The Air War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two countries, the Republic of Korea (ROK), supported by the United States, in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with Soviet and Chinese backing, in the north. After communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States led a U.N. effort to help South Korea repel the assault, supplying the vast majority of U.N. forces. At first, neither the United Nations nor the South Koreans were prepared for the North Korean onslaught, but desperate fighting enabled them to retain some of the southeastern peninsula near Pusan during the summer of 1950. The Americans’ September 15, 1950, Inchon Landing, combined with a breakout from Pusan, helped the South Koreans to rout the North Koreans that autumn.

As the first jet-age war, the Korean conflict affirmed air power’s decisive importance in modern warfare, but its conditions undermined some air power expectations.

After World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two countries, the Republic of Korea (ROK), supported by the United States, in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), with Soviet and Chinese backing, in the north. After communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States led a U.N. effort to help South Korea repel the assault, supplying the vast majority of U.N. forces. At first, neither the United Nations nor the South Koreans were prepared for the North Korean onslaught, but desperate fighting enabled them to retain some of the southeastern peninsula near Pusan during the summer of 1950. The Americans’ September 15, 1950, Inchon Landing, combined with a breakout from Pusan, helped the South Koreans to rout the North Koreans that autumn.

The United Nations then resolved to destroy the North Korean Army and to reunite Korea under its sponsorship. However, China, threatened by U.S. aggression in Asia, attacked U.N. forces in late autumn, 1950, forcing their lengthy retreat back into South Korea. The United Nations counterattacked in early spring, 1951, and had stabilized the lines near the prewar boundary by summer. The two sides entered protracted negotiations as their forces fought for limited advantage. The July 27, 1953, armistice terminated active hostilities.

Air Forces

Both sides in the Korean War fought for limited objectives, and the superpowers were concerned with defense needs elsewhere in their worldwide face-off. Thus, neither side fully committed its air forces to this fight. Also, the war occurred during a transition period in air warfare technology.

Thus, World War II-vintage, propeller-driven fighters, such as the Soviet Yak-9 and U.S. P-51 Mustang, did much of the early fighting for the respective sides. Other propeller planes, such as the A-1, Corsair, and British Sea Fury, also provided excellent service as attack planes throughout the war. Because the Americans did not commit their frontline strategic bombers to Korea, World War II-era B-29’s accomplished most of the United Nations’ long-range heavy bombing tasks. U.S. transport planes were mostly propeller-driven holdovers from the last war. The communists even used P0–2 biplanes to fly nighttime nuisance attacks, nicknamed “Bedcheck Charlies,” against U.N. forces.

Simultaneously, the Korean War introduced jets to air combat. U.S. F-80’s and F-9F Panthers were among the straight-wing, subsonic jets that flew attack missions. The most noteworthy jet development occurred with the appearance of the Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15. This sweptwing, transonic fighter seriously threatened the U.N. air effort until the Americans quickly fielded a counterpart, the F-86 Sabre jet. Jets such as the U.S. F-94 Starfire and F-3D Skyknight also served as radar-equipped night fighters.

The Korean War also witnessed the first extensive use of helicopters. These early, underpowered, piston-engine models flew light logistics missions. However, they also demonstrated impressive utility for rescue missions and covert operations.

An important contribution of the Korean War to aerial warfare was the first extensive use of helicopters, which made it possible to move materials and personnel in and out of areas inaccessible to other aircraft. Helicopters were particularly useful for evacuating wounded soldiers, as in this Marine photograph, and helped enable the Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals later made famous by the film and television series titled M*A*S*H–in both of which helicopters figured prominently. (U.S. Marine Corps)

Air War Conduct

The war’s limited scope precluded nuclear weapons usage by both sides. Also, the combatant air arms attacked targets only in Korea, not communist targets in the Soviet Union and China, or U.S. targets in Japan. Both sides thus emphasized tactical air combat, though each remained wary of the other’s capacity to escalate the air war, and with it, the war itself.

At the war’s start, U.S. fighters quickly vanquished the inexperienced North Korean Air Force, thus allowing attack planes to maul the North Korean Army’s supply lines. These interdiction air raids, along with close air support (CAS) missions against frontline troops, were major factors in repelling the communist invasion.

U.N. air forces pulverized North Korean transportation links during the autumn, 1950, U.N. advance. As they entered the war, the Chinese introduced the MiG-15, flown by Chinese and Soviet pilots, to check this effort. They failed partly because of the MiG’s short range and partly because F-86 pilots were better trained. Although U.N. air raids destroyed communist air bases in North Korea, MiG-15’s could still fly from their safe havens in China and harrass U.N. planes in far northeast Korea, nicknamed “MiG Alley.” The Chinese did have bombers, but they kept them only as an in-place air raid threat.

Air power was important in stopping the late-1950 Chinese advance. On two occasions, U.N. CAS and air supply saved large units surrounded by communist armies. As the battle lines stabilized and truce talks stalemated, U.N. leaders approved several U.S. Air Force-led attempts to interdict the communist supply lines. These interdictions inflicted serious damage and kept many troops and supplies from the front, but they did not compel capitulation or even perceptibly affect the truce talks. The communists were masters of primitive improvisation, and because both sides attempted no major offensives, interdiction’s true effect could not be assessed. More dramatic were the MiG Alley air battles between F-86’s and MiG-15’s, in which U.S. pilots increasingly dominated their opponents.

Air War Results

The Korean War ended after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and a veiled American threat to use nuclear weapons. U.N. aerial successes probably helped convince the communists of the war’s futility, but the later interdiction campaigns remained controversial because they did not meet their proponents’ claims. Indeed, the war demonstrated that not all post-World War II conflicts would be decided exclusively by nuclear bombing campaigns by or conventional interdiction, as some air power advocates asserted.

Instead, the Korean War revealed an ever-widening air warfare spectrum. Per the air power ideal, jet fighters remained necessary to achieve air superiority, and heavy bombers and attack planes remained decisive with behind-the-lines attacks. However, in Korea, tactical missions such as CAS rose in importance. Aircraft carrier-based planes were especially valuable early in the war, when battle conditions eliminated land bases. The performance of helicopters did not match that of airplanes, but their utility showed great promise for future conflicts. Although U.S. leaders saw Korea as an aberration, they encountered similar conditions in the Vietnam War.

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