and fought from Taegu Airfield is equivalent to four F-80s based on Kyushu.”13
From the beginning of the war in Korea, one of the major challenges the Air Force faced was the result of U.S. command arrangements. MacArthur’s general headquarters (GHQ) was not a joint staff. As Partridge noted in his diary, “There is nothing even vaguely resembling a joint staff. GHQ is an Army Staff.”14 Not only did MacArthur’s staff consist almost entirely of Army officers, these officers frequently attempted to directly “run the air forces” or take actions that affected airpower’s effectiveness without first discussing the proposed action with Air Force leaders. As a result, Air Force leaders often had to explain why key operational-level decisions that concerned airpower and had been made without consideration of Air Force expertise were wrong and needed to be changed.15 These decisions involved air interdiction, including emphasis on air interdiction as opposed to close air support; responsibility for the control of airpower; logistics, including basing availability and operability; and air reconnaissance.
While Airmen had a sound appreciation from World War II of air interdiction’s potential contribution as part of a balanced concept of airpower, many ground officers in Korea did not.16 Like the Marine Corps, they saw airpower as mainly close air support and did not have a good understanding of the factors at the operational level of war that made air interdiction effective. It was only after FEAF vice commander for operations, Major General Otto P. Weyland, explained the importance of interdiction to MacArthur’s GHQ staff that, on July 26, FEAF was finally allowed to begin the first of several comprehensive interdiction programs.17
The need to educate Army commanders about the importance of air bases was also never-ending. During the battle on the Pusan Perimeter, Partridge sent a letter to Walker explaining 5AF had been caught off balance repeatedly by unexpected ground force actions. He stressed the importance of the Taegu AB to EUSAK operations, stating the insecurity of Taegu had already canceled the movement of three squadrons of F-51s from Japan to Taegu and caused one squadron’s movement to Pohang AB to be withheld. This meant that 100 F-51s were flying missions from Japan, rather than from Korea. He went on to point out that if Taegu falls, Pohang will follow, and before this occurs, the remaining two squadrons of F-51s will be returned to Japan, reducing their rate of operations and almost eliminating airlift into Korea.18 Later, when General Matthew Ridgway took command of EUSAK, the basing education process had to be repeated. In this case, MacArthur was now the one who pointed out to the new EUSAK commander that recovering the use of Kimpo would be of value for strengthening air operations.19
Control of theater airpower had quickly become a contentious issue when MacArthur’s staff began telling FEAF how to conduct air operations. In response, on July 10, Stratemeyer had personally carried a memorandum to MacArthur stating he hoped MacArthur would have the same confidence in him that he had with his Airmen during World War II. Although MacArthur told Stratemeyer that he had his confidence and was to run his own show, the struggle for control of airpower was not over.20
One point of contention was control of B-29 operations since MacArthur’s chief of staff, Major General Edward Almond, had established a GHQ-dominated group to choose bomber targets. Weyland pointed out deficiencies with the targets chosen by this group. Only at this point was it agreed that FEAF should be allowed to take a more active role in target selection.21
Despite this agreement, the Army was not finished with its efforts to direct B-29 operations. On August 13, MacArthur told Stratemeyer he wanted the entire B-29 force that was currently performing interdiction to “carpet bomb” a suspected enemy concentration in support of EUSAK. Air Force officers were further dismayed when the size of the Army’s target area turned out to be far larger than what the Air Force recommended. After reconnaissance revealed no evidence of enemy activity in the area bombed by the B-29s on August 16, both Stratemeyer and his bomber commander, Major General Emmett O’Donnell, would recommend that no more such missions be flown unless the ground situation was extremely critical and the enemy was concentrated.22
Although more Army divisions and a Marine brigade were deployed to Korea, the North Korean offensive was not stopped until it reached the Pusan Perimeter. While UNC ground forces were defending the Pusan Perimeter, the FEAF and carrier-based naval air forces had been conducting intensive air attacks against the North Koreans. In addition to providing close air support, FEAF fighters and bombers were continuing to perform air interdiction.
