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The U.S. Air Force’s ‘air pressure’ campaign helped it put up a tough defense against the enemy in Korea.

By Walter J. Boyne

The lesson that could be learned from American Airpower Strategy in Korea 1950-1953 (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2000, $35), a thought-provoking book by Conrad C. Crane, is that the Korean War is not actually a forgotten war–it is forgotten history.

Crane takes a very broad view of the war, possible only because of his knowledge of the subject. He first establishes the preconditions for the conflict, which were largely based on the mutual misconceptions of the Soviet bloc and the United States. He then takes readers through the conflict, from the early defeats to the intoxicating victories and the agonizing collapse into a bloody stalemate. Crane’s broad treatment includes reference to the nuclear plans, the threat of biological warfare and the challenge of dealing with swarms of Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s. He then analyzes the lessons to be learned from the conflict.

This might be considered familiar ground were it not for Crane’s insight and his ability to place events into context. He never fails to emphasize that Air Force leaders always had a clear understanding of what air power could and could not do under the confining circumstances of the war, in which resources were limited and destructive power had to be applied in ways constrained by politics. Army leaders always tended to believe that the Air Force could do more.

Crane is particularly acute in pointing out the differences in the arguments for close air support and the arguments for the interdiction of supply lines. Inevitably, Air Force efforts at close air support were compared unfavorably to the close air support supplied by the Marines to their troops. This controversy rose to a fever pitch when a shortage of shells prevented the level of artillery support the Army demanded, and for which close air support was the only substitute. The Air Force argued that interdiction was ultimately far more effective than close air support efforts against an enemy well dug-in in mountainous terrain. This view was discounted by the soldiers, who wanted American airplanes overhead all the time. The truth was that effective interdiction was difficult because the Chinese forces could subsist on a fraction of the daily tonnage of supplies required by American troops. Effective interdiction would also have required action on the front to increase Chinese consumption, and the Chinese refused to cooperate. They simply rested and gathered their strength between offensives.

The solution lay in striking the most productive targets, and Crane pays proper tribute to then Brig. Gen. Jacob E. Smart, whose name so aptly describes him. Smart worked with the vigorous and capable Lt. Gen. Otto P. “Opie” Weyland. With their staff, they created the concept of the “air pressure” campaign. The basic idea was to strike the most important target systems, such as hydroelectric power plants, airfields and railway systems. The campaign was to be supported by improved bombing techniques and the reintroduction of what might be called “fairly intelligent if not smart bombs” created during and after World War II–Razon and Tarzon units that were used to strike bridges.

In the end, although the Air Force did not achieve the miracle of interdiction, it did do an excellent job fighting a tough, determined enemy with very limited resources. Air Force striking power was deliberately kept in check by government policy, and it would be restrained again in Vietnam.

American Airpower Strategy in Korea is a good book to serve as a counterpoint to Robert F. Futrell’s mammoth The United States Air Force in Korea 1950-1953. In his concluding chapter, Crane points out the irony that the very success of tactical air operations in Korea led to the growth of importance of the Tactical Air Command, which promptly became a “junior Strategic Air Command,” toting nuclear weapons on long-range strike missions. This switch to a nuclear strategy prepared the Air Force to fight the Soviet Union but left it ill-prepared in terms of equipment, doctrine and training to fight the Vietnam War.