The Russians in MiG Alley

Feb. 1, 1991

For some forty years, suspicions have lingered about the nationality of certain pilots who flew MiG-15s in the Korean War. China long ago confessed the role of its pilots. There also were reports, never confirmed, that the best Communist pilots were in fact from the Soviet Union.

Soviet veterans finally have begun to acknowledge their participation in Korean dogfights, confirming the identity of the mystery pilots who, to Air Force flyers, were known only as “honchos.” Soviet involvement in the Korean War is no longer a state secret; since 1989, the truth has poured forth.

Revelations in the Soviet press make it clear that Soviet participation in the war was far more extensive than anyone had imagined. Until now, the assumption was that individual Soviet “volunteer” pilots took part. The new information establishes that Soviet pilots were involved in a large fraction of all MiG-15 battles against US fighters.

The small North Korean Air Force used in the June 1950 invasion had no jets. Its tactical airpower came from a regiment of seventy-eight Yak-9U piston-engine fighters and a regiment of seventy Il-10 piston-engine attack planes. Flown by inexperienced pilots, these planes were quickly decimated by US aircraft.

The United Nations force’s successful repulse of North Korean forces led to consultations between Beijing and Moscow over future plans to aid Pyongyang. On October 1, North Korean Dictator Kim II Sung urged China’s Mao Zedong to throw the weight of the Chinese Army into the war. Mao agreed and sought Soviet aid. For Joseph Stalin, however, the vigor of the US response to the invasion came as an unpleasant surprise.

He had once promised Mao that the USSR would handle the air war. By October 10, he had reconsidered. As recent Soviet accounts reveal, he was fearful of US strategic airpower and wished to avoid giving a pretext for a nuclear attack on Russia. Indeed, Stalin ordered Soviet advisors to leave North Korean divisions for fear some might be captured and reveal Soviet complicity. Stalin therefore reneged on his pledge, but he offered to give China more MiG-15s and to provide limited direct air support. As a first step, Moscow deployed several regiments of new MiG-15s to the Far East. Soviet air units did go into combat, but because most of the recent Soviet revelations about this activity come from pilots rather than military leaders, we still know little about high-level planning for this intervention. It seems likely that Stalin thought the presence of Soviet aircrews could be kept secret.

The First MiG-15s Arrive

The first combat patrols of the fighters in the Korean theater came in November. For American aircrews, arrival of the sleek new MiG-15 was a shock. That was true even though MiG-15s had been in action in the Far East months earlier. In April 1950, they first appeared over Shanghai, thwarting a Nationalist Chinese bomb campaign. They were flown by Soviet pilots. The fighting over Shanghai was not widely reported. Intelligence failed to note the presence of MiGs.

Air units selected for Korean deployment did not come primarily from Frontal Aviation, the tactical arm of the regular Soviet Air Forces. Rather, most came from interceptor regiments of the Air Defense Forces, or PVO, which was then on its way to becoming a separate service branch.

Until 1950, no MiG-15 interceptor regiments were stationed in the Far East. They were concentrated in the Moscow Air Defense District to protect the capital against US bomber attack. As a result, the squadrons earmarked for Korea were drawn from elite units. The first large Soviet aviation unit sent to Korea was an air defense interceptor division commanded by Col. Ivan Kozhedub, who, with sixty-two victories, was the top Soviet ace of World War II. Due to the pilot’s celebrity status, Stalin personally ordered Colonel Kozhedub not to fly combat missions. The division’s lead elements left Moscow in mid-November. At that time, a MiG-15 interceptor regiment numbered thirty-five to forty aircraft, and a division usually included three regiments.

Soviet MiG-15 regiments were based on Chinese fields in Manchuria. Many Soviet regiments underwent preliminary training at Soviet bases in the neighboring Maritime Military District.

The first USAF contact with MiG-15s occurred in November 1950. Soviet pilots showed scant interest in pushing their attacks, but Air Force pilots unexpectedly found themselves facing a formidable opponent. The MiG-15 was technologically superior to US F-80 and F-84 jet fighters, and it had a few advantages over the newer F-86, especially at higher altitudes.

