Mitchell Institute Releases New Entry in Forum Series:
“The US Air Force and Army in the Korean War: How Army Decisions Limited Airpower’s Effectiveness”

ARLINGTON, VA (December 21, 2018) —The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is pleased to announce the release of its latest entry in the Mitchell Forum series, “The US Air Force and Army in the Korean War: How Army Decisions Limited Airpower’s Effectiveness,” by Lt Col Price T. Bingham, USAF (Ret.).

Bingham, a former Air Force fighter pilot, doctrine writer, and prolific airpower historian, takes a close look at airpower’s role in the Korean War, specifically how US Army commanders used airpower in the conduct of the war’s initial phase and through the Chinese intervention. Drawing on extensive archival research and notes from the records and diaries of the senior leaders of the period, Bingham shows that airpower was vital to the success of ground operations in the Korean War, but was often utilized in ways that “seriously handicapped” its effectiveness. Because of this dynamic, he argues, the Korean War proved “far costlier in hindsight than necessary,” and due to the US Army’s institutional and individual failings in the Korean conflict, persistent myths and stereotypes about airpower continue to afflict policy deliberations in today’s conflicts.

Despite airpower’s contributions to victory in World War II, Bingham writes, by the advent of the Korean war, many key US Army officers not only failed to understand the capabilities and limitations of airpower, but were “unwilling to listen to airmen who attempted to explain how their decisions were harming airpower’s effectiveness.” Bingham explores the early months of the war, when airstrikes were key to United Nations Command (UNC) forces being able to fight back invading North Korean forces which had driven them to the Pusan Perimeter, as the North’s mechanized infantry and armor were pummeled by US Air Force bombers and airstrikes. Despite this, Army leaders (from UNC commander Army Gen Douglas MacArthur on down) time and again pushed to emphasize the tactical rather than operational level of war in the conflict, most evident in the Army’s focus on close air support rather than air interdiction operations. Failing to recognize the threat of Chinese intervention after the war’s initial phase, Army decisions on the use of airborne forward air controllers (FACs) limited their ability to detect infiltration of Chinese light infantry onto the Korean Peninsula, as these aircraft were rarely allowed to range too far ahead of large Army units. Army leaders “failed to appreciate that rapid movement by opposing ground forces, especially mechanized forces, multiplies the ability of airpower in the form of interdiction to delay and destroy the enemy.”

To this day, Bingham notes, the US Army continues to ignore the value of air interdiction in its doctrine on ground maneuver design. Given the central role of air operations in modern joint warfare, he concludes, it is far more likely that an airman would understand how to plan the employment of ground forces in a way that would allow “all forces to fully exploit the effectiveness of airpower,” and the experiences of the Korean War should prompt a reevaluation of the conventional wisdom that an Army officer should serve as the overall commander of any future conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The Mitchell Forum series provides a venue for authors with ideas, concepts, and thoughts on national defense and aerospace power to engage with current and emerging policy debates and issues.

For more information on the series, and inquiries about submissions, contact Mitchell’s Director of Publications Marc V. Schanz at mschanz@afa.org or visit our website, at www.mitchellaerospacepower.org.

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