By the time the North Korean army had reached the Pusan Perimeter, its vulnerability to air interdiction had been significantly increased by its dependence on support traveling over long lines of communications (LOCs). Korea’s terrain with its rivers, ridges, and rice paddies made cross-country movement difficult to impossible, especially for motorized vehicles. As a result, the North Koreans depended heavily on a rail and road network that crossed numerous bridges. Thanks to possession of air superiority and the enemy’s lack of heavy antiaircraft artillery, B-29s could make multiple individual attacks from altitudes as low as 10,000 feet.23
It was not long before FEAF air attacks persuaded the North Korean army’s leaders that they could not afford the losses moving during the day incurred. In response, the North Koreans came to accept the delays inherent in limiting movement to the hours of darkness. Despite the problems imposed by darkness, air interdiction—along with close air support—greatly degraded the effectiveness of the North Korean army. By early September, airpower was responsible for much of the North Korean army’s supply shortages and troop losses. EUSAK leaders thought they were fighting an enemy army of 100,000, possessing 75 percent of their equipment. Instead, the North Koreans actually had only about 70,000 troops and 50 percent of their equipment.24 Losses were not the only way the North Korean army was degraded. The flexibility of enemy operations was severely degraded by the need to confine their movements and assaults to the hours of darkness. Moreover, their soldiers had far lower morale because of the destruction caused by airpower and their inability to fight back effectively.25
It was only after the advance of UNC ground forces out of the Pusan Perimeter that FEC intelligence was able to accurately assess the immense effect airpower had had on the North Korean army. A third or more North Korean personnel losses and more than half of their equipment losses were caused by airpower. U.S. Army leadership finally realized that airpower, not the landing at Inchon, had been the key to the North Korean army’s defeat. As Walker put it, “I will gladly lay my cards on the table and state that if it had not been for the air support that we received from the Fifth Air Force, we would not have been able to stay in Korea.”26
During the fight on the Pusan Perimeter, FEAF had available for operations seven squadrons of F-51s, three of which were based in Korea at Taegu and Pohang. Also at Taegu was the T-6 “Mosquito”–equipped 6147th Tactical Air Control Squadron.27 The remainder of 5AF units committed to Korea were based in Japan. For operations in Korea, FEAF also had O’Donnell’s Bomber Command (Provisional) with five B-29 groups, and Combat Cargo Command (Provisional) under Major General William H. Tunner.
Inchon and the Breakout from the Pusan Perimeter
On August 28, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) gave MacArthur approval to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, scheduled for September 15. The plan called for X Corps, commanded by General MacArthur’s chief of staff, General Edward M. Almond, to make the landing, led by the 1st Marine Division and followed by the 7th Infantry Division.28 MacArthur’s plan called for withdrawing the Marine brigade from EUSAK while EUSAK was still engaged in hard fighting, attempting to hold back North Korea’s Great Naktong Offensive.29 At this time the North Korean offensive had made so much progress that some 5AF units were forced to evacuate Taegu AB.
FEAF airpower played a major role in the success of the Inchon landing. The intense interdiction effort FEAF had begun in mid-August not only destroyed North Korean forces and supplies, but it also damaged LOC infrastructure, preventing North Korean forces from moving rapidly to reinforce Inchon. In addition, FEAF was carrying out counter-air missions against North Korean airfields to ensure air superiority. As a result, the landing met light resistance from the 2,000 comparatively new North Korean troops defending Inchon.
To the south, EUSAK played an important role in helping the landing at Inchon by three different attacks. Although EUSAK’s offensive began on schedule, it quickly ran into strong North Korean defenses, with FEAF operations being hindered by poor weather. However, when the weather began improving the next day, an increasing amount of airpower was brought to bear. Finally, on September 19, the 1st Cavalry Division managed to break through North Korean defenses and soon all enemy forces began falling back with resistance collapsing. EUSAK forces then pursued the retreating enemy forces, with T-6 Mosquitoes flying column cover.
Army decisions created problems for airpower again after the Inchon landing. On September 20, Stratemeyer noted in his diary that he had called X Corps to tell them that for “their own good [ability to receive air support and airlift] and the maintenance of Kimpo Air Port, our Aviation Engineer Battalion and our own air base troops for Kimpo should be debarked [at Inchon] without delay. Everyone agreed but indicated that it had been held up on Almond’s order as he needed fighting doughboys and ammunition.”30
The Army’s attempts to control airpower in Korea were not limited to MacArthur and his staff. On October 7, Stratemeyer wrote in his diary that he had learned Almond had written letters to General Mark Clark and others in the United States. In these letters, Almond stated that he recommended Marine Corps–type air support where, according to Almond, Marine aviation operates under the ground commander. Stratemeyer noted that Almond made this recommendation, even though he was not supported by the Air Force in any of his later ground actions. In accordance with established procedures, the 1st Marine Air Wing was tasked to support X Corps within the amphibious objective area. Stratemeyer also wrote of being told there was “quite a drive on in the Army led by Mark Clark to attempt to secure for the Army its own support air force.”31 Much of the rationale for Army efforts in Korea to run the Air Force was based on the belief the Air Force was providing inadequate close air support.
