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Night Fighters over Korea

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American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950-1953

Author: Conrad C. Crane
Hardcover -
248 pages (January 2000)
Univ Pr of Kansas;
ISBN: 0700609911 ;
Dimensions (in inches): 0.99 x 9.27 x 6.24

252pages 6" x 9" notes, bibliography, index, 35 b& white photos, 2 maps.

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Book Description

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.

From 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

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 II.




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 skill.

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


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