AIR: Book Review - Osprey F-86 vs MiG-15

Book Review: Osprey Duel Series Number 50: F-86 Sabre vs. MiG-15 by Douglas
C. Dildy and Warren E. Thompson; 80 pp. with photos and color illustration
s; Osprey Publishing 2013; price US$18.95; ISBN 978-1-78096-319-8
Advantages: first objective study of the air war in Korea; uses both USAF a
nd Soviet era materials to present its text; balanced view; ?Fighter Tact
ics 101" a benefit!
Disadvantages: hard to cover all of the material in only 80 pages!
Rating: See text
Recommendation: for all Korean War aircraft fans
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 la
yman) and found a nice series of articles by retired Soviet VVS General Geo
rgiy 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 fo
r 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 i
n Korea which did not hold water either.
Finally, two respected American air historians have taken all of the avail
able 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 ret
ired fighter pilot who ?grew up? during the Cold War and was trained ba
sed 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 a
nd 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 Peo
ples 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 g
round forces. At least until the US intervened and literally blew most of t
hem out of the sky or destroyed them on the ground.
As Stalin had a ?dog in the fight? he reluctantly decided to provide a
ir 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 onl
y starting to work up with the MiG-15 he had to take some of their crack un
its ? called ?parade divisions? by the rest of the VVS ? and send t
hem to Korea to counter US B-29 and fighter bomber attacks. The first patro
ls took place on 1 November 1950, and as a result the US Far East Air Force
s (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 a
nd Americans fed in experienced pilots, many of whom were aces from WWII an
d understood air combat. But both sides needed to learn the necessary skill
s to fly their new aircraft. The US had the upper hand in regard to trainin
g, but the F-86s had some drawbacks and their armament of .50 caliber machi
ne guns provided to be less effective than thought, even with better gunsig
hts 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 t
hree guns) and in its early models suffered a number of controllability pro
The main fight took place when the USAF swapped its A model Sabres for E m
odels with a ?flying? tail and other improvements and the Soviets repla
ced their MiG-15 aircraft with the MiG-15bis with boosted controls and impr
oved 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 pil
ots the ?kill? ratio was only 1.4 to 1!
But the Soviets suffered a lot of problems, top amongst them being the lac
k of a ?G suit? for their pilots which caused them to become fatigued o
r 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 shor
t 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 u
nits, and as a result the USAF was able to provide a level of air superiori
ty over Korea.
But the Soviets had managed to shatter the views of FEAF that B-29s were c
apable of carrying out combat missions with fighter escort against the MiG-
15. Two disastrous missions on 12 April and 23 October 1951 resulted in rel
atively heavy losses (and very bad press) and as a result the B-29s were sw
itched 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 los
ses of Sabres versus 566 admitted MiG losses by the VVS and PLAAF units (th
e North Koreans never list losses unless some pilot ?heroically? crashe
d into a formation of B-29s and destroyed all of them at once or other fant
astic stories). This is still a very healthy 5.8 to 1 ratio, but as noted t
he biggest outcome was that the cooler heads in Washington realized the B-3
6 then forming the mainstay of SAC was a sitting duck against the MiGs with
out 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 j
ob of using examples and facts to show how air combat was conducted, with b
oth 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 retir
ed Colonel George Jones, a squadron leader in Korea with 6 ½ kills and VV
S 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 vetera
ns (Jones in the Pacific flying P-47s, Kramarenko against the Germans in th
e La-5) and members of elite units before being selected to go to Korea. Th
ey make a good comparison of the quality of pilots during the key air comba
ts of 1951.
There is a nice bibliography in the back of the book (which is why I do no
t 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 som
e 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.
Cookie Sewell
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