Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

Published Airpower Journal - Spring 1990

Problems that Hindered the Effectiveness of Air Power

Maj Roger F. Kropf, USAF

THE North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) on 25 June 1950 found the US armed forces in a deplorable condition with little conventional capability.1 The newly established United States Air Force had spent most of its limited budget on strategic nuclear systems, neglecting the tactical air forces. The Far East Air Force (FEAF), based in Japan, and its Fifth Air Force had conducted few joint exercises to practice air-ground coordination with the Eighth US Army in Korea (EUSAK).2 Within a month the NKPA drove the United Nations (UN) forces to a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. Despite the unprepared condition of the tactical air forces, air power prevented disaster and complete defeat of the UN forces during the initial NKPA invasion. Lt Gen Walton H. Walker, the commander of EUSAK at the start of the war, stated, "If it had not been for the air support we received from the Fifth Air Force, we should not have been able to stay in Korea."3 While the USAF was a major factor in helping to ensure the independence of South Korea, there were numerous errors committed by the US forces, including the Air Force, that resulted in ineffective application of air power.

War is a complex endeavor, and the problems encountered are often interrelated. For example, the failure to develop a true joint theater command structure in Korea not only contributed to other problems but inhibited the development of solutions to the problems. Additionally, problems in air-ground coordination led to degraded close air support, and Air Force-Navy coordination remained difficult through most of the war. A true joint staff could have assisted in the resolution of these problems. Air interdiction had an important role in the war but was not always used effectively. Finally, the USAF lost flexibility in employing its new jet aircraft when it ran into problems with the availability of air bases that had long, concrete runways for these aircraft.

This article examines these problem areas of the Korean War. While the history of a war that ended over 36 years ago cannot give us solutions to current problems, it can provide perspective and insight into problems and a basis for asking the right questions.

The Joint Command

At the root of air power's difficulties during the Korean War was the command structure of the Far East Command (FEC) of Gen Douglas MacArthur, commander in chief, Far East (CINCFE). In the words of the official USAF history:

The Korean war was the first conflict to test the unified military forces of the United States. Although the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had directed the Far East Command to provide itself with a joint command staff adequate to ensure that the joint commander was fully cognizant of the capabilities, limitations, and most effective utilization of all the forces under his command, the United Nations Command/Far East Command operated for the first two and one-half years of the Korean war without a joint headquarters. Practically all of the interservice problems which arose during the Korean war could be traced to misunderstandings which, in all likelihood, would never have arisen from the deliberations of a joint staff. In the absence of the joint headquarters staff, the full force of United Nations airpower was seldom effectively applied against hostile target systems in Korea.4

One of the lessons of World War II was the need for a joint command structure for command of a theater. A joint headquarters, with expertise from all the services, oversees the subordinate ground, air, and naval components, ensuring the most efficient, coordinated, and synchronized employment of the theater commander's resources."5

MacArthur's Command Structure

As CINCFE, MacArthur and his unified theater headquarters (usually referred to as GHQ) actually had dual responsibility as the unified theater headquarters and as the headquarters of the ground component command (GCC). MacArthur's GHQ was essentially an Army staff and had inadequate representation of the Navy and Air Force.6 In the words of Maj Gen O. P. Weyland, investigating problems in Korea in October 1950:

The GHQ staff of Cincfe [sic] is essentially an Army staff and cannot be considered joint staff. With the exception of the Commander-in-Chief, few of the staff previously held command positions higher than that of the regiment or the division . . . very few, if any, of the GHQ staff previously had experience which included the tactical handling of air. The lack of air representation ties made it difficult to realize the most efficient and timely employment of air power in Korea.7

MacArthur never formed a GCC (Army Forces Far East, or AFFE), but initially kept X Corps (formed for the Inchon invasion) separate from the Eighth Army8 and directed both ground components from 700 miles away in Tokyo.9 When he finally placed X Corps under Eighth Army in December 1950, AFFE was still not formed. GHQ continued to perform this role. As a result, MacArthur had all commanding generals report to him through his Army dominated GHQ.10 This essentially put the air and naval component commands under the ground component command (fig. 1). To make matters worse, MacArthur remained isolated from his staff and did not work closely with his principal subordinates and commanders. For example, General Walker did not have a close working relationship with MacArthur and GHQ and was visibly hostile towards MacArthur's chief of staff and future X Corps commander, Maj Gen Edward Almond.11 These traits were nothing new with MacArthur; he had shown them during World War II.

MacArthur's World War II
Command Structure

MacArthur's stature and the Navy's suspicions of him led to a division of responsibility in the Pacific Theater in World War II, rather than a single unified command. MacArthur, heading the Southwest Pacific Command, surrounded himself with a staff of trustworthies (some say sycophants) known as the "Battan Gang" and kept his theater headquarters far from the front.12 His first air commander, Lt Gen George Brett, was ineffective and was relieved, but his replacement by Gen George C. Kenney resulted in the successful integration of air power into the campaign. MacArthur still had an Army staff instead of a joint staff, but in Kenney he found an air commander whom he trusted and left alone to run the air campaign.13 The credit for MacArthur's successful use of air power in World War II must largely be credited to the forcefulness and exceptional abilities of General Kenney.

