North Korean MiG-15 at the Chinese Aviation Museum
So the VVS sent the 106th IAD to Shanghai to train Chinese pilots. In June 1950, 126 of the best candidates began the Soviet flying course. This included much more theoretical instruction than the Americans endured, with at least seven hours of every day in a classroom learning academics by rote. This was partially due to the average ninth-grade educational level of the Chinese students and partially because it was a Russian course. The organization of the Red Air Force was heavily influenced by the army (hence the brigade and regiment system versus groups and wings), and this mentality permeated the syllabus. Elementary training consisted of very basic flying in a Yak-18 followed by basic training in a Yak-11. A Soviet candidate would do this in a year and log about 180 hours, but the Chinese program was shortened to six months, graduating 120 pilots with sixty flying hours.
They then entered a ten-week conversion course to learn the MiG-15. Again, the syllabus was heavy into theory, special equipment (like radios), and cockpit orientation. Unlike their American adversaries, most of these men had never driven a car, worked on engines, or been exposed to much modern technology. A Chinese pilot received about twenty hours in the jet, for a grand total of less than a hundred flight hours during the course. None of this included weapons or gunnery.
Then as now, the Soviet system conducted combat training in operational units. The advantage to this is a frontline mentality and an immediate absorption of the latest tactics from the men who developed them. A pilot would also get very quickly familiarized with the geography and weather around his combat duty station. However, this method cost jets, time, fuel, and, most important, experienced fighter pilots, who now had to be instructors. There was also a mentality issue, since the total focus of the unit wasn’t on combat—it also had to deal with training.
The upshot was that at the “pointy end” of the conflict, you had limited numbers of exceptionally well-trained, often combat-experienced Americans. In the case of the Sabre pilots, they were flying a well-made and well-maintained jet designed to kill other fighters. It had lighter weapons, better aiming systems, more fuel, and could outfight the MiG-15 below 30,000 feet. The Americans were outnumbered ten to one by large numbers of hastily trained pilots flying a short-range jet that could outperform the F-86 but was notoriously hard to fly. The weapons were heavier, but the MiG wasn’t designed to dogfight, and the aiming system was obsolete.
If war were an air show, then the MiG would’ve had the edge. As it was, the situation (politics notwithstanding) favored the better-trained and more aggressive UN pilots. Even after the Soviets began flying missions, the kill ratios reflected this. Much has been written about this, and the issue is hotly debated on both sides. The importance of realistic kill ratios and battle damage assessments for air-to-ground missions lies in the validation of weapon systems, tactics, and training. As discussed for other wars, most air forces made a concerted effort to confirm such claims through wreckage and/or eyewitnesses. Depending on the fight’s location, this could be very difficult and, given the fast-paced nature of air combat, often incorrect. Add to it the fact that many aircraft that initially seemed mortally damaged were, in fact, flown back and landed.
In the jet age there was even less time for in-flight assessments, so reviewers relied extensively upon gun camera footage. There were several problems with this. First, the North Koreans simply didn’t do it, and if a pilot actually survived to report, anything he said was believed. This explains the laughable figure of 5,729 UN aircraft claimed destroyed by the KPAF and provides ample justification for dismissing their figures. The Chinese weren’t much better and claimed, by themselves, 211 Sabres destroyed. Soviet standards were theoretically higher but less so in practice. Their system filmed only when a trigger was depressed, so the shells were often not even at the target’s range when the pilot quit firing and the camera stopped. Ground Control Interception (GCI) input was also used to assess a kill if the radar contact disappeared from a scope, which they often did when planes egressed at low altitude. It is also good to remember that both the VVS and PLAAF used political officers to grade combat film, and these men had a vested interest in creating high kill numbers, so it was hardly the most objective of systems.
U.S. jets typically used Fairchild gun cameras, which were plagued with problems. Additionally, the film was left over from the last war and, according to several pilots, functioned inconsistently. Squadron intelligence officers usually did the reviewing and gave credit for a kill based on the number of camera frames showing bullet strikes. One source stated that if thirteen hits were observed, then a kill was assessed; however, considering the relative size of a .50-caliber round, this was optimistic unless a vital engine component or the pilot was hit. Maj. Sergei Kramarenko, a double-war Soviet ace, reported that MiGs often returned to base with “forty or fifty holes” from the Sabre “peashooters.” In the end, hard evidence is limited to official admissions of loss or incontrovertible eyewitness accounts.
In examining just the Sabre combat, F-86 pilots claimed 800 MiG-15’s destroyed. Sources from the post-Soviet era admit to 319 combat shoot-downs, with 309 to the Sabres. PLAAF archives acknowledge losing 224 MiGs, all to F-86 pilots. KPAF records don’t exist, but a defector guessed that at least 100 MiGs had been shot down. Allowing for his overestimation, 75 kills seems a reasonable approximation. This brings the total to a believable 608 MiG-15s lost in combat.
The USAF confirms that 78 Sabres were shot down in air-to-air fighting. Another 14 went down from battle damage or fuel starvation resulting from dogfighting. Twelve more are listed as “Unknown” but were somehow lost in combat. That brings the total F-86 count to 104. Yet 47 pilots were killed, 26 were captured, and a further 65 were reported missing in action. So if 138 pilots were casualties, it’s valid to assume that the aircraft were lost too. Taking the two total numbers between Sabres and MiGs, we get a 4.4:1 kill ratio in favor of the F-86.
