From F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15

Jets To The Fore: How Korea Changed Aerial Warfare

Following on from Forces News' feature on the Korean War is a look at aviation during the conflict.

From F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15

It was, in effect, the first jet war.

Of course, the technology had been designed and even implemented sooner, at the end of World War 2.

However, the conflict in Korea from 1950 – 1953 was the first to see widespread use of jet technology on both sides, including intense dogfights between these aircraft.

Things didn’t start off that way, however.

Initially, the slower, more cumbersome F-82G Mustangs were the first US aircraft involved in air-to-air combat. These dual cockpit planes featured a pilot on the left side and a radar operator on the right and had a top speed of 461 miles per hour, a ceiling of 38,000 feet and a range of 2,240 miles.

Radar observer Lieutenant Carl Fraser was present for one of the earliest dogfights of the Korean War, as detailed in Robert F Dorr’s book ‘Korean War Aces’:

“We were circling over Kimpo [Air Force Base, near the capital Seoul] when two North Korean fighters came up out of some low clouds and started after Charlie Moran and Fred Larkins, who were flying in the number four F-82G in our flight.

"The North Koreans’ shooting was a little better than yesterday and they shot up Charlie’s tail.”

“My pilot, ‘Skeeter’ Hudson, slipped around and got on the tail of their flight leader.

“When he realised that we were there, he pulled up into some clouds and tried to shake us off. Fortunately, we were so close to him that we could see him even in the middle of the clouds.”

A Yak 7 (image RuthAS)
A Yak 7 (image RuthAS)

Skeeter soon got himself and Fraser into position to fire. F-82s were well armed, with six .50-calibre Colt-Browning M3 machine-guns, mounted right in the middle of the plane between both cockpits. Each gun had 400 rounds, some of which were about to find their target:

“Our first burst hit the rear of the fuselage and knocked pieces off.”

“The Yak pilot racked it over in a steep turn to the right and we gave him another burst along the right wing. This set the gas tank on fire and took the right flap and aileron off. By this time we were so close we almost collided with him.

“I could clearly see the pilot turn around and say something to the observer.”

“Then, he pulled his canopy back and climbed out on the wing. Once again, he leaned in and said something to the observer, but the latter was either scared or wounded as he never attempted to jump. The Yak pilot pulled the rip cord and the chute dragged him off the wing, just before the ship rolled over and went in.”

Yak was short for ‘Yakovlev’, a Russian aircraft manufacturer based on Moscow; another common make in the Korean War was Lavochkin. Just as Russia supplied tanks to the army of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), or North Korea, it also equipped its air force. 

korean war
A Lavochkin (image: Mpj17)

As for the US Air Force (USAF), it didn’t take long for more up-to-date kit to show up. 

The first jet to arrive in the skies above Korea was the Lockheed P-8 Shooting Star. These planes had a range of 1,200 miles, half that of the Mustangs, but they were faster, with a top speed of 600 mph, or Mach 0.76 (three-quarters the speed of sound). They could also fly as high as 46,000 feet. This aspect of an aircraft’s performance would become increasingly important as the war went on.

Counterintuitively though, better technology didn’t always lend itself to better combat flying. For example, aircraft that were too fast became a problem at first. Robert Dorr sheds light on the downside of this extreme capability: 

“No one was yet convinced that the [P-80] Shooting Star was the right aircraft to deal with the North Korean Air Force. Some pilots felt that jets like the F-80* used up too much fuel and were, ironically, too fast to dogfight with the Yaks and Lavochkins. An article published by the Associated Press noted that it would take an F-80* as much as 40 miles to pull out of a high-speed pass [obviously an exaggeration], and that the Yaks could easily manoeuvre inside the turning radius of the US jet.”

(*The P-80 was what Lockheed dubbed the aircraft, while it was rebranded as the F-80 when it came into service with the US Air Force).

Korean War
An F-80 Shooting Star

The mismatch was also as much about flying technique as it was about technology. Dorr reminds us that:

“The North Koreans did not pay attention to the concept of an ‘ace’ (those who downed five or more enemy aircraft), and did not regard an aerial victory as more important, or more praiseworthy, than air-to-ground bombing”.