Advance across the 38th Parallel
The consequences from Inchon were far-reaching. On September 27, MacArthur received orders authorizing amphibious and ground operations north of the 38th parallel. MacArthur’s plan was not to put X Corps under Walker, whose forces would continue their advance north across the parallel. Instead, he would use X Corps to make a second amphibious landing at Wonsan. Giving X Corps priority at Inchon so it could meet the tight schedule for landing at Wonsan created a massive logistical problem.32 With the plan’s assumption of little enemy resistance, airlift was the primary demand put on FEAF.33
UNC’s logistics advantage was quickly diminishing as the distance from Pusan increased and UNC forces had to move over a severely damaged road and rail network. The logistics problem could have been much smaller if the port of Inchon had been available to support advancing EUSAK and 5AF units instead of X Corps.34 With EUSAK and 5AF unable to rely on Inchon for the movement of supplies and forces in their advance above the 38th parallel, both relied heavily on airlift. However, little airlift was immediately available because it was being withheld for MacArthur’s planned drop of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. This planned airdrop not only tied up aircraft, but its dependence on Kimpo as a forward strip also forced 5AF units to move to make room for the transports.35
Logistical constraints had made EUSAK’s advance into North Korea a calculated risk, with its supply being almost entirely by airlift. EUSAK stated it needed 1,000 tons of daily airlift. Since 450 tons would be needed to move two fighter wings and the Mosquito Squadron forward to the Pyongyang area, and only 1,000 tons of total airlift was available, 5AF agreed to reduce its requirement to 60 tons, preventing the forward movement of fighter bases.36
During the advance of the UNC ground forces, 5AF units had been moving into Korea from Japan as fast as bases could be made operable and the constrained transportation system permitted. By the end of October, 5AF had one RF-80 and three F-80 squadrons at Taegu, two F-51 squadrons at Pusan, two F-51 squadrons at Pohang, one F-51 squadron at Kimpo, and the Mosquito Squadron first at Kimpo and later at Seoul Municipal.
MacArthur’s assumptions regarding the threat posed by enemy action were proved wrong when, on October 25, the Chinese, in what they called their first campaign, began attacks against elements of EUSAK, followed by similar attacks against X Corps on November 2. These attacks brought a halt to EUSAK’s advance and caused units to withdraw into defensive positions to wait for their logistical situation to improve.37 On November 1, a MiG-15 based in China attacked 5AF aircraft operating near the border, making it increasingly urgent for 5AF to move its units to airfields closer to the enemy. Then, to the puzzlement of the UNC leaders, by November 7 the Chinese had broken off all contact.
The Chinese attacks caused MacArthur to order 2 weeks of intensive air attacks against the Korean end of the Yalu bridges. Learning of this order, which was in clear violation of directives to stay well clear of the border, the JCS ordered the postponement of all bombing and asked MacArthur his reasons for the order. MacArthur’s answer was that Chinese troops were “pouring” across the bridges and their movement threatened the ultimate destruction of UNC forces.38
MacArthur’s answer shocked the JCS since he had reassured them on November 4 when asked his appreciation of the situation given Chinese intervention. On November 6, the JCS reversed themselves and authorized the bombing as long as the border was not violated. Surprisingly, despite his previous message, MacArthur told the JCS it would be “fatal” to weaken current policy and change his mission.39
Much of the reason for the low estimates of Chinese strength was MacArthur’s belief that intervention by large numbers of Chinese would be detected by “our Air Force.”40 The success of airpower against the mechanized North Korean army had caused MacArthur to come to dangerously wrong conclusions about airpower’s ability to prevent intervention by the Chinese.41 Clearly he did not understand the much greater difficulties Airmen had detecting light infantry moving at night a relatively short distance into North Korea, and who were well trained in camouflage, when compared to detecting a mechanized ground offensive. He also was probably not aware of how little reconnaissance capability his air forces actually possessed. After a November 9 attack by MiGs on a vulnerable RB-29 along the Yalu River, 5AF began using only the faster RF-80 squadron to conduct reconnaissance in this area. Since 5AF possessed only one RF-80 squadron, rather than the three squadrons required by doctrine, reconnaissance in areas south of the Yalu where Chinese troops were already hiding was significantly reduced. Moreover, sorties that were flown focused on the Yalu bridges that MacArthur wanted to attack, not areas in the mountains where Chinese forces were already massing. Adding to the problem was the lack of photo interpreters, night reconnaissance units, and smoke from forest fires that the Chinese had set to provide concealment.42
If these handicaps were not enough, the Mosquito Squadron was not allowed to achieve its full potential for performing the visual reconnaissance that was needed to provide accurate intelligence. The squadron’s small size limited the number of sorties available for visual reconnaissance.43 But even those sorties that were flown rarely penetrated much beyond friendly lines because of restrictions imposed by the Army, which depended on the Mosquito to make up for its own lack of communications capabilities.44
Later, his remarks at a conference with Matthew Ridgway on December 26 would provide even more evidence that MacArthur had a seriously flawed understanding of airpower’s capabilities and limitations. It seems that he failed to appreciate how an army was organized, trained, equipped, and employed (for example, mechanized fast-moving offensive versus light infantry infiltrating and enveloping) had an impact on the effectiveness of air interdiction.45
On November 17, MacArthur had estimated that not more than 30,000 Chinese troops were in Korea. Once supplies were built up he planned to have EUSAK launch an offensive to complete the destruction of communist forces in Korea. As this ground offensive was about to begin, 5AF’s basing situation had improved only slightly. Kimpo now had two F-51 squadrons, and three F-51 squadrons had just moved forward to join the Mosquito Squadron.