Problems of the Joint
Command Structure

In Korea, the command structure greatly hindered the coordination of joint forces and communication between forces. A typical failure was in air targeting. Instead of having FEAF, the air component command, perform air targeting, GHQ formed the GHQ Target Group and tried to direct air operations from Tokyo.14 The Target Group, made up of GHQ staff officers, "lacked the experience and depth of knowledge for targeting an air force. . . . [T]he [Target Group] effort was inadequate."15 As an ample, 20 percent of the first 220 targets designated were nonexistent, such as the rail bridges at Yongwol and Machari--two towns without railroads at all.16 A GHQ Target Selection Committee, which included high-level USAF and US Navy personnel, was formed to improve targeting. The GHQ Committee did improve performance but was dependent on the FEAF Formal Target Committee, with Navy, Fifth Air Force, and Far East Bomber Command representatives providing expert targeting. This FEAF Committee did not get full authority for air targeting until the summer of 1952, two years into the war.17 The overall effect was the failure to fully integrate air power into the theater campaign.

Another result of GHQ interference was the hindrance of Eighth Army requests for air support early in the war. GHQ directed the ground forces not to contact Fifth Air Force for air support but rather to send all requests through GHQ in Tokyo. This entailed long and ponderous communications links from EUSAK to GHQ to FEAF and finally to Fifth Air Force. As a result, in the early phases of the war it took about four hours to channel requests for air support from Eighth Army to Fifth Air Force, a major factor inhibiting prompt and effective air support.18

In a review of the command structure after taking over as CINCFE in the spring of 1952, Gen Mark W. Clark recognized the poor organization of the Far East Command. He formed and activated AFFE, the ground component command, in October 1952, and it began functioning in January 1953. While General Clark formed a true joint staff at FEC, which was an important improvement, he still took over as CINCAFFE, continuing as commander of both the theater and GCC.19

Air-Ground Coordination
and Close Air Support

The Air Force also experienced major problems in air-ground coordination and close air support (CAS). Although lack of a true joint command structure contributed to these problems, there were major Air Force and Army shortcomings that were primary causes. Entering the war, FEAF's primary mission was the air defense of the Far East, especially Japan. It had conducted minimal and unrealistic training in close air support with the Eighth Army.20

Control of Close Air Support

Initially, FEAF had only rudimentary tactical air control capabilities. It sent two tactical air control parties (TACPS) to Korea immediately to support the ROK troops, but these were inadequately equipped and not well trained. The old, worn-out jeep-mounted radios of World War II vintage, unable to take the beating of the rough terrain, were constantly breaking down and were difficult to repair. The TACPs were often unable to got to the front lines with working equipment, and, if they did, their unarmored jeeps and radios were extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. The result was an inability to get far enough forward to direct effective air strikes.21Additionally, the Army had failed to develop adequate communication nets for tactical air requests and liaison, forcing the Army to use (and to overload) the Air Force tactical air direction network.22 The sum total of these problems was a ploddingly slow network that inhibited rapid response to immediate needs for CAS.

Fig 1. Unified Far East Command Organization in Korea

The total inadequacy of tactical air-ground coordination and the initially permissive air environment led FEAF to equip T-6 aircraft as airborne tactical air coordinators, called "Mosquitoes."23 These Mosquitoes, along with such steps as assigning TACPs to every regiment and setting up a tactical air control net for Eighth Army, improved Air Force CAS. Because such slow, unarmed aircraft are very vulnerable in a high-threat environment, the improved Chinese defenses forced FEAF to restrict the Mosquitoes to within two miles of friendly lines by the summer of 1951.24 Additionally, the very limited radios of the Mosquitoes quickly led to saturation under heavy usage.

Although the tactical air control system was improved significantly, its continuing deficiencies were masked by the decreasing importance of CAS due to the improved organic firepower of the ground forces and the change from a fluid war of maneuver to a static front in the second six months of the war,25 a condition that lasted the rest of the war. FEAF shifted its emphasis to air interdiction but continued to provide CAS; however, even with the static ground environment, CAS was not very responsive. In September 1951, the Marines, now integrated into Eighth Army and without their own organic air support, were involved in the heaviest fighting on the front. FEAF supported their need for CAS with an average response time of 113 minutes.26

Overall, the Army and Air Force failed to find a satisfactory way to provide timely response and front-line control of air strikes.27 This was finally revealed in the last months of the war, when the Chinese mounted one last offensive and the Army needed CAS. The official Navy history noted that

the close support request net clogged almost at once . . . strikes followed requests by as much as 17 hours. Again . . . the control system collapsed as JOC [Fifth Air Force Joint Operations Center] duty officers ... rammed aircraft in large numbers into the threatened sectors. Once more . . . the main responsibility [was put on] the Mosquitos [sic] which, in the fluid situation, once more demonstrated their inability to keep track of friendly positions and important targets.28

Clearly the ability to rapidly respond to emergency needs for CAS was never established in Korea.