Thus, Yaks or Lavochkins, would see American aircraft, though superior in performance, as mere obstacles to be avoided rather than enemies to be engaged. This might explain the trouble that some F-80 pilots had in trying to take on and shoot them down.

The conflict above Korea would not stand still though. Before this problem set in and characterised the aviation war, other aircraft on both sides would come to dominate the skies.

On the North Korean side, troops on the ground had been equipped with Russian-made T-34s.

With decent speed and armaments, as well as hulls that were both quick and cheap to manufacture and optimally shaped to give maximum protection, they are generally regarded as having been the best tanks of the World War 2.

Now, Russian engineering had essentially delivered the air force equivalent: The MiG-15. 

MiG was short for Mikoyan and Gurevich Design Bureau, which had been in operation since 1939.

Its number 15 model was first introduced 10 years later and had been based on late-Second World War German swept-wing technology. 

This allowed the new MiG to achieve a top speed of 658 mph, or Mach 0.85. It had a range of 1,565 miles, and, crucially, a flight ceiling of 50,900 feet. This meant that it could get above the competition and choose when it wanted to engage them.

Combo bombers B-29s korean war
B-29 bombers operating during the war

The USAF would eventually match the MiG, but the Navy would be stuck with fixed-wing aircraft throughout the war, leaving them outclassed in dogfights.

Still, this didn’t make their efforts during the conflict fruitless. The Korean War was characterised by confusing legalistic and diplomatic rules and limitations. The peninsula had become a chessboard on which the major communist powers, China and Russia, sought to militarily and politically outmanoeuvre the world’s dominant capitalist power, the US.

In a way, it was a Third World War in microcosm, and because all sides wanted it to stay that way, measures were taken militarily to prevent the war escalating into a direct conflict between the big players.

This meant that the US could lend support to its ground forces, outnumbered and overwhelmed by late 1950 because of vast numbers of Chinese volunteers, by bombing the enemy. This is why North Korean Yaks and Lavochkins, and later Chinese MiGs (often flown covertly by well-trained and experienced Russian pilots), entered the fray. Their job was to shoot down bombers.

But Chinese and Soviet bombers were not themselves employed, nor were American pilots allowed to venture north into China.

So General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to bomb bridges on the Yalu to prevent Chinese forces getting across was greeted with anxiety in Washington. Bombing, after all, was innately inaccurate and therefore inappropriate so close to China.

A window into the air war in Korea; propagandistic elements aside, bombing was not easy or precise
More archival footage, this time including naval aviation

That said, the ‘limited’ air war in Korea didn’t seem all that restrained to people on the ground. In his article ‘Why Did Truman Really Fire MacArthur?... The Obscure History of Nuclear Weapons and the Korean War Provides the Answer’, Bruce Cumings reminds us of the impact of the American bombing on North Korea:

“Over the course of the war, Conrad Crane wrote, the US air force ‘had wreaked terrible destruction all across North Korea. Bomb damage assessment at the armistice revealed that 18 of 22 major cities had been at last half obliterated’.”

“A table he provided showed that the big industrial cities of Hamhung and Hungnam were 80-85% destroyed, Sariwon 95%, Sinanju 100%, the port of Chinnampo 80% and Pyongyang 75%.

“A British reporter described one of the thousands of obliterated villages as ‘a low, wide mound of violet ashes’.

“General William Dean, who was captured after the battle of Taejon in July 1950 and taken to the North, later said that most of the towns and villages he saw were just ‘rubble or snowy open spaces’.

“Just about every Korean he met, Dean wrote, had had a relative killed in a bombing raid.”

“Even Winston Churchill, late in the war, was moved to tell Washington that when napalm was invented, no one contemplated that it would be ‘splashed’ all over a civilian population.”