Earlier, on November 7, Stratemeyer had noted that 5AF should now have airlift priority.46 When EUSAK complained, a new arrangement was adopted where X Corps would get only emergency airlift. Finally, on November 21, Partridge noted to Stratemeyer that for the first time in months EUSAK’s supply system was in good shape.47
On November 24, when EUSAK resumed its advance, MacArthur reported to the JCS the delay was entirely the result of logistics difficulties.48 Meanwhile, 5AF had finally been able to move some of its fighter squadrons to forward fields in North Korea. From November 17 to 19, three F-51 squadrons arrived at Hamhung; on November 22, three F-51 squadrons arrived at Pyongyang East; and on November 25, two more F-51 squadrons reached Pyongyang.49
The UNC ground offensive met only light resistance the first day, but on the night of November 25 the offensive again came to an abrupt halt. The Chinese had begun their second campaign by ambushing the ROK II Corps and exposing the U.S. 2nd Division and the Turkish brigade to possible destruction.50 MacArthur now reported the Chinese had 200,000 troops and ordered his forces onto the defensive while asking for new policy guidance. The JCS approved the shift to the defensive and recommended a withdrawal. The sudden withdrawal of the UNC ground forces had a major impact on airpower by forcing 5AF units to quickly abandon several bases that they had only just begun operating from and forcing them to abandon much of their equipment.
The Chinese ambush had shocked the normally confident MacArthur who now planned to pull EUSAK and X Corps into separate beachheads and prepare for possible evacuation of all UNC forces from Korea.51 At this point, Stratemeyer reported that he hand-carried a memo to MacArthur explaining why he should order a withdrawal rather than an evacuation.”52 Shortly afterward MacArthur suddenly changed his mind, and on December 7 ordered the withdrawal that Stratemeyer had suggested.53
It is interesting to note the different attitudes Soldiers and Airmen had about the situation facing UNC forces. Partridge, who had a good appreciation of the handicap airpower was imposing on the enemy, noted in his diary that he was not as concerned as Walker about the immediacy, strength, or location of enemy attacks as Walker. Partridge realized that “we’ve moved by truck—our troops are fresh—[whereas the] enemy forced to march at night only, supply routes long and under constant attack.”54
Just like MacArthur, Chinese leaders also had much to learn about airpower. While initially they showed great respect for UNC airpower, this attitude changed after they successfully ambushed UNC ground forces in late November. For the first 2 weeks of December, the Chinese began moving rapidly in their attempt to exploit their success and destroy the retreating UNC ground forces.55 Now the Chinese leaders were to be given a lesson in air interdiction.
Thanks to air interdiction, the Chinese pursuit put UNC forces into a position where they could return to the offensive and push the enemy back. By attempting to overtake and destroy the mechanized UNC ground forces, the Chinese marched on roads, even during daylight. Moving rapidly during daylight exposed Chinese troops to such devastating attacks that, by December 16, airpower had killed or wounded an estimated 33,000 Chinese troops, the equivalent of four full-strength divisions.
Their massive losses caused the Chinese to return to hiding by day and moving by night. When it was discovered that the enemy’s troops were hiding in villages, these became prime targets for air attack.56 While it may be difficult to quantify accurately, it can be assumed that these attacks greatly degraded the effectiveness of surviving enemy soldiers.57
Even though UNC forces had abandoned or destroyed vast amounts of supplies and equipment during their retreat, they also benefited logistically by moving closer to the port of Pusan. The reverse was true for the pursuing Chinese. As had been the case with the original North Korean offensive, the Chinese advance in December 1950 and January 1951 rapidly increased their logistical problems. Where it had been an advantage for the Chinese to be free of more easily detectable motorized transportation when moving into concealed ambush positions near the border, their dependence on soldiers carrying their own ammunition and food now became a rapidly increasing logistical problem as they advanced. Not only did the UNC’s air attacks take a growing toll, but the fierce cold and snow also added to their problems, contributing to their extremely high number of casualties.58
Thanks in large part to airpower, especially air interdiction, by February 1951 UNC ground forces were able to bring the enemy pursuit to a halt and even force their withdrawal. In announcing this success, MacArthur’s press release made what had happened largely by accident appear to be the result of his design. In any case, it was clear that MacArthur had learned how vital factors such as time and space could be to the effectiveness of air interdiction.59
In an article published in the Fall 1953 issue of Air University Quarterly Review, Weyland reminded readers that the “effectiveness of [air interdiction] is directly proportional to the time, space, and fire-power available for air attacks.”60 He went on to warn that
There is a tendency among many to regard all such air [interdiction] operations against ground forces merely as support of the army. This generates misguided concepts of organization, control, and employment which tend to affect adversely a smoothly functioning team. But more basically it prevents us from seeing the possibilities of employing both air and surface forces in the most effective combined strategy.61
In what some even today might see as a radical view, he then noted that
overall strategy must be geared to the air situation and the capabilities of the friendly air forces as much as to ground forces concepts of maneuver and fire. There should likewise be no stigma attached to the concept that ground force strategy may be designed to exploit the effects of air strategy. If the objectives and situation are such that, in order to be successful, air power must be exploited to the fullest, then ground forces must support the air forces.62
Weyland believed an examination of the record in Korea would show that the “effective employment of air forces can permit a great reduction in the size and composition of friendly ground forces.”63 The amount of reduction would depend on “how completely the friendly air force can exploit opportunities for attacking ground force organizations, logistics, and facilities.”64