Light Infantry and
Close Air Support

The Army entered the war with a piecemeal commitment of light infantry against an NKPA invasion backed by significant armor forces equipped with the powerful T-34 tank. Normally, the Army uses organic artillery and armor to provide close-in firepower, but it entered Korea with few tanks and inadequate infantry and artillery antitank rounds, having viewed Korea as unsuitable terrain for tanks. Additionally, the ROK army was lightly armed, more a police force than an army.29 Although a buildup of artillery and armor was rapidly made, the initial use of light infantry against the armored NKPA forces in the first months of the war led to the need for heavy air support.

Besides being unable to stand up to armor, the UN forces were consistently outmaneuvered in the fluid situation as the NKPA drove down the Korean peninsula. The tendency of US forces to deploy near the roads and not take the high ground aided the enemy in their typical offensive tactic of envelopment or double envelopment, cutting off the rear lines of communication, disrupting the rear areas and often overrunning the artillery. In the first six months of the war, US artillery was repeatedly overrun, with "scandalous" losses of field pieces.30 This added to the heavy dependence on CAS for firepower.

CAS was undoubtedly an important factor early in the war, as evidenced by the comments of Maj Gen William Kean, commander of the US 25th Division, after two days of heavy fighting in September 1950: "The close air support rendered by Fifth Air Force again saved this division as they have many times before."31 The official Army history also noted that

in the first month of the Korean War, close air support was a vital factor in preventing the North Koreans from overrunning all Korea, and in gaining for the United States the margin of time necessary to bring in reinforcements and accumulate the supplies needed to organize the Pusan Perimeter . . . the U.N. ground forces in Korea were receiving proportionately more air support than had General Bradley's Twelfth Army Group in World War II.32

It should be noted that this "close air support" included what we now call battlefield air interdiction (BAI). Indeed, most tanks killed by air power were destroyed by BAI sorties, not CAS.33

Coordination with Naval Aviation

The problems of air-ground coordination in the Korean War were compounded by the inability of FEAF to adequately communicate and coordinate with naval (including Marine) aviation. Although routine interservice problems were easily handled, doctrinal clashes over control of tactical air power between USAF and naval aviation were not solved in Korea.34 Again, the lack of a joint command structure contributed to these problems and the failure to completely resolve them.

Coordination of Close Air Support

The Marines, in their amphibious role, were essentially light infantry and lacked adequate organic artillery and armor. Their doctrine specified a dependence on CAS to within 50-200 yards. The Army preferred artillery for very close support and usually used CAS farther from troops (beyond 1,000 yards), where ground controllers were of limited use. In contrast to the prewar relationship between FEAF and Eighth Army, Navy-Marine aviation trained extensively and realistically with the Marine ground units. This resulted in very effective Marine air-ground coordination and CAS, with dependence on the Navy and FEAF for air superiority.35 It seems no coincidence that captured enemy troops said they most feared, "the blue airplanes" of the Navy and Marines.36

Of course, the Marines had a major advantage in that their brigade (eventually a division) had its own dedicated Marine air wing, a concept too cost-prohibitive for the much larger theater forces of the Air Force and Army. This dedicated air support assumes air superiority and a limited geographical front, with no requirement to rapidly concentrate air power in other areas of the theater. These factors led to the Marines having aircraft an air alert for 5- to 10-minute response, while the Air Force required them to be on call, with typical response times of 40 minutes.37 Still, trouble did not start until the Navy ran into the FEAF air-ground control network. The need to check in with the Fifth Air Force Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Taegu forced aircraft to fly within 10 or 15 miles of the JOC for assignment to a controller, adding as much as 200 extra miles to sorties. This greatly limited options and time on station.38

Additionally, the Air Force 4- and 8-channel VHF radios oil the T-6 did not have adequate capacity, especially compared with the better Navy 12- and 20-channel sets.39 Two of the T-6 channels were set to ground party frequencies, leaving two (or at best six) frequencies for working air control. When a real need arose, JOC would swamp the sector, leaving the T-6s and their few radio channels overloaded. Because of the limited frequencies and multiple flights, TACPs and Mosquitoes would often all be on the same channel, causing great confusion and inefficiency.40 An action report from the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea provides an example:

For this vessel the subject of close support is a touchy one. The inability to establish good communications with any controllers has limited its effectiveness. There is apparently no such thing as radio discipline. If a pilot has something to say he just tries to cut out whoever is on the air. Too many tactical air controllers and different support flights are on the same channels. With the present ground situation as it is [that is, fluid] it is mandatory that the pilots be informed exactly as to their mission. In the past this has not been done and has resulted in inefficient use of aircraft from this vessel engaged in close support operations.41

