The Air War Over Korea
For the US and its United Nations coalition partners, Korea was costly and frustrating: waging a limited war in Asia to hold the line against new adversaries while allocating resources to the first major rearmament of the Cold War. Technologically advanced airpower, despite many episodes of personal courage and endurance, could not deliver clear-cut victory. It rather enabled an uncertain peace, maintained to this day, as increasing great power competition, continuing limited wars on the Asian continent and a resurgent China all make a history of air combat in 1950-53 uncomfortably topical.
In Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, Michael Napier, a writer of airpower histories and a former RAF fighter pilot, intended to “produce a comprehensive logically ordered and impartial account of the air war over Korea, although I have taken the opportunity to highlight the little-known British participation in the conflict by the Royal Air Force”. (p. 6) The author’s chronological narrative -- from the 1950 initial invasion to 1953 ceasefire -- is not an easy fit into 300 pages, as shown by Anglo-Americans appearing in the text with their first names replaced by initials, presumably to save space. This is air combat rather than airpower history, without much on non-kinetic missions (such as airlift and special operations), context (political and command) or considerations such as sustainment. Major air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions are covered, though the author, a fighter pilot, did not make much use of his background to provide analyses of aircraft, technology, weapons and tactics that might elude the squadrons of chairborne historians. However, ten sidebars -- single-page excerpts from combat reports and other accounts -- from aircrew on both sides provide some of the experience of air combat over Korea.
The Korean air war has been covered in a wide range of published sources, and, in the Anglosphere, most archival sources are declassified. The US Air Force’s official history, done in Korea’s aftermath, reflects a near-messianic view of airpower as a decisive weapon whose potential for victory went unrealized through political and military failure to grasp it.* More recently, the Air Force published a chronology and statistical summary.** Amongst the many views from the cockpit, James Salters’ fiction and memoirs, at their best, out-Hemingway Hemingway. There is even enough in print about the North Korean Air Force to tell their story. This book’s narrative incorporates sources from both sides, including some translated Russian and Chinese sources. The first US air battles following the Soviet Air Force’s intervention and the Soviets’ defeats of Australian (and RAF) pilots flying British-built Meteor fighters are among the actions described in detail.
This book relies on published sources, although its bibliography includes only a limited slice of applicable works in English and none in foreign languages. Archival research appears limited to a selection of documents from the National Archive (UK) and RAF Museum, with limited use of US material or British and Australian documents available on-line. A book of this size with 42 endnotes inevitably leaves readers guessing where the information comes from.
No maps were drawn for this volume. The few provided do not provide information useful to the reader such as the location of “MiG Alley” (no luck looking on Google Earth), nor indicate where aircraft carriers operated. There is minimal tabular data although orders of battle, rotations of Soviet air units and UN aircraft carriers, airfields and weather would have benefitted from such treatment.
The book is well illustrated, with some 250 photographs, black and white and color, many reproduced large size on quality paper. Some are likely to be familiar to the reader, such as those from US sources; others (Soviet gun camera photographs) are less familiar.
An appendix lists all the aces credited with the canonical five or more air-to-air victories, but the book does not present many metrics of this air war, especially numbers and types of aircraft lost and claimed shot down. The US Air-Force claimed an air-to-air victory ratio of 14-1, but, in reality, against experienced Soviet MiG-15 pilots, they had to fight hard to break even; a fact that, the author points out, was known at the time. That did not make it into the official history. How many MiG-15s did the US Air Force claim? How many F-86 Sabres did the Soviets claim? How many F-86s were lost, to MiGs and to other causes (a percentage of which would have proven to be MiGs)? Even though some metrics may never appear (such as the operational losses of the Chinese and North Korean pilots rushed into flying second-hand MiGs) and few will line up, avoiding the issue means an incomplete narrative.
The RAF, the author’s secondary subject, spent 1950-53 trying to rebuild, short of resources and with their aircraft industry lagging. The only RAF squadrons to fire their guns in anger were those flying Sunderland flying boats, sinking floating mines (metrics about this effort, as with that of their US Navy allies, are absent). The RAF had to ask the US for F-86s and B-29 bombers to hold the line in Europe in place of US units in Korea; they arrived after the shooting stopped. An appendix lists RAF/RCAF aircrew that saw combat with US and Australian squadrons in Korea but does not discuss their experiences or what their use meant to the different services involved.
The author did provide the account with a secondary focus on the RAF he promised. But this required narrowing the focus and limiting context and analysis. The limited sourcing and bibliography, failure to come to grips with the competing metrics or the thin provision of maps and tables, together, did not contribute to accomplishing this mission.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, and Airpower in the War against ISIS.