Analysis of this period of the Korean War reveals that not only did many key Army officers not understand the capabilities and limitations of airpower, but worse, many of them also were unwilling to listen to Airmen who were trying to explain how their decisions were harming air power’s effectiveness. The problem may be the result of the Army’s emphasis on the tactical rather than the operational level of war, which is apparent in their focus on close air support rather than air interdiction. As a result, the Army failed to appreciate the importance of how rapid movement—especially movement by mechanized forces—multiplies the ability of air power in the form of interdiction to delay and destroy opposing ground forces. Their lack of attention to air interdiction helps explain why many Soldiers have failed to recognize that, beginning in World War II, the success of U.S. ground forces has come to depend greatly on the effectiveness of U.S. air interdiction. In contrast, enemy army officers in both World War II and Korea (as well as in wars since then such as the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive and the Iraq wars) who have been on the receiving end of U.S. airpower have had no such problem in recognizing how air interdiction contributed to their defeat.65
The Korean War also provides powerful evidence of how basing availability and operability contributes to air power’s effectiveness by its impact on the movement of airpower. Basing, even with air refueling, plays a major role in determining the number of sorties that can be flown, the type of aircraft that can fly, the target areas these aircraft can reach, their time in the target area to find and attack enemy forces, and the weapons payloads they can deliver. Too often in Korea the Army’s logistical decisions handicapped the ability of the Air Force to move its squadrons closer to the enemy. This handicap on the movement forward of fighter squadrons was particularly important after Inchon when UNC ground forces advanced into North Korea.
Target detection was still another key factor determining airpower’s effectiveness in Korea. Army officers, especially those in command and intelligence positions, did not appear to recognize the vast differences between the difficulties Airmen faced finding Chinese light infantry infiltrating through the mountains and North Korean mechanized units moving along roads. Compounding the problem of finding enemy forces was the Army’s decision to use Air Force Mosquitoes to substitute for their lack of communications preventing the Air Force’s Mosquitoes from ranging far ahead of advancing UNC ground forces. It is quite possible that visual reconnaissance provided by Mosquitoes would have detected the magnitude of the danger the Chinese posed because of their infiltration into ambush positions.
Finally, recognizing the truly immense advances in Air Force capabilities for detecting and precisely targeting mobile ground forces, even at night or during bad weather, that have been made since the Korean War66 and the increasing dependence of the United States on airpower for defeating opposing mechanized ground forces, it is past time for considering whether campaigns against such armies should be commanded, as Weyland suggested, by an Airman.
Given that the overall theater strategy needs to be geared to the air situation, an Air Force officer is far more likely than an Army officer to understand how to design the employment of ground forces in a way that will exploit fully the effectiveness of U.S. airpower. Yet despite this reality, Service-based prerogatives continue to play a major role in the selection of combatant commanders, making it likely that if war breaks out again on the Korean peninsula an Army officer will be the commander. As one expert explained, “the presence of strong inter-Service politics suggests that jointness has served more as a cover to allow the Services to remain dominant in their traditional roles and missions without fear of encroachment. And second, it suggests that the Services offer their unique paradigms of war to compete for who can best achieve U.S. national security objectives.”67 And, as has been noted, the Army’s paradigm of war expressed in its doctrine still fails to recognize the need to design ground force maneuver to exploit the key role air interdiction must play in achieving success. Even joint doctrine does not recognize the need to design ground maneuver so that it enhances the effectiveness of air interdiction.68 JFQ
1 For an excellent treatment of airpower’s role in the defeat of the German army, see Omar N. Bradley, Effect of Air Power on Military Operations, Western Europe, U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and Air Effects Committee, 12th Army Group, Wiesbaden, Germany, July 15, 1945. The summary of prisoner of war interrogations is especially interesting, as it provides the perspective of soldiers who were on the receiving end of Allied airpower.
2 For example, see Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 148. In his discussion of this period of the Korean War, in a book supposedly about the operational level of war, Citino asserts that “Armor and airpower had played a purely subordinate role, supporting infantry in the attack or defense. It was as if the great military debate of the 1920s over the role of these new ‘machine weapons’ had never taken place or had been stood on its head.”
3 Current Army doctrine fails to provide appropriate guidance by not recognizing how Army maneuver can make air interdiction more effective, creating an irresolvable dilemma for the enemy. While it does use Task Force Smith from Korea as an example, there is no mention of airpower being key to the defeat of the North Korean army or the role it played when the Chinese ambushed the Eighth Army. In ignoring these cases, the manual fails to provide any treatment of retrogrades and withdrawals and the key role airpower in the form of air interdiction can play in making these operations a success. The closest the manual comes to any of this is mentioning that Army formations need to be capable of maneuvering from positions of disadvantage in order to create opportunities for exploitation by other members of the joint force. See Field Manual 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, October 6, 2017), 2–299.