Korean War from the air by PROSDASM Archives
The Korean War seen from above (image: PROSDASM Archives)

The effects of napalm were brought home to Americans during a friendly fire incident, described earlier on in the article. A veteran of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, of late 1950, recalled that:

“Men all around me were burned. They lay rolling in the snow. Men I knew, marched and fought with begged me to shoot them… It was terrible. Where the napalm had burned the skin to a crisp, it would be peeled back from the face, arms, legs… like fried potato chips.”

Much of the bombing done in Korea was carried out by large aircraft that required fighter escorts, as they had in the Second World War. However, some were lighter and one example was a jet of the aforementioned fixed-wing design, the Grumman F9F Panther.

Korean War planes
Aircraft, including Panthers, on the deck of an aircraft carrier – notice that ‘fixed-wing’ is a bit of a misnomer, as the wings fold up to facilitate easy storage; right, Panthers refuelling; bottom, MiGs taxing

Despite its fixed-wing configuration, the Panther was quick, achieving top speeds of 575 mph, with a range of 1,353 miles and an impressive flight ceiling of 44,600 feet. Not as high as a MiG-15, but still considerable for the time. It proved its worth during the conflict, supporting ground troops with various bombing runs.

As well as sometimes delivering bombs, all Panthers carried 20 mm cannons. This was the equivalent of a .79-calibre gun. Mustangs had .50-calibre/12.5 mm guns, although 20 mm is generally considered to be the point at which a machine-gun becomes classed as an automatic cannon.

Still, the Russian-jets were doing better in this area as well. MiG-15s carried two 23 mm autocannons and another that was 37 mm. Not only that, but the first US aircraft that would encounter the new MiGs would not be the more up-to-date Panthers, but the World War 2-era P-51 Mustangs, as described by Dorr:

“On 1 November 1950, six swept-wing jet fighters attacked F-51D Mustangs. The jets came across the Yalu River – the border to China which Allied pilots were forbidden to cross. At first, little attention was devoted to these MiG-15s… No one in the West – not in G-2 [intelligence] or in Gen MacArthur’s command post in Tokyo – knew much about the swept-wing jet fighters… No one seemed to think it mattered what the Chinese were flying as the enemy, after all, was North Korea.”

Korean War
An F9F Panther bombs enemy trucks (image from 'F9F Panther Units of the Korean War' by Warren Thompson © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Except that, as mentioned, the enemy, in this case, was not North Koreans but highly trained, well-equipped and well-disciplined Soviet pilots:

“An enigma in the West at the time of its debut over Korea, the MiG-15 was named after the Soviet Union’s Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau and was the mid-wing monoplane incorporating 35 degrees of wing sweep, its flight surface based in part on the same German swept-wing research which [also] contributed to [later American jet aircraft].” 

The first dogfight with the MiGs occurred a week after the Mustangs had first spotted them. A patrol ran into a group of American F-80s, one of which caught a MiG with his .50-calibre machine gun. Dorr reminds us that “this was history’s first ever jet-versus-jet aerial victory”.

P-51 Mustang
A P-51 Mustang from World War 2, the type of aircraft that first spotted the MiGs

This victory may have gone to the Americans, but subsequent air superiority would belong to the MiGs. With a top speed of only 600 mph (Mach 0.76), a range of 1,200 miles and a ceiling of only 46,000, the F-80 Shooting Star was clearly outclassed by the MiGs. 

This meant that America’s B-26 and B-29 bombers would be severely hampered. The Americans needed a new weapon.

Half a world away, at Wilmington County, Delaware, 4 Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) got a call from its US Air Force superiors. It was to pack up and get over to Korea immediately. 

F-86A-5-NA 49-1175 PAUL'S MIG KILLER, flown by 1st Lt Joseph E Fields, 336th FIS slash 4th FIW from Korean War Aces
An F-86 Sabre with nose art that reads ‘MiG Killer’ (image from ‘Korean War Aces’ by Robert F Dorr © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

4 FIW, commanded by Colonel George F Smith, was chosen partly because of its pilots, World War 2 veterans who were some of the best in the Air Force. The other crucial factor was technological – 4 FIW flew the most cutting-edge fighter in the USAF at that time: The Sabre F-86.