Compounding the situation, the poor payload and lack of loiter time of FEAF's Japan-based F-80s often forced Navy aircraft to hold while the F-80s made their runs. Many times the Navy aircraft could not even make contact with the Mosquitoes. Navy captain John Thatch "just couldn't believe that communications could be so bad [that] the pilots would come back and say 'We couldn't help. We wanted to. We were there and we couldn't get in communication with people.'"42

Control of Naval Air Resources

The question of unified command of all theater air power remained an Air Force-Navy issue throughout the war. Lt Gen George E. Stratemeyer, commander of FEAF, insisted on operational control of all naval aircraft operating out of Japan or flying over Korea. The Navy, however, although mainly supporting the theater ground forces in Korea, also had responsibility for control of the sea, sea lines of communication, fleet defense, and the defense of Formosa. In light of these responsibilities, the Navy was not willing to subordinate its air resources to an air component commander. Rather than being under the operational control of the theater commander, the Navy saw itself in a supporting role.43 This fundamental doctrinal difference on control of theater air power never was satisfactorily resolved during the war, although an acceptable working relationship was finally established.44

General Stratemeyer felt that to coordinate carrier and FEAF operations over Korea, he needed to control naval air operations, "including the targets to be hit and the area in which they operate."45 When Adm C. Turner Joy, Commander of naval forces in the Far East (CONNAVFE), objected, Stratemeyer clarified that by control he meant "the authority to designate the type of mission, such as air defense, close support of ground forces, etc., and to specify the operational details such as targets, times over targets, degree of effort, etc., within the capabilities of the forces involved."46 Again, he stressed that to get the most out of air power resources, FEAF needed operational control of all FEAF and NAVFE air resources to ensure deconfliction of targets and effective coordination of all air efforts. The Navy still did not agree, but in an 11 July 1950 meeting, an agreement was made for FEAF to have coordination control over Navy air--a new term with different meanings to the Air Force and Navy.47

The Navy believed its air component had to support the sea campaign first. Although in Korea there was virtually no battle for the sea, there was significant concern over a Communist invasion of Formosa, for which the Navy was responsible. It interpreted the term coordination control as fitting its supporting force role and did not accept it as meaning that naval air forces were under the operational control of the air component command. While this arrangement may satisfy short contingency operations, it hampered the long-term theater air campaign.48

To solve the coordination problems, NAVFE requested and was given exclusive areas of operation for Navy air close to the east coast of Korea, where the carriers operated. This limitation of naval air power to a geographical area eliminated the capability to mass firepower at the most critical points in the theater, and caused the loss of flexibility in applying maximum air power on the most important targets.

Part of the problem in integrating naval air into the theater air battle was the large amount of communications required by the large, centralized FEAF system. Carriers had limited communications capabilities, often operated under radio silence, and were unable to handle high-volume FEAF communications.49 One example of the incompatibility of the high-volume Air Force communications with the limited Navy capacity was a FEAF radio message in November 1950 that gave the air plan for one day. Sent to the carrier task force, it required over 30 man-hours to process.50

These problems were partially a result of the bitter "unification" battles that resulted in the National Security Act of 1947. In the end, the Air Force had "won" complete responsibility for air interdiction. As a result, the Navy had no plans to use its air in long-term land campaigns.51 The lack of training for interdiction and the major differences in employing CAS hindered coordination and cooperation between the Navy and Air Force. As a result of the interservice disputes after World War II, the Navy had a deep-seated distrust of the Air Force. It did not always make an effort to cooperate with FEAF even when FEAF was eager to work jointly.52 Ultimately both services must share in the blame for their failure to work together.

As the war progressed, Air Force-Navy cooperation did improve significantly. Cooperation was greatly aided by improved Navy representation at both the Fifth Air Force Joint Operations Center and the FEAF Targeting Committee, both of which became solid joint operations.53 Nonetheless, fundamental differences, especially in the control of air resources, were never completely worked out.

Air Interdiction

The Korean War had some unique factors that affected air interdiction (AI), including terrain and the Chinese sanctuary. It also provides examples of effective and ineffective air interdiction, demonstrating the importance of integrating air interdiction efforts into the overall theater campaign.

Factors Affecting Air
Interdiction in Korea

Korea favors air interdiction, being a 400-nautical-mile long peninsula varying in width from about l00 to about 300 nautical miles. It is extremely mountainous, resulting in over 85 percent of the terrain being unsuitable for vehicles. At the time of the war, traffic was concentrated on the few roads and railroads of the existing network. The depth of most rivers varies from deep (between March and September) to fordable at other times. During winter many rivers (including the Yalu) freeze over.54

An important factor affecting interdiction was the sanctuary the UN extended to Chinese territory, allowing buildup of vehicles and supplies in China. Additionally, the Communist soldiers needed few supplies by US standards; and they were able to use manpower to carry supplies and to implement effective countermeasures such as using camouflage, restricting travel to night, and deploying repair teams for rails, roads, and bridges.55 Finally, the static front that developed and the reduced need for ground maneuver limited the effectiveness of interdiction.