4 It is the importance of rapid movement that explains why modern armies, including the North Korean army both in 1950 and today, are mechanized. Vehicles, especially tanks, allow armies to move quickly while providing the heavy firepower and armored protection that they need to overwhelm opposing forces and then exploit their success. Besides transporting troops, trucks provide vital engineering support and, along with railroads, the supplies that armies need to achieve and then sustain rapid movement.
5 Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950–1953 (New York: Times Books, 1987), 94–103.
6 This reality is key to understanding both the Air Force’s effectiveness and also how decisions made by Army officers regarding bases limited, often severely, that effectiveness. Especially before air refueling became routine for the Air Force in Vietnam, the location of a base determined the depth of attacks by its aircraft, number of weapons they could deliver, number of sorties they could fly per day, and amount of time they could spend on station looking for suitable targets. Time in the target area was especially important because this determined how long pilots could search for often difficult-to-locate enemy forces. But the location of bases was not the only critical factor influencing airpower’s effectiveness. Equally important was the number of available bases and their size, both of which did much to determine how many and what kind of aircraft the United States and its allies could employ.
7 Conrad C. Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950–1953 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 24–25.
8 Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 27.
9 Ibid., 33.
10 The F-80 required stronger and longer runways than the F-51, which limited the bases it could use and how quickly a base suitable for the F-51 could be upgraded to make it available for the F-80. Runways had to be stronger because aircraft gross weights had doubled since World War II. Besides weighing more, jets also needed stronger runways because their smaller wheels had tire pressures of 200 pounds per square inch. In contrast, the tire pressure of World War II fighters was only 80 pounds per square inch. Still another problem with jets was their higher takeoff and landing speeds. This made it necessary for runways to be longer and smoother, as well as stronger. The need for longer runways was apparent in F-80 operations at Itazuke, Japan. See Joseph L. Albert and Billy C. Wylie, “Problems of Airfield Construction in Korea,” in Air Power: The Decisive Force in Korea, ed. James T. Stewart (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1957), 232–235. During the summer of 1950 it was not unusual for an F-80 carrying only two rockets and full drop tanks to hit the PSP (perforated steel platform) overrun before getting airborne. First Lieutenant George Thomas, 36th Fighter Squadron, interview, USAF Evaluation Group, Book 2, June 25–December 1950, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), File K168.041-1, 11–12.
11 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 31.
12 As Colonel Stanton T. Smith, commander of the 49th Fighter Bomber Group, noted, the “enemy troops were not too well indoctrinated in what airpower could do. Either that or they had a lot of guts, because we would time and time again find convoys of trucks that were bumper to bumper against a bridge that had been knocked out, and we’d go in to strafe them, and every man in the truck would stand up where he was and start firing his rifle at us. I don’t think that I would have done that with the power that we were putting on them.” Ibid., 85–86.
13 Ibid., 94.
14 General E.E. Partridge, Diary of Korea, June 29–July 6, 1950, AFHRA File K168.7014-1. Also see General Otto Paul Weyland, USAF oral history interview, November 19, 1974, AFHRA File K239.0518-813, 195–196.
15 For an excellent treatment of the frustration for Air Force officers caused by Douglas MacArthur’s staff, see Weyland interview, especially 196–200. Generally speaking few, if any, of the general headquarters (GHQ) staff had previous experience involving the employment of airpower. Moreover, despite recommendations by Airmen, there had been little joint training to teach the GHQ about official doctrine for Army–Air Force operations. See O.P. Weyland, Some Lessons of the Korean War and Conclusions and Recommendations Concerning USAF Tactical Air Responsibilities, October 10, 1950, AFHRA File K720.609B. Brigadier General Edward J. Timberlake, Fifth Air Force Deputy Commander of Operations, observed that the staff of Eighth Army “did not exactly go along with the idea that we [Fifth Air Force] were on a parity with them and we were their opposite numbers.” See Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 119. Air Force officers were not the only ones excluded when the Army made plans. Before Inchon, a critical conference excluded key Marine generals. See D. Clayton James, Refighting the Last War: Command and Crisis in Korea 1950–1953, with Anne Sharp Wells (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 166.
16 O.P. Weyland, “FEAF [Far East Air Force] Report on the Korean War,” February 15, 1954, AFHRA File 720.04D, 52. One Army officer, a World War II infantry veteran serving in the joint operations center, stated, “It is my firm belief that the average infantryman on the frontlines has no idea or conception of this effort placed in the rear area to halt the enemy. I do not believe that you can go along with the doctrine of placing a terrific amount of support directly in front of the infantry, or in other words, using airborne artillery. I think that is a waste of aircraft and a waste of money.” Major White, USA, interview, November 15, 1950, USAF Evaluation Group, June 25–December 1950, AFHRA File 168.041-1, 11–12.