Like the MiG, this was a swept-wing aircraft derived from German research, and consequently, it stood the best chance of standing up to the MiG. 

The two jets were well-matched. The F-86 had a range of 1,525 miles, so was a bit more fuel-thirsty than the MiG, which had a comparable but slightly better range of 1,565 miles. MiGs also had a better flight ceiling. Sabres could only reach 49,000 feet but they were actually faster, with a top speed of 687 mph, compared to the MiG-15, which could reach 658 mph. Mach 1, the sound barrier, is 767 mph.

The battlezone would be a stretch of Korea right near the Manchurian border which American pilots would patrol to ward off and later to lure the communist jets out to fight. Because of this, it became known as ‘MiG Alley’.

Korean War
A map showing the location of MiG Alley (image from 'The Korean War' by Carter Malkasian © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Naturally, as Carter Malkasian points out in his book on the conflict, the location of MiG Alley greatly aided the communists – short-range fighters on their side didn’t have far to go to get into combat and were, therefore, able to stay in the air longer than the American jets, which often had to fly from Kimpo, in the south.

Still, when the Sabre debuted in Korea, it was incredibly effective and proved a surprise for the Russian pilots and their Chinese protégés. At first, they mistook the F-86 for the slower F-80s as they routinely flew near the Yalu River (in MiG Alley).

In their first encounter, it seemed like things might go wrong for the Americans as their radios malfunctioned. However, that didn’t stop Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hinton from engaging the enemy:

“Hinton dropped his [extra fuel] tanks and accelerated ahead…”

“He quickly turned behind an element of two MiGs, whose pilots apparently thought that they could simply outrun the fighter behind them [because they thought it was the slower F-80].

“Hinton dived after the MiG flight leader and was able to get on his ‘six o’clock’ position. He fired a short burst and saw what looked like debris falling away from the MiG – the jet was also streaming fluid, possibly fuel… Hinton then took on the number two MiG and found himself bucking in his jet wash*. He adjusted his position and fired a long burst which hit the MiG’s engine…

“He closed in and fired again… the rear section of the MiG was consumed by flames and the jet rolled on its back and went plummeting to earth… Bruce Hinton had just scored the first aerial victory to be credited to the F-86.”

(*Jet wash is thrust coming out the back of a jet that can affect or even damage any aircraft following too closely behind it).

Mustang and Thunderjet combo
A Thunderjet (left; image: ) and a F-82G Mustang (right), one of the first American aircraft to get involved in dogfights in Korea

Unfortunately, the element of surprise had now been lost, and that meant the communists could work out how best to engage their enemy’s new plane. Russian pilot Major General Georgy Lobov compares the two aircraft:

“The MiG-15 in its main characteristics surpassed all similar enemy aircraft except the F-86. In comparison with the latter, the MiG had a better rate of climb and thrust-to-weight ratio, but was somewhat inferior in manoeuvrability and radius of action [range away from and then back to a given point on the ground without refuelling]. Their maximum flight speeds, however, were roughly equal. The F-86 had a better fuselage aerodynamic form. This fighter gained speed in a dive faster than ours and had a lesser ‘sink’ rate* than the MiG-15 when recovering from a dive.”

(*Sink rate is when an airplane is descending towards the ground more quickly than the pilot intends).

Lobov’s description perfectly encapsulates the key differences that would go on to shape combat between these two aircraft. At first, Russian pilots took the lead, using the MiG’s superior flight ceiling to full advantage. They’d fly as high as they could, above where the Sabre pilots could get to, and often without their opponents even knowing they were there. Then, when the most opportune moment came, they’d strike, swooping down and unleashing their cannons on the Americans. In short, they got to choose when to fight.

USAF F-84Gs taking off during the Korean War
F-84s supported the superior F-86s, though they were considerably less capable and earlier models were prone to mechanical problems

And choose they did. Multiple dogfights ensued throughout 1951 as American bombers sought to frustrate the Chinese advance on the ground below, and Russian pilots sought to frustrate American bombers. In doing so, they fought their way through the Sabres and the rudimentary (and considerably less reliable) F-84 Thunderjets:

“On 12 April, three bomber groups hit the Sinuiju bridge… MiGs swarmed down through Sabre screens and escorting Thunderjets, and at least two B-29s were shot down and five damaged. This furious fighting, marked by aggressive MiG attacks on B-29s, brought the USAF a total of 11 kills, including seven MiGs downed by Superfortress gunners (of ten claimed), plus three ‘probables’ by F-84s.”