Effective Air Interdiction

Initially, as UN forces retreated to establish the Pusan perimeter, FEAF began conducting air interdiction to cut the lengthening NKPA supply lines. In combination with long lines of communication and heavy ground fighting, interdiction greatly reduced the fighting capability of the NKPA and resulted in extreme shortages of men and virtually all supplies.56 Tile bombing of bridges is usually emphasized in this AI campaign, but AI in the form of armed reconnaissance, usually by naval and FEAF fighter-bombers, had the major impact. Fighters roamed the roads and rails, looking for lucrative targets and strafing and rocketing trains and convoys. For example, on 10 July 1950, an F-80 discovered a convoy backed up behind a downed bridge and called in additional air. A combination of F-80s, F-82s, and B-26s destroyed 117 trucks, 38 tanks, 7 half-tracks, and killed numerous soldiers.57 From the enemy soldier's viewpoint, the effect was devastating. One prisoner described such an attack: "En route from Kwangung area the 8th [NKIIA] division was attacked many times by aircraft and lost ten 76mm. field guns, three 122mm. howitzers, 20 tanks, and 50 trucks loaded with ammunition and equipment."58 This is similar to the experiences of World War II, such as at Normandy, when armed reconnaissance by fighter-bombers was very effective in interdicting enemy ground forces en route to the battlefield in what is now called battlefield air interdiction (BAI).59 However, interdiction alone did not lead to victory. It was the combination of this continual air interdiction with ground maneuver (the Inchon landing), and ground offensives (the Eighth Army's breakout from Pusan) that resulted in the rout and destruction of the NKPA.60 This theater-level integration of interdiction into the campaign was the key to success.

Besides helping destroy the NKPA, air interdiction made another significant contribution to the UN effort. When the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) intervened in the war late in November 1950, the restrictions on CCF maneuver created by interdiction allowed Eighth Army to break clear and retreat to prepared defenses. For nearly three weeks, the Eighth Army was out of contact while air interdiction sorties hammered the CCF.61

Throughout the war, AI forced the enemy to travel at night, limiting his maneuver, the distance he could travel, and the availability of his supplies, thus reducing the CCF's capability to mount or sustain offensives.62 Nevertheless, air interdiction made a significant contribution to victory only when it was combined with maneuver of ground forces as an integral part of the theater campaign.

Unsuccessful Air Interdiction

Despite these successes, the Air Force and Army demonstrated their incomplete understanding of AI by conducting Operation Strangle in isolation from significant ground maneuver over a period of 10 months from August 1951 to May 1952. The operation was a systematic attempt to cut off the enemy in the front lines from their supplies through the sustained exercise of air interdiction. Strangle followed a road-interdiction effort in conjunction with an Eighth Army offensive in the summer of 1951. Initially successful, the road-interdiction efforts faded in effectiveness as the offensive reached its objectives and halted. Looking for more effective targets, FEAF developed a plan to destroy the enemy railroad system. They believed that this interdiction campaign "would so weaken the enemy that he could easily be routed by an Eighth Army ground offensive or he would be forced voluntarily to withdraw his troops closer to the Manchurian border in order to shorten his supply lines."63 It soon became obvious that these expectations were unrealistic.64 This effort demonstrated an incomplete understanding of air interdiction, since the UN was unwilling to commit the ground forces (and take the casualties) needed to maneuver and take the offensive65--key elements in integrating air interdiction into a theater campaign. As the USAF official history notes:

As was the case in World War II, the best time for an interdiction campaign was when the ground situation was fluid, the fighting intense, and the enemy's logistical needs were greatest.66

Air Basing Problems

The Korean War was the first prolonged experience with the runway requirements of jet aircraft in war. The need for long, reinforced concrete runways resulted in inflexibility in air basing, with major impacts on air operations and requirements for aviation engineers to build and maintain suitable runways. The official USAF history notes, "In two years of war in Korea no single factor had so seriously handicapped Fifth Air Force operational capabilities as the lack of adequate air facilities."67

Aircraft Performance and
Runway Capabilities

The Air Force was moving into the jet age in 1950. Unfortunately, there were no long, reinforced runways in Korea, and only four in Japan, to support the Air Force's new jet aircraft.68 Flying from Japan, the F-80 was at the edge of its range, had virtually no loiter time, and initially had no bomb racks to carry bombs and napalm. Typical ordnance consisted of .50-caliber guns and rockets. At one point, an entire squadron averaged only 441 pounds of bombs dropped per day over a 17-day period.69 Although modifications to the F-80 were rapidly made, the USAF still pulled hundreds of World War II-vintage F-51s out of mothballs for air-ground missions. F-51s and P-47s were both considered for the mission. Although the P-47 was preferred because of its toughness and survivability, there were simply not enough of them available.70 In its stead, the F-51 could still carry significant ordnance, had a long loiter time, and could operate from primitive runways.71