17 Weyland, “FEAF Report on the Korean War,” AFHRA File K720.609B.
18 Letter, General Partridge to General Walker, August 4, 1950, AFHRA File K720.13A.
19 In what seems to be a surprising admission of ignorance for an officer about to become a theater commander in chief, Ridgway also admits that MacArthur pointed out to him the importance logistically, psychologically, and politically of recapturing Inchon and Seoul. See Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War (New York: Doubleday, June 1967), 107.
20 Omar N. Bradley, A General’s Life: An Autobiography by General of the Army Omar N. Bradely, with Clay Blair (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 543–544; and Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 48.
21 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 53–55. Also see Weyland, “FEAF Report on the Korean War,” 195–201.
22 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 138–139.
23 It took an average of 13.3 runs to destroy a bridge. In an effort to increase accuracy, FEAF requested deployment of RAZON (1,000-pound) and TARZON (12,000-pound) radio-controlled bombs. Unfortunately, despite some successes, equipment problems were to end the effort to employ guided bombs. Ibid., 130, 320.
24 Blair, The Forgotten War, 281.
25 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 168–175.
26 Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 179.
27 Airmen had applied a lesson from World War II where the “Horsefly” airborne forward air controller (FAC) concept using a light aircraft had been developed. The airborne FAC, with its ability to fly at slow airspeeds while at low altitudes, was able to make fighters far more effective and efficient by finding enemy troop concentrations and also managing air attacks conducted in close proximity to friendly ground forces. To perform this mission, Airmen determined that the unarmed, but speedy, T-6 trainer aircraft equipped with eight-channel radios was the most suitable aircraft. Given the call sign “Mosquito” on July 15 by Fifth Air Force, these aircraft, based at Taegu Air Base, began making FEAF air operations even more effective. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 83.
28 Bradley, A General’s Life, 554.
29 Blair, The Forgotten War, 263.
30 Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer’s diary, vol. 2, September 16–December 16, 1950, AFHRA File K168.7018-16.
31 Ibid.; Weyland interview, 109–111.
32 Bradley, A General’s Life, 567–568.
33 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 160–161, 180–181.
34 Inchon lacked piers and had only five berths in the tidal basin. Ibid., 177, 220–221.
35 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 180, 208.
36 “HQ Fifth Air Force Memo for Record on 22 October 1950 Meeting on Airlift to Pyongyang Attended by Eighth Army Chief of Staff, Major General Allen, Colonel Dabney, G-3, Colonel Steblens, G-4, and Brigadier General Timberlake, Fifth Air Force Vice Commander,” AFHRA File K168.041-1, vol. 6 (part 4). Also see Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 201–202.
37 Eighth Army had 1½ days’ worth of ammunition and 4 days of food. See Cohen and Gooch, Military Misfortunes, 184.
38 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 222.
39 Bradley, A General’s Life, 583–587.
40 James, Triumph and Disaster 1945–1964, 528.
41 During their October 15 meeting on Wake Island, President Harry S. Truman had asked MacArthur what were the chances the Chinese or Soviets would intervene. MacArthur answered, “Very little. . . . The Chinese have 300,000 men in Manchuria. Of these probably not more than 100,000 to 125,000 are distributed along the Yalu River. Only 50,000 to 60,000 could be gotten across the Yalu River. They have no air force. Now that we have bases for our air force in Korea, if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang there would be the greatest slaughter.” See Bradley, A General’s Life, 575.
42 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 228–229.
43 6147th Tactical Control Squadron (Airborne) History, July–October 1950, AFHRA File K-SQ-AW-6147-HI. Also see J. Farmer and M.J. Strumwasser, The Evolution of the Airborne Forward Air Controller: An Analysis of Mosquito Operations in Korea, RM-5430-PR (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, October 1967), 30–33.
44 The Mosquito Squadron commander observed that “Ground commanders seem reluctant to let airborne controllers out of his [sic] sight. This has been more noticeable each day since the airborne controller assumed the division identification. Less thought is being given to the enemy’s build-up fifteen to thirty miles behind his lines.” Much of this reluctance could be traced to the Army’s shortage of communications required by Army doctrine, which made it dependent on the Air Force’s Mosquito and tactical air control parties for relaying air requests. See Farmer and Strumwasser, The Evolution of the Airborne Forward Air Controller, 33–34, 57–58.
45 According to Ridgway, MacArthur “decried the value” of airpower “flatly” stating that it could not “isolate the battlefield or stop the flow of hostile troops and supply.” See Ridgway, The Korean War, 82. Ridgway seems to have shared MacArthur’s seriously flawed perspective of air interdiction’s capabilities and limitations. He notes that “we had in Korea a prime example of how mistaken it is to imagine that an enemy’s supply lines can be interdicted through air power alone.” See Ridgway, The Korean War, 75.
46 Stratemeyer diary, November 7, 1950.
47 Ibid., 197.
48 Stratemeyer diary, November 18, 1950.
49 Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 232. Also see “Study on Fifth Air Force Command Use of Forces Available,” AFHRA File K730.3102-25.