This passage illustrates the difference between the two sides well: Communist fighters weren’t trying to rack up ‘kills’; their objective was to avoid the American fighters and take down bombers. And they had success at this, but they hampered their own efforts through bad planning.

When it came to replacing pilots, rather than doing so on an individual basis, the Soviets rotated entire air units. This meant that new pilots coming in had no experienced colleagues beside them from whom to learn, and coming up against top-notch American pilots flying state-of-the-art Sabres was already a steep learning curve.

Archival footage, including of dogfights between MiGs and Sabres

The Americans did it the other way around, rotating individuals in and out so that an essential experienced cadre would always exist to coach new comers. This led to steadily decreased MiG attacks in the spring of 1951 as each new crop of Russian pilots came in less prepared than the last.

Dorr says this fatal error largely came down to the Soviet approach to problem-solving: Namely, an authoritarian tendency of blaming an entire unit and its commander for any loss. The whole lot would be replaced in one go. This was, obviously, a shallow approach to dealing with challenges that did not allow for the kind of detailed, creative thinking necessary for properly solving difficult issues. 

US pilots, meanwhile, soon learnt to adapt, and to use the specifications of their own aircraft to full advantage. In ‘F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15: Korea 1950-53’, authors Doug Dildy and Warren Thompson lay out precisely the specifications of each aircraft, and how these were employed. 

Combo bomber crews korean war
Bomber crews being briefed (left) and waiting to into action (right)

In particular, the Americans began utilising the superior sink rate of the Sabre mentioned by Lobov above. When attacked by MiGs, the Sabre pilots went straight into a dive, leading their opponents to tail them. Then, they’d jerk the F-86 up as sharply as they could, which left the MiG plunging behind and below them as it couldn’t perform the manoeuvre as quickly. This allowed them to get above and behind the communist pilots and engage them that way. Malkasian explains how this played out:

“In spite of increased Sabre losses, superior American tactics were defeating the MiG-15s in most air-to-air engagements. The Communists finally abandoned their air offensive after 13 December (1950). On that day, 150 MiG-15s attacked the Sabres flying in MiG Alley. The Communists lost 13 jets. These loses cooled their enthusiasm for major air battles.”

The superior tactics employed by the Americans were now paying off. 

Another advantage Sabres had was in their targeting system. Again, this is described in-depth in ‘F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15’, and was radar assisted. And when this failed, at a minimum, the pilots could rely on a precisely calibrated ‘reticle’ on the front window of their cockpits. This was a circle of red dots and the basic idea was that when the 35-foot wings of the MiGs filled the circle, that was the optimum moment to fire. The distance had been carefully worked out so that the Sabre’s six .50-calibre guns would do the most damage from that distance. 

Furthermore, there was eventually a small-scale attempt to improve the Sabre’s guns:

“In the spring of 1953, Johnson’s 4th FTW played host to Project Gun Val, which brought eight F-86F Sabres, equipped with four 20 mm cannon rather than the usual six .50 calibre machine-guns, to Korea for combat evaluation. Details of this programme have never emerged, but Gun Val was apparently part of a larger Air Force programme to evaluate 20 mm cannon, the weapon favoured by the Navy, against the .50 calibre machine guns which were standard with the USAF. Two or three MiG-15s are thought to have been shot down by Gun Val’s Sabres.”