As the front moved early in the war, the older planes were flexible enough to use primitive runways reinforced with metal matting, while those jets that had moved from Japan to Korea were tied to a few large fields-with major consequences when they fell into enemy hands. For example, when Seoul fell again in January 1951, FEAF lost the large jet air bases at Kimpo and Suwon. In anticipation of a possible evacuation of Korea by all US forces, jets were also moved to Japan from Pusan, Taegu, and other bases. The F-86s were back in Japan, where they no longer had the range to provide air superiority and protect the Eighth Army from air attack. The only air power available for CAS and AI were F-51s, B-25s, and B-26s operating out of the primitive Korean airfields, thus greatly reducing FEAF capabilities.72

Aviation Engineer Capabilities

FEAF was consistently short of aviation engineer units--the troops who build and repair runways.73 The need for reinforced runways to handle jet aircraft required significantly more time and effort than runways for older aircraft. Runways required 4.5 engineer battalion-months to build as compared to 1.5 in World War II.74 These figures are deceptive, however, as large engineering units could rapidly construct runways suitable for forward operations of fighter-bombers in World War II. For example, in the Normandy landings, an emergency landing field was completed by 2115 hours on the day of the landing. A transport field was built and operating three days after D-day, and in 16 days, five fighter bomber groups were operating out of Normandy airfields. Within 24 days, nine airfields were completed with seven more under construction.75 In comparison, it took from June to December 1952 to build the new 9,000-foot concrete jet runway at Osan-ni.76


The problems that hindered the effective use of air power by the fledgling United States Air Force in the Korean War should lead us to reflect on what might go wrong in a future war and to ask questions about our capabilities today.

In one key area, the organization of joint commands, Korea clearly demonstrated that a theater commander must properly organize and staff his command structure. The failure to do so will result in inefficiency and inability to harness the synergistic effects of well-coordinated ground, air, and naval forces.

From an Air Force perspective, the key to jointness is for all USAF officers to understand the application of air power in depth, and to understand the basic nature of naval, space, and land warfare. Above all, they should understand that war is not won by air, space, land, or sea power alone but by the synergistic efforts of highly coordinated joint forces. To create synergies, all officers must have the in-depth understanding that only comes from studying the history of war.

Korea provides a good example of the importance of integrating air interdiction efforts into the overall theater campaign and maneuver of ground forces. Any misunderstanding of how air interdiction fits into a theater campaign can lead to further vain efforts such as attempting to shut down the Ho Chi Minh trail or current attempts to interdict drug traffic. Air interdiction

does, in deed, make its contribution by either destroying enemy forces or delaying and disrupting their movement; however, in order for either effect to contribute fully to the successful outcome of a campaign, air interdiction and ground maneuver must by synchronized so that each complements and reinforces the other. Synchronization is important because it can create a dilemma for the enemy that his no satisfactory answer. His dilemma is this: if he attempts to counter ground maneuver by moving rapidly, he exposes himself to unacceptable losses from air interdiction; yet if he employs measures that are effective at reducing losses caused by air interdiction, he cannot maneuver fast enough to counter the ground component of the campaign. Thus, regardless of the action the enemy chooses to take, he faces defeat.77

This is exactly the type of understanding joint officers must have. With the emphasis on supporting the AirLand Battle, all officers must understand that the integration of interdiction into the theater campaign is essential.

In the Korean War, the Air Force faced problems in air-ground coordination because of the need for CAS created by the commitment of inadequately equipped light infantry forces against a superior, armored foe. Today there remain many unresolved issues in CAS, and we may encounter similar problems in a major theater war. One question that has been raised is the ability of Air Force CAS/BAI doctrine to support the Army AirLand Battle doctrine, especially in a European environment. Do we need to return to the successful organization and command and control of tactical air forces that supported the Army in World War II?78

Another question is the future of airborne forward air controllers (FACs). Will the Air Force lose all its corporate knowledge of airborne FAC operations and have to reinvent the airborne FAC again, as was done in Korea and Vietnam?79 Additionally, will the OA-10 be a satisfactory aircraft for this mission and for keeping the corporate knowledge alive?80

Today, much of the emphasis is on a new CAS/BAI aircraft, but it would seem that the airframe itself is not as decisive an issue as some of these other, less glamorous ones. Before the Korean War, we had inadequate joint training in air-ground coordination. Recently, an Army major who has been an armored battalion S-3 told me that in three years his battalion had never controlled a close-air-support strike. Is it likely that in a war things will work out if they are not practiced intensely in peacetime training? The excellent training provided at the US Army National Training Center (NTC) gives us insight into problems that arise in training, such as air-ground communications, joint Air Attack Team operations, insufficient experience with ground laser designation for aircraft weapons, and inadequate ground FAC equipment.81 Do we have enough good training such as the NTC provides today?