50 Brigadier General Bradley, Assistant Division Commander, 2nd Infantry Division, wrote, “It is my very definite opinion that had it not been for the closest cooperation and all-out help given by your close air support, we would not have gotten through that block [south of Kunuri] in any order at all. Never before have I had metallic links from [fighter] MG fire drop on my head, nor have I seen napalm splash on the road. The support was that close. That needed close support sealed up the machine gun and mortar fire in the pass, which was holding up our vehicular movement on a one-way road. . . . Please convey to your little fellows my deepest appreciation. They materially helped in saving some 8,000 dough boys.” See Stratemeyer diary, December 26, 1950.
51 D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur: Triumph and Disaster 1945–1964 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1985), 536; and Partridge diary, 224.
52 His memorandum explained that United Nations Command ground forces should instead conduct a withdrawal. A withdrawal would have the advantage of “extend[ing] the Chinese LOCs [lines of communications] to such a point that thousands would freeze to death besides thousands killed by air—lengthen Chinese LOCs and our’s shortened—eliminates great property loss on the part of Army and AF that would result from forced evacuation from beachhead. Admiral Joy tells him [it] takes 6 days to evacuate [division] from Inchon [with] 5,000 tons [maximum capacity] . . . staying in Seoul all landlines, FM relays and many VHF stations would be lost. Comm[munications] bad now and would practically stop by going into beachhead. Strongly recommends 8th Army not take up beachhead defense in Seoul-Inchon area & ASAP X Corps evacuate by water to Pusan.” Stratemeyer diary, December 6 and 7, 1950.
53 Stratemeyer’s memo explains MacArthur’s sudden turnabout that puzzled Blair. See Blair, The Forgotten War, 532.
54 Partridge diary, December 17, 1950, 253–254.
55 Russell Spurr, Enter the Dragon: China’s Undeclared War Against the U.S. in Korea, 1950–1951 (New York: Newmarket Press, 1988), 239, 251–252.
56 The result was even more enemy casualties, inflicted directly by airpower or indirectly by denying the enemy shelter from the bitter Siberian cold. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 261–264.
57 Chinese prisoners of war reported carrying 65-pound packs to make up for supplies destroyed by airpower. Marching at night in poor terrain made the soldiers drip with perspiration at the end of a night’s march. Despite the extreme cold, they were not allowed to build fires to dry their clothes or cook for fear of air attack. See Alexander L. George, Interdiction Bombing Experiences of Selected CCF and North Korean Army Units, report no. 4, Project RAND, May 11, 1951, AFHRA File 730.3102-25.
58 Edwin P. Hoyt, The Day the Chinese Attacked: Korea, 1950 (New York: Paragon House, 1993), 167; and Spurr, Enter the Dragon, 119, 239, 250, 253, 308. Also see Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950–1953, 261–264; Stratemeyer diary, December 6, 1950, and February 13, 1951; and George, Interdiction Bombing Experiences of Selected CCF and North Korean Army Units.
59 The press release stated that “our field strategy, initiated upon Communist China’s entry into the war, involving a rapid withdrawal to lengthen the enemy’s supply lines with resultant pyramiding of his logistical difficulties and an almost astronomical increase in the destructiveness of our airpower has worked well. In the development of this strategy the 8th Army has achieved ideal tactical successes through maximum exploitation of the air’s massive blows on extended enemy concentrations and supplies.” Stratemeyer diary, February 13, 1951.
60 Otto P. Weyland, “The Air Campaign in Korea,” Air University Quarterly Review 6, no. 3 (Fall 1953), 14.
61 Ibid., 17.
62 Ibid., 17–18.
63 Ibid., 26.
65 To appreciate the critically important role air interdiction played in Allied success in World War II, see A German Evaluation of Air Interdiction in World War II, United States Air Force Assistant Chief of Staff Studies and Analysis, November 1970. One of many officers quoted was General Walter Warlimont, OKH (Army High Command) operations officer, who said of the German commanders in France: “All were discouraged by the Allied overpowering air force. They said that whatever they [the Germans] planned was impossible to execute and control because the Allied air force spotted and attacked every movement.”
66 As was evident during Operation Desert Storm’s battle of Al Khafji, the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System makes it possible for U.S. forces to detect and target enemy vehicles moving throughout a large area, even when they move at night or during bad weather. With the fielding of the Small Diameter Bomb II, it now becomes possible to hit and destroy these moving targets at any time and in all weather conditions.
67 See R. Russell Rumbaugh, “The Best Man for the Job,” Joint Force Quarterly 75 (4th Quarter 2014), 91–97.
68 Joint doctrine treats ground maneuver differently from air interdiction by calling for a Joint Targeting Process Authority, while failing to call for a Joint Maneuver Process Authority that could ensure ground maneuver is designed to assist air interdiction in the defeat of the enemy army. See Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, January 17, 2017), III-27.