Korean War Sabre MiG
Project ‘Gun Val’ in action, as American Sabres shoot MiGs down (image from ‘F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15’ by Doug Dildy and Warren Thompson © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

By early 1952, it was Chinese pilots who were beginning to take over from the Russians. At first, the Americans struggled, plagued by technical issues. Here’s Dorr again: “That month, a staggering 45 per cent of all F-86s in Korea had to be listed as out of commission, 16.6 per cent for want of parts and 25.9 per cent because of maintenance problems”. However, as they got back into the fight, it soon became clear that the Chinese pilots were not as good as their Russian predecessors: 

“In several engagements… pilots caught the MiGs from behind, broke up their ragged formations, and shot them down. For example, in January 31 MiGs were destroyed for the loss of just five Sabres.”

One of those flying against the communists in 1952 was 1 Lieutenant Joe Cannon. He later recalled:

“Of the 91 missions I flew, most of them were with ‘Kinch’ (Capt Kincheloe) and ‘Gabby’ (Col Gabreski…) On 2 April, ‘Kinch’ and I entered the area near Sinanju, not far from the Yalu River, at about 48,000 ft.

“We dropped our external tanks when we spotted three flights of MiGs 5000 ft below us. We were luck in that we were not pulling any contrails (clouds sometimes made by aircraft engines in the sky) and they had not seen us.

“We rolled over and dove down on them. ‘Kinch’ bagged one as we busted through the middle of the whole damned formation – not the smartest thing we ever did. I came so close to colliding with a MiG that as I went by, I looked the pilot straight in the face and I noticed that he had a cloth helmet on!”

Korean War plane
A Sabre taking off at an air show

Cannon, true to his name, swung around and came up behind the MiG, whereupon he opened fire:

“After a three second burst he began to burn”. But the dogfight wasn’t over:

“At about that moment, ‘Kinch’ yelled, ‘Break left!’. When I broke hard and turned my head to see who was on my tail, the entire world lit up. This MiG jockey proceeded to shoot the oxygen mask right off my face, blowing the canopy away, making my left wing half the size of my right one and shredding my rudder.”

Cannon made it, but only because Kinch stayed with him and fought off every MiG that tried to finish him off.

But despite their successes and heroic escapes, American pilots also had failings that were intrinsic to their culture: 

“There is agreement that the desire to ‘make ace’ (ie shoot down five or more enemy aircraft) strengthened morale, not just of pilots but of the crewchiefs and armourers who worked on the jets, but at times it also led to a breakdown of discipline and to needless casualties.”

Top Gun: Maverick learns the importance of teamwork; F-14 Tomcats had variable-sweep wings, the next stage in swept-wing design

There was also a tendency, despite not living under official state-produced propaganda, for American pilots to exaggerate their successes. Major General Lobov made this observation about his foes:

“[They had] a tendency to play down their losses and to emphasise the unlikely high number of Soviet fighters participating in the battles, and their mythical losses. This was done to maintain the tarnished prestige of US military aviation, to placate the public and to conceal with coarsest mistakes of their command, the shortcomings of equipment and the extremely low spirits of the B-29 crews.”

“Tarnished prestige of US military aviation”? Does this claim have any basis in fact?

According to W H Brands, author of ‘The General vs the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War’, it actually does.

After President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur over the latter’s efforts to subvert his president and escalate the war, an investigation led by Congressional Republicans ensued.

Central to the charges made by Republicans, and some right-leaning Democrats, was that the Truman Administration was holding MacArthur back. China had entered the war, so why not bomb the bases in Manchuria where the MiGs were kept (among other things)?

combo F84 and gunsight view on MiG
An F-84 Thunderjet and a gunsight view of a MiG-15

The Administration soon produced its own star witness to counter the Republicans and MacArthur: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley.

The Chairman soon dispensed with all the critical arguments, demonstrating that MacArthur’s proposed escalation was hugely reliant upon unreliable Chinese nationalist forces from Taiwan, and that it wasn’t politically viable to take the war beyond Korea lest it trigger World War 3.

But the most interesting aspect of the committee’s investigation came up next, only it wasn’t widely known about at the time. The reason for this is that all the testimony was classified.

George Marshall, for whom the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan was named, was the Secretary of Defense during the Korean War. Brands outlines what he next disclosed to the committee:

“Marshall proceeded with the greatest concern for confidentiality in addressing the limitations on the war.