Problems in coordination of naval and Air Force aviation and fundamental doctrinal differences on the control of air resources contributed to ineffective employment of air power in Korea. General Momyor details how we were unable to solve the issue again in Vietnam, resulting in the inefficient system of "route packages." As he stated:

The route package system . . . prevented a unified, concentrated air effort.... The same issue arose in the Korean War, and my present fear is that our continuing failure to settle this issue may be exceedingly costly in some future conflict. . . . Any arrangement arbitrarily assigning air forces to exclusive areas of operation will significantly reduce airpower's unique ability to quickly concentrate overwhelming firepower wherever it is needed most.82

We still have problems working jointly with the Navy. Although some progress has been made in joint maritime air operations, such as B-52s equipping, flying, and training for maritime missions, it is debatable whether we have made any significant progress on the issue of unified command and control of Navy and Air Force theater air resources. Without seriously addressing this issue, the United States could again face degraded effectiveness of air power in joint operations.

Throughout most of the Korean War, the first jet war, the lack of adequate airfields was a limiting factor in FEAF's air war. This raises questions about our dependence on large airfields today, especially in light of those areas of the world, such as the Middle East and the Pacific, with vast expanses between airfields. Moreover, these airfields require enormous time and resources to build and are attractive targets.

This leads to questions about our capacity for movement and mobility in war. For example, do we need aircraft for CAS, BAI, and other missions that can operate out of quickly built, rugged forward operating locations, where they are more responsive, can carry heavier payloads, have longer loiter times, and can fly high sortie rates in support of ground forces without aerial tanker support? Airfields were a limiting factor in a war with total air superiority; with today's threat, airfield survivability and operability clearly need more attention as factors in the tactical air war equation and as considerations in future aircraft development and acquisition. Additionally, we need to expand responsibility for defense to all base personnel.83 Can we afford to cut low-cost but high-payoff programs such as F-16 mock-up decoys? Should we find funding for other innovative but lowcost ideas such as barrage balloons?84

Finally, since we are so reliant on a few runways, do we have adequate aviation engineer units for runway construction and repair? In World War II, the Ninth Air Force alone had 20,000 aviation engineers.85 Korea revealed a glimpse of the danger we are in today from overdependence on large airbase facilities arid the lack of adequate engineer units to support a theater war.

When the Korean War opened, the US military had limited conventional capabilities. Air power was crucial in the early days of the war in preventing the total defeat of UN forces. Nonetheless, numerous problems resulted in less than optimal application of the available air resources. Problems with the joint command structure, air-ground coordination, Air Force-Navy cooperation, air interdiction, and air base availability all give us some insight into similar issues today. Peacetime is the time to ensure that we will not be caught with similar problems again.


1. For an overview of the deterioration of US military capabilities following World War II, see chapter 1 of Clay Blair's The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (New York: Times Books, 1987), 290. Blair states, "By June 25, 1950, Harry Truman and Louis Johnson had all but wrecked the conventional military forces of the United States."

2. Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), 384.

3. Ibid., 384-85.

4. Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, revised edition (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 693.

5. William B. Reed, ed., Condensed Analysis of the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations, new imprint (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1984), 96-97.

6. William W. Momyer, Airpower in Three Wars (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1978), 52-54.

7. O. P. Weyland, "Some Lessons of the Korean War," unpublished memo by Maj Gen Weyland (Maxwell AFB, Ala., Air University Library, 10 October 1950).

8. Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 42.

9. Ibid., 42; Futrell, 44-45.

10. Blair, 33; Ridgway, 142. Ridgway is especially critical of MacArthur's "tendency to cultivate the isolation that genius seems to require, until it became a sort of insulation (there was no telephone in his personal office in Tokyo), [which] deprived him of the critical comment and objective appraisals a commander needs from his principal subordinates."

11. Blair, 36.

12. Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Free Press, 1985), 144-46.

13. Ibid., 226-27.

14. Futrell, 45.

15. Momyer, 54.

16. Futrell, 52.

17. Momyer, 54.

18. Futrell, 45.

19. Ibid., 490-91.

20. Ibid., 2, 61.

21. Ibid., 80.

22. Ibid., 107-8.

23. Ibid., 80-83.

24. Ibid., 463.

25. James A. Field, Jr., History of United States Naval Operations in Korea (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962), 393.

26. Futrell, 465-68.

27. Ibid., 707-8.

28. Field, 455.

29. Blair, 44,57, 61, 77-78. For an account of the inadequacy of the troops and equipment of the initial deployment of US forces to Korea, see Blair, chapter 4.

30. Blair, 576. Throughout his book. Blair recounts numerous instances of UN forces being outmaneuvered and losing significant amounts of artillery and equipment in the first six months of the war.

31. Roy E. Appleman, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1961), 476.

32. Ibid., 256.

33. Edmund Dews and Felix Kozaczka, Air Interdiction: Lessons From Past Campaigns (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, September 1981), 59.

34. Field, 385.

35. Richard P. Hallion, The Naval Air War in Korea (Baltimore: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co., 1986), 42-46.