American B-29s flew 21,000 sorties and dropped 167,000 tons of ordnance over the course of the war, yet only seventeen of the big jets were lost to the MiGs. Given that bomber interception was the primary mission of the MiG-15, the Sabres undeniably did their job. Without detracting from the 224 USAF aircraft lost directly in air-to-air combat, it’s definitely worth mentioning that more than twice that number went down during close air support, reconnaissance, and surface attack missions. A total of 579 USAF fighter, bomber, or attack planes were lost over 57,665 air-to-ground sorties. Marine air flew 32,190 close air support sorties, and in addition to thousands of trucks, tanks, and other targets destroyed, Marine pilots shot down 37.5 aircraft. Marine fighter pilots flying Sabres with USAF squadrons accounted for half of these. Maj. John Bolt, the sole USMC ace from Korea, got his five kills with the F-86 as part of the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. Maj. John Glenn got three kills flying Sabres with the 25th FIS and Navy Panther pilots shot down five MiGs. All told, over one million combat sorties were flown.
Air superiority was never in doubt once the F-86 made its appearance, but the ground situation was entirely another matter. Eerily reminiscent of the Western Front thirty-five years earlier, the defensive positions had hardened and the armies were largely stagnant. Chinese emplacements included a fantastic network of tunnels, which generally negated UN air attacks. However bleak the ground situation was, General MacArthur never advocated the use of atomic weapons to deal with the Chinese. In fact, it was Gen. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who first proposed placing nukes at MacArthur’s disposal. President Truman agreed with that in the fall of 1950 but later retracted his statement.
Recapturing Seoul in mid-March, MacArthur then issued an astounding communiqué directly to the Chinese government. In it, he proposed a cease-fire and openly discussed policy-level issues such as China’s bid for a UN seat and the situation with Taiwan—all this from a military theater commander. Added to his continued arrogance and catastrophic misreading of China, this was the proverbial last straw, so he was finally relieved on April 11, 1951. Quoted a decade later in Time magazine, Truman said, “I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
Fortunately, MacArthur was replaced by Gen. Matt Ridgway, a true combat soldier and a much better commander.* Even by this point, both sides wanted out of the war, but they couldn’t agree on how to do it, nor would either Korea recognize the other. So while the political wrangling continued, men died. The air war became a vast proving ground for improved variants of old aircraft and, more important at this point, tactical refinement. This was particularly true of ground attack and close air support.
The North Korean chief delegate for the initial cease-fire talks admitted that airpower had prevented defeat for the UN side. Lt. Gen. Nam Il said, “Without the support of the indiscriminate bombing and bombardment of your air and naval forces, your ground forces would have long ago been driven out of the Korean peninsula by our powerful and battle-skilled ground forces.” The exaggeration of North Korea’s military might aside, this admission revealed the profound effect that tactical airpower had upon the enemy. In fact, aircraft accounted for 72 percent of all artillery destroyed, as well as 75 percent of all tanks and nearly half of all enemy troop casualties, according to USAF statistics.
But by early 1953 several great events occurred that would end the stalemate in Korea: Joseph Stalin had finally died, and Dwight D. Eisenhower had become president of the United States. Even-tempered, worldly, and a tremendous compromiser, the former general had never been a combat soldier, but he thoroughly understood the military in a way impossible for Truman. Also, and perhaps most important, his credibility was unassailable. At this point in history he was precisely what the United States needed. In any event Eisenhower wanted America out of the war. By the time a truce was signed in July 1953, UN forces had suffered nearly 500,000 dead, wounded, or missing against 1.2 to 1.5 million Communist casualties.
As the Korean War passed into history, it left the U.S. military struggling to deal with the complexities of a “limited” conflict and the notion of fighting for an ideology rather than an unambiguous cause. From an aviation perspective, Korea became a division between the past and the future. In barely three decades man had gone from flying fragile, fabric-covered, open-cockpit airplanes to a jet fighter capable of breaking the sound barrier. It was a gray area of old ideas, new realities, and rapidly emerging technologies. Indeed, technology is relative to time and, as we’ve seen, weapons, tactics, and aircraft all evolve to meet the situation.
By the early 1950s aircraft had achieved capabilities that meant guns and cannons would not remain the only weapon solutions. A new killer, the air-to-air missile (AAM), was being developed to answer the challenge of high-speed, high-g targets. Similarly, conventional anti-aircraft artillery guns were inadequate against fast jets at higher altitudes, though they were, and are, still remarkably lethal against anything fighting down low.
To counter the threat posed by advanced fighters, the surface-to-air missile (SAM) was also about to make its appearance. Radar development would go hand in hand with these new systems. Increased speeds and maneuverability necessitated better targeting solutions both in the air and on the ground. It was apparent to those who fought the war, and those beginning their fighter pilot careers, that aircraft had changed faster than the weapons. But had they also evolved faster than the men?
Throughout the first fifty years of fighter combat, men had always risen to the occasion and done what was needed. Would they continue to be able to do this in the future, in an aviation arena that demanded vast amounts of technical knowledge, previously unimagined physical demands, and sheer guts? No one knew . . . yet.