“‘The next thing I would like to say, I wish to be certain it will be eliminated from the record,’ he said.”

‘In your questions yesterday, there was a debate between us as to how much advantage the Chinese Communists were getting out of our not bombing their supply bases in Manchuria, and what the possible result of that was in casualties to our troops’. Marshall said he had raised the issue with the joint chiefs just hours before, asking them, ‘What happens to the Army if we do bomb, and what happens to our Army if we don’t bomb in that way’. The chiefs had been quite clear. ‘Their general view was that the loss of advantage with our troops on the ground was actually more than equaled by the advantages which we were deriving from not exposing our vulnerability to air attacks’.”

“In other words”, Brands tells us, “the limitations on the fighting in Korea, so loudly assailed by MacArthur and his supporters, in fact favored the American side.” 

This stunned the committee. The Administration was not the overly-sensitive woolly-headed liberals they’d taken them to be, but deeply pragmatic actors trying to navigate very tricky military and political terrain. Tricky because, as Brands points out, the US Air Force was now a mere shadow of the gargantuan force that it had been during the Second World War.

Korean war
Bomber nose art, and a bombardier’s view from inside a bomber (bottom left)

Fortunately for the US, China and Russia didn’t want a wider war either. They sent up fighters to intercept US bombers, but did no bombing of their own. However, if a larger regional war had started, been confined there, and not gone nuclear, the assessment of Marshall and his peers was that the US would have lost it. And they would have done so precisely because of their vulnerability to air attack: 

“Marshall elaborated. ‘I am referring to the air fields, which we have very few of with the length of runway required, and wing-tip to wing-tip of planes, which are very vulnerable. I am referring to the fact that our transportation runs without regard to visibility, whereas theirs’—China’s—‘has to be handled only at night, and if the weather is fair, that is illuminated and is subject to destruction.’

“China’s decision to yield the air was what allowed America to remain in Korea. ‘We can move reserves with practically no restriction at all, and they have the greatest difficulty in relation to that. If bombing starts, we have a great many conditions that will be far less advantageous to us’.”

The testimony painted a grim picture of America’s prospects, with whole airfields cramped full of planes being taken out, along with defenceless coastal and naval forces. The committee was taken aback. The message, Brands says, rang clear: “Far from complaining about the limited nature of the war, MacArthur should have been grateful for it”.

Dorr attempts to assess the other side of this problem in his book. Russia, he points out, was secretive, and still is. It is therefore still difficult to determine exactly what happened from a Russian point of view. However, he does say:

“New information from Russia reveals that the long-accepted victory claims by UN pilots are exaggerated, and that estimates of losses to enemy fighter action are even more wildly under-estimated.”

Combo bombing Korean War
Combo pre and post bomb damage Korea
Marines watch bombers in action in the hills (top left); a bridge bombing (top right); and pre and post-bombing photos of the same target (bottom)

It’s worth remembering that .50-calibre machine guns on the Sabres were a little sub-par. It’s estimated that it may have taken up to a thousand rounds to take down a MiG. As it was, many were taken as having been shot down when they were actually given brief repairs and put back into circulation.

Dorr says that figures later in the war of 379 MiG-15 compared to 103 F-86 losses put the ratio of downed planes at 3.5:1, Russian to American. 

However, even if this is correct, there were a relatively small number of Sabres. If the other American fighter jets, the F-80 and F-84, are taken into account, the ratio could have been 1:1. In other words, Russian and American pilots performed equally.

“This does not, however, diminish the achievements of the UN fighter pilots in Korea, since it replaces their traditional image as easy victors against a second rate enemy, with a greater achievement as victors over a formidable and well-equipped enemy”.

To learn more about the conflict in Korea and some of the aircraft that participated in it, read ‘The Korean War’ by Carter Malkasian, ‘Korean War Aces’ by Robert F Dorr, ‘F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15’ by Doug Dildy and Warren Thompson, and ‘F9F Panther Units of the Korean War’ by Warren Thompson. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

An F9F Panther aboard the USS Midway
An F9F Panther aboard the USS Midway