The US Air Force and Army in the Korean War: How Army Decisions Limited Airpower’s Effectiveness

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.

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. 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.

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