The Korean War was the first armed engagement for the newly
formed U.S. Air Force, but far from the type of conflict it expected
or wanted to fight. As the first air war of the nuclear age, it
posed a major challenge to the service to define and successfully
carry out its mission by stretching the constraints of limited war
while avoiding the excesses of total war.
Conrad Crane analyzes both the successes and failures of the air
force in Korea, offering a balanced treatment of how the air war
in Korea actually unfolded. He examines the Air Force's contention
that it could play a decisive role in a non-nuclear regional war
but shows that the fledgling service was held to unrealistically
high expectations based on airpower's performance in World War II
despite being constrained by the limited nature of the Korean conflict.
Crane exposes the tensions and rivalries between services, showing
that emphasis on strategic bombing came at the expense of air support
for ground troops, and he tells how interactions between army and
air force generals shaped USAF's mission and strategy. He also addresses
misunderstandings about plans to use nuclear, biological, and chemical
weapons in the war and includes new information from pilot correspondence
about the informal policy of "hot pursuit" over the Yalu that existed
at the end of the war.
The book considers not only the actual air effort in Korea but
also its ramifications. The air force doubled in size during the
war and used that growth to secure its position in the defense establishment,
but it wagered its future on its ability to deliver nuclear weapons
in a high-intensity conflict-a position that left it unprepared
to fight the next limited war in Vietnam.
As America observes the fiftieth anniversary of its initial engagement
in Korea, Crane's book is an important reminder of the lessons learned
there. And as airpower continues to be a cornerstone of American
defense, this examination of its uses in Korea provides new insights
about the air force's capabilities and limitations.
This book is part of the Modern War Studies series.
the Back Cover
"A first-class piece of work and significant contribution
to the Korean War literature. This book is a winner."--David R. Mets,
author of Master of Air Power: General Carl A. Spaatz and Land-Based
Airpower in Third World Crises
"A fine complement, supplement, and antidote to the best works
on airpower in the Korean War and a fitting companion to Mark Clotfelter's
Limits of Air Power, the best single book about the Vietnam air
campaign."--Allan R. Millett, author of Semper Fidelis: The History
of the U.S. Marine Corps and For the Common Defense: A Military
History of the United States of America
Conrad C. Crane is professor of history at the United States
Military Academy and the author of Bombs, Cities, and Civilians:
American Airpower Strategy in World War II.
AIRPOWER STRATEGY in KOREA 1950 - 1953
REVIEWED BY Dennis SHOWALTER
The U.S. Air Force began its independent existence in 1947 with
a heritage of open horizons. In the 1930s its institutional predecessor,
the Army Air Corps, had developed a doctrine of all-out strategic
bombardment. During World War II the renamed Army Air Forces experienced
no significant constraints on either resources or missions. Its
status was further enhanced by its control of the nuclear deterrent
that became the first line of America's cold war defenses. Conrad
Crane, a serving army officer and professor of history at the U.S.
Military Academy, expands the paradigm by discussing the institutional
application of American air power in a type of conflict where its
options were significantly curtailed.
The plane truth
In the early weeks of the Korean War, air power was widely regarded,
in military as well as political circles, as a panacea able to bring
victory by using B-29s to devastate an essentially defenseless North
Korea. It quickly became apparent that North Korea's relatively
unsophisticated economy lacked choke points. As long as China and
Russia were willing to supply material, all the bombers could do
was make the nibble bounce. The one possible exception, the hydroelectric
plants along the Yalu River that furnished much of North Korea's
power, were off limits for diplomatic reasons. The use of nuclear
weapons, considered as early as June 1950, was provisionally rejected
on military, political, and psychological grounds.
The result was an increasing loss rate among B-29s sent north more
as a gesture than for any obvious operational reason. The entry
of Russian MiG-15s, mostly flown both sides of the Yalu testing
and honing each other's skills in a strategic vacuum. Simultaneously
air power assumed a central role at the war's tactical and operational
levels. Crane offers a balanced analysis of the air force perspective
on the issue of close air support. He comes down foursquare on the
side of jets as superior to piston-engine aircraft in the CAS role.
He argues for the irrelevance of comparisons to the marine system
of an integrated air-ground team. He makes a solid case that the
overall responsibilities of the air force , in Korea and at any
other time, preclude the lavish and permanent scales of air support
the ground forces might prefer. Implied in his text is the valid
truism that ground-support aircraft are no substitute for tactical
The Chinese intervention and the subsequent UN retreat, hover, opened
a new sphere of activity: theater interdiction. Originally intended
to choke off the southward flaw of supplies and reinforcements,
it became an end in itself as the ground war reached a stalemate.
Here again a comparison to World War I is relevant. The human costs
of challenging the Chinese/ North Korean defensive systems so far
exceeded any potential military gains that this time the trench
lines were essentially shut down. Air power became the principal
means of carrying the war to the enemy-within, however, the geographic
confines of North Korea, and with force structures and equipment
ensuring an attritional application of air power that was exactly
opposite to the self-image and the public image of the U.S. Air
Force as an instrument of decision.
Institutional frustration grew. Crane establishes the difficulties
of manning and morale at flight-line levels. He also demonstrates
the eventual success of the air force in redefining itself to meet
its new mission profile. That kind of restructuring is sufficiently
unusual in armed forces directly engaged in combat that it merits
both praise and study. Crane discusses as well the Communists' biological
warfare allegations toward the U.S. after January 1951, demonstrating
beyond reasonable question that actual U.S. chemical and biological
warfare capacities remained limited throughout the war. Instead
the air force at all levels concentrated on improving conventional
bombing techniques and tactic.
Pushing the limits of available options
Its rapid improvement in those areas did much to defuse continuing
discussions of the possible use of nuclear weapons to break the
stalemate. The successful series of attacks on the Yalu darns in
the summer of 1953 tray not by themselves have convinced China and
North Korea to accept a ceasefire. They did, however, indicate the
growing exhaustion of U.S./UN patience. They suggested the possible
course of an escalation of operations. And they gave the air force
confidence in its ability to respond successfully to limited war;
limited force situations. Not until well into the Vietnam War would
the air force undergo the kind of internal reappraisal that had
structured its Korean experience.
ABOUT the author CONRAD C. CRANE is Professor of History at the
United States Military Academy and the author of Bombs, Cities,
and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War 11.
"A first-class piece of work and [a] significant contribution to
the Korean War literature. This book is a winner." -David R. Meis,
author of Master of Power: General Cad .A. Spaatz