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F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15

F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15 Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review June 2013 Title F-86 Sabre vs MiG-15
Author Douglas C. Dildy and Warren E. Thompson Publisher Osprey Publishing
Published 2013 ISBN 978-1-78096-319-8
Format 80 pages, softbound MSRP (USD) $18.95


About 20 years ago I was thumbing through what are referred to as "open source publications" (books and magazines in a foreign language to the layman) and found a nice series of articles by retired Soviet VVS General Georgiy Lobov on "The Blank Pages of History". This was a presentation of the Soviet participation in the air war in Korea which had been censored for more than 35 years by both sides. He made a number of seemingly bombastic claims such as 1,106 F-86 Sabres shot down along with 69 B-29 bombers and other claims of dubious repute. But at the same time, official USAF sources and many Western writers were claiming a 13 to 1 kill ratio for the F-86 in Korea which did not hold water either.

Finally, two respected American air historians have taken all of the available sources in hand to attempt to present an honest assessment of the air war and how it was actually fought. As a result, and as Doug Dildy is a retired fighter pilot who "grew up" during the Cold War and was trained based on results of Korea, they have presented a great description of what it was actually like to fly and fight in an F-86 Sabre or MiG-15 in Korea.

Most people by now are aware that the Korean War degenerated into a proxy war between the US and its allies on one side and the Chinese and Soviets and their North Korean ally on the other. The air war was no different, and while the Soviets had been training up a nascent Chinese air force (the Peoples Liberation Army Air Forces or PLAAF) they also had provided about 240 aircraft to the fledgling Korean Peoples Army Forces Air Corps or KPAFAC). When the war started in June 1950, the KPAFAC provided air support to its ground forces. At least until the US intervened and literally blew most of them out of the sky or destroyed them on the ground.

As Stalin had a "dog in the fight" he reluctantly decided to provide air cover over the northern part of the country along the Yalu River and its factories and power stations/dams. As the Soviet Air Forces (VVS) were only starting to work up with the MiG-15 he had to take some of their crack units – called "parade divisions" by the rest of the VVS – and send them to Korea to counter US B-29 and fighter bomber attacks. The first patrols took place on 1 November 1950, and as a result the US Far East Air Forces (FEAF) frantically requested F-86s when the extant F-51s and F-80s showed themselves essentially incapable of dealing with the new threat.

The air war thus began in earnest later that month, and both the Soviets and Americans fed in experienced pilots, many of whom were aces from WWII and understood air combat. But both sides needed to learn the necessary skills to fly their new aircraft. The US had the upper hand in regard to training, but the F-86s had some drawbacks and their armament of .50 caliber machine guns provided to be less effective than thought, even with better gunsights and fire control. The MiG-15 was hard hitting with its heavy cannon but carried only a small amount of ammunition (less than 5.8 seconds for all three guns) and in its early models suffered a number of controllability problems.

The main fight took place when the USAF swapped its A model Sabres for E models with a "flying" tail and other improvements and the Soviets replaced their MiG-15 aircraft with the MiG-15bis with boosted controls and improved faster-firing cannon. The book covers these combats in some detail and comes to the conclusion that with their best pilots versus the best US pilots the "kill" ratio was only 1.4 to 1!

But the Soviets suffered a lot of problems, top amongst them being the lack of a "G suit" for their pilots which caused them to become fatigued or ill much quicker in high G maneuver combat. As a result, after about one year the "parade" divisions rotated out and were replaced by "crack" air defense (PVO Strany) divisions that were long on education but short on combat skills. The PLAAF also began fielding its first MiG-15 units at the same time, and the result was US victory counts going up and going up fast. The KPAFAC also joined in about the same time with its first MiG-15 units, and as a result the USAF was able to provide a level of air superiority over Korea.

But the Soviets had managed to shatter the views of FEAF that B-29s were capable of carrying out combat missions with fighter escort against the MiG-15. Two disastrous missions on 12 April and 23 October 1951 resulted in relatively heavy losses (and very bad press) and as a result the B-29s were switched to night combat, where they still suffered at the hands of the MiGs.

The authors note that actual losses in Korea amounted to 92 air to air losses of Sabres versus 566 admitted MiG losses by the VVS and PLAAF units (the North Koreans never list losses unless some pilot "heroically" crashed into a formation of B-29s and destroyed all of them at once or other fantastic stories). This is still a very healthy 5.8 to 1 ratio, but as noted the biggest outcome was that the cooler heads in Washington realized the B-36 then forming the mainstay of SAC was a sitting duck against the MiGs without escorts. As a result they ramped up efforts to field the B-47 and later B-52 jet bombers.

The book is clearly written in easy-to-understand terms and does a great job of using examples and facts to show how air combat was conducted, with both sides starting with "finger four" formations and later changing to other more fluid tactics as the war progressed.

Two pilots are cited most often in the text, one being the late USAF retired Colonel George Jones, a squadron leader in Korea with 6 ½ kills and VVS retired Major-General Sergey Kramarenko who was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for his combat results in Korea. Both were WWII veterans (Jones in the Pacific flying P-47s, Kramarenko against the Germans in the La-5) and members of elite units before being selected to go to Korea. They make a good comparison of the quality of pilots during the key air combats of 1951.

There is a nice bibliography in the back of the book (which is why I do not feel able to make an objective assessment, as I provided the authors with a large amount of translated Russian text during their research) and list recommended sources to read for further information. (They also provide some disclaimers on the bias of the authors as well.)

Overall, if you have any interest in Korean War air combat this book is a great place to start or simply add to your knowledge.