36. Ibid., 50.

37. Futrell, 120-23.

38. Filed, 390.

39. Hallion, 44-45.

40. Field, 389-91, 455.

41. Hallion, 45.

42. Ibid., 45-46.

43. Momyer, 57-59.

44. Field, 385, 393; Momyer, 57-59.

45. Futrell, 49.

46. Ibid., 50.

47. Ibid.

48. Momyer, 57-59. Momyer makes the point that "the support arrangement is essentially tailored for a highly planned operation of a few days. In a brief operation the support relationship may effectively harmonize the efforts of two or more forces. However, large operations extending over a long time require the more dependable, authoritative relationship of operational control or command. Thus with naval forces committed to the continuing air campaign in Korea, and with no threat from an opposing fleet. FEAF's argument for operational control made sense." Essentially the same problem arose in Vietnam with the same inadequate solution. (pp. 89-99)

49. Futrell, 49.

50. Field, 387.

51. Ibid., 111.

52. Ibid., 392-93.

53. Field, 393; Momyer. 59.

54. Dews, 43,

55. Ibid., 58.

56. Blair, 239.

57. Futrell, 91.

58. Ibid., 175.

59. Reed, 24.

60. Futrell, 700-701; Weigley, 387.

61. Futrell, 261.

62. Gregory A. Carter, Some Historical Notes on Air Interdiction in Korea (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, 1966), 5; Futrell, 171; Momyer, 170.

63. Futrell, 440-41.

64. For a complete account of Operation Strangle. see Futrell, chapter 14.

65. Blair, 931. Blair notes that "an all-out Eighth Army attack to the Korean waist under existing conditions [stalemate in June 1951] would almost certainly incur a prohibitive cost in American casualties. Even a limited advance (5, 10, or 20 miles) to improve the Army's defensive posture, disrupt a possible CCF counterattack, or gain an edge in the possible cease-fire arrangement would not be worth the cost in American blood."

66. Futrell, 704.

67. Ibid., 498.

68. Ibid., 59.

69. US Air Force Korean Evaluation Group. An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the United States Air Force in the Korean Campaign (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Library, 1951), vol. 3, Chap. 2, sec. 1, January.

70. Hallion, 40-41.

71. Futrell, 112.

72. Blair, 652-53.

73. Futrell, 72, 388-89, 636-37.

74. Ibid., 635.

75. Reed, 21.

76. Futrell, 635.

77. Price T. Bingham, "Ground Maneuver and Air Interdiction in the Operational Art," Parameters, March 1989, 16-31.

78. Lt Col Price T. Bingham, "Air Power and the Close-in Battle" (paper presented at the Air War College symposium on Air Support of the Close-in Battle, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 1987), 5-49. In his symposium presentation on "Air Power and the Close-in Battle," Lt Col Price T. Bingham points out that "the conditions that we could face in a war with the Soviets are much more similar to those confronting Ninth Air Force in World War II than those we experienced in Korea and Vietnam." (p. 40) He advocates a return to tactical air commands, the equivalent of an Army corps, to provide unity of command for tactical forces in support of the corps. The symposium summarized some of our current problems. "At the various levels of Army and AF organizations that control the CAS, BAI, and defensive counter air missions, command, control, and communications is considered a significant problem area. For example, should defensive counter air and airspace control be handled by Control and Reporting Centers (CRC) or Control and Reporting Posts (CRP) subordinate to Tactical Air Control Centers (TACC). BAI planning and control are handled by TACC, usually located in the rear with the air component commander. CAS planning and control are more decentralized and handled by Air Support Operations Centers (ASOC) at Army corps level. CAS (A-10s) are employed at battalion level but Army attack helicopters are employed at the brigade level, so Joint Air Attack Team (JAAT) coordination is difficult since air assets are tasked without common interface. Coordination among all these levels is critical but they will likely be disrupted in major conflict . . . therefore, our joint doctrinal principles cannot be applied to the theater in which we face our most dangerous threat-Central Europe." (pp. 2-3)

79. Charles D. Hightower. The History of the United States Air Force Airborne Forward Air Controller in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam Conflict (thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1984). Hightower notes, "[airborne FAC] capability must be maintained within the US Air Force. . . . The airborne FAC's history since 1945 has made it clear that failure to train for the airborne FAC mission is a mistake." (pp. 109-10)

80. Ibid., 109. "The airborne FAC must have a viable aircraft in which to perform his mission." Some problems with the OA-10 include one seat, not dedicated to the mission (it would also provide CAS). and it can't be flown hands off for the long periods needed by the FAC.

81. Gary T. Hawes, "Lessons Learned from Air-Land Battle Training at the US Army National Training Center" (paper presented at the Air War College symposium on Air Support of the Close-in Battle, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 1987). 50-55.

82. Momyer, 89-99.

83. Lt Col Price T. Bingham, "Fighting from the Air Base," Airpower Journal, Summer 1987, 34-40.

84. Franklin J. Hillson, "Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Air Defense," Airpower Journal Summer 1989, 37-40.

85. Reed, 10.


Maj Roger F. Kropf (BA, University of California at Los Angeles; MS, Air Force Institute of Technology) is assigned to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, United Kindgom. His assignments have included tours in F-111s at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, and RAF Lakenheath. He was also stationed at Space Systems Division, Los Angeles FB, California. Major Kropf is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

[ Back Issues | Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor ]