Saturday 23 September 2023

The Korean War - Mig Alley

The Korean War is a war I know relatively little about, other than it was the real setting for the TV series M*A*S*H (not as many thought, Vietnam) and also known for the famous last stand of the British Glouster's on a place now known as Glouster Hill, where it was made on the Imjin River. A British Army last stand like traditional British Army "last stands", being heroic but tragically a battle that in reality should never have been fought in the way it was. I have the Max Hastings' Korean War book on my shelf (both real and Audible) long overdue to be read. However, within the Korean War itself, the Air War was a bit of a mystery to me other than the enigmatic 10:1 kill ratio claimed in favour of the United Nations (aka the United States of America) pilots. It was also the training ground and inspiration for the Mad Major/Colonel (Boyd of the USAF in developing his air war combat theories) producing the OODA loop - which also decades later greatly influence AGILE software development!. Thomas McKelvey Cleaver's "Mig Alley" book came as a revelation to me in many ways (see below, a shot of the enigmatic F-86 Sabre USAF jet - its aerial combat versus the Mig-15 legendary): 

I can highly recommend the book as it came as a shocking myth buster to me - (spoiler alert if you read on) as it revealed recent statistical analysis of Soviet era and USAF era data shows the "10:1 claim" to be far closer to propaganda that proven fact. That is taking nothing from the USAF pilots who attained air supremacy over the North Korean (aka Soviet) pilots and Chinese PLAAF pilots. The revelation is that in the early combat Soviet pilots in 1951 started off on the better end of kill ratio [0.8 - 1.0] because they were filled with combat veterans from  WWII - both sides were learning first hand "jet combat". The USAF was by comparison trained (in jet flying) but unbloodied (in actual combat). The longer term operational mistake the Russians then made was to swap in and out whole Air Regiments at a time, whereas the USAF consciously only replaced individual pilots so there was always a combat capable cadre for new, the younger pilots to learn from. They were slowly bloodied from "wingman" status to "guns" - learning their trade in the skies above Korea. Boyd himself never shot a Mig down but flew 22 missions as "wingman". The seasoned in theatre air crews then returned stateside to teach tactics to the rookies before they went out. The clever American logic was assisted by the fact that there was only two Sabre air groups "spare" so rotating formations out of theatre was far too troublesome whereas the Soviets had plenty of air regiments - all of which were bloodied in turn, so each experiencing there own costly combat learning curve (and allowing an American ascendance). Then towards the 1952/53 period the Chinese pilots took over the bulk of combat were initially poorer in training and so had to relearn the lessons of the Soviets. A statistical ratio of 4:1 (in favour of the UN) was more likely over the whole war, but the early war was very touch and go. Boyd's first gut instinct about the Mig-15 being "theoretically" better than the F-86 may well be true [Boyd came to think better US canopy (observation) and automatic hydraulics (reaction time) were the difference, but in reality there was also combat experience of the man in the plane]. By comparison the Soviet cannon was greatly feared, the Sabres were comparatively under gunned with six fifty calibre machine guns - later Sabres experimented with cannon. The final remark across all eras is that pilots always over estimate their kills, with a lot of damaged planes limping home (although total write-offs on landing). 

For me the software development implications are stark (for Agile), never underestimate the value of experience - aka don't go for cheapest staff available no matter how great your AGILE SCRUM MASTER is or OODA your method is (or what the Accountant says - that is a dangerous false economy)! 

Footnote: I am trying not to "scratch the itch" of an Airfixclassic kit F-80 Shooting Star, some other manufacturer's F-86 or even the F-84 Thunder Streak - plus the Mig 15 (ironical that I had an Airfix Mig 15 in my hand years ago and did not buy it, could not see the reason then!). I think it is the RAAF Boomerang thing all over again!


Archduke Piccolo said...

Geordie -
I don't know if it means much, but somewhere I read or heard that although relatively undergunned, the much faster rate of fire of the .50cal MGs gave the US aircraft an edge over the harder hitting but slower ROF of the Soviet cannon. I'm inclined to think - though I can't know, of course - that pilot training and experience might well have been the more decisive factor as your sources suggest.

Thanks for the review!

Geordie an Exiled FoG said...

One of the interesting pieces of advice that came from the book was - take all the kills claimed and half them for a truer total. The MiG 15 could sustain a huge amount of machine gun damage but one good shot with a cannon shell and it was goodbye Sabre. As you said .. it all depends whether the weapon is in the hands of an expert or not!