In the war’s first winter, however, the MiG-15 units failed to have a decisive impact on the air conflict. This was largely due to the inexperience of Soviet pilots, who only recently had converted from La-11 propeller-driven fighters to jet aircraft. A US F-86 Sabre pilot scored

the first kill of a MiG-15 on December 17, 1950. Five days later, on December 22, in an engagement that saw six MiGs destroyed, an F-86 Sabre became the first US aircraft to be shot down by a MiG-15.

At about the same time, China committed the Chinese People’s Volunteer Air Force (CPVAF) to the Korean battle, eventually sending two of its new MiG-15 fighter divisions. The first Chinese combat patrols went out on December 26.

The bulk of Colonel Kozhedub’s fighter division began moving to air bases along the Yalu River in March 1951. Soviet regiments shared facilities with Chinese regiments at Antung, Tungfeng, and Myau-Gou. The largest Chinese facility, at Antung, had a division of Chinese MiG-15s deployed there by March 1951.

Deterring the Bombers

The primary goal of the Soviet regiments was to deter Air Force B-29 bombing missions against targets in North Korea. The Chinese Air Force had different plans; it hoped to win sufficient control of the air to permit bomber and attack regiments of the CPVAF to conduct close air support missions for Chinese ground forces during its spring 1951 offensive.

The first large-scale dogfights between Soviet and US units took place in April 1951. Soviet and Chinese MiG-15s were marked with North Korean insignia. Soviet pilots even wore North Korean uniforms. Radio contact between Soviet pilots was supposed to be conducted in Korean. It was a language that few, if any, Russian and Ukrainian pilots understood. As a result, Soviet pilots took with them a small tablet with a list of common messages. Korean statements were spelled out phonetically in Cyrillic letters.

Not surprisingly, these efforts to’ camouflage the nationality of the Soviet pilots proved impractical in the melee of air combat, and the rules gradually were relaxed. In the war’s later years, Soviet MiG-15s often flew with Soviet insignia. Throughout the war, however, Soviet pilots operated under certain restrictions designed to reduce their chances of being captured by UN forces.

For example, Soviet regiments were ordered to stay over Communist-controlled areas and were forbidden to fly over the Yellow Sea. In May 1951, Lt. Yevgeny Stelmakh was shot down during an attack on B-29 bombers. He safely ejected but landed in UN-controlled territory. He committed suicide with his pistol rather than face certain capture.

Soviet pilots soon made their presence felt. Their increasingly aggressive tactics exacted a toll on the aging B-29s. Colonel Kozhedub’s regiments were first used en masse to stop the April 12, 1951, B-29 raid on the Sinuiju bridge. Three B-29s were shot down, the heaviest US losses up to that time.

The more numerous Chinese MiG-15 pilots were still too inexperienced to present much of a threat to the American escort fighters. However, a May 1951 meeting between Soviet and Chinese air force commanders at the Supreme Joint Headquarters in Mukden, Manchuria, led to the decision to form an “International Communist Volunteer Air Force” to help the CPVAF secure air superiority over the Yalu River area. In fact, the new force was neither international nor volunteer and marked a heavier commitment of Soviet aircrews.

Under the command of Gen. Georgi Lobov, a Soviet World War II fighter ace, the Soviet 64th Air Defense Corps was deployed to China in the spring of 1951 to bolster attempts to wrest control of the air from the US Air Force. The corps not only coordinated the increasing number of Soviet fighter divisions on the Yalu, but also controlled a growing number of Soviet ground air defense troops, who manned new air-surveillance radar installations, radar-directed gun units, and ground control intercept stations.

According to recent Soviet accounts, some 70,000 Soviet PVO troops served along the Yalu during the Korean War, many in these ground air defense positions.

Dogfights in MiG Alley

The air divisions of the new 64th Air Defense Corps burst onto the scene in June 1951 in a series of large-scale dogfights with F-86 Sabres over MiG Alley. Because the nationality of these new and unexpectedly tough pilots was far from certain, US Sabre pilots dubbed them “honchos,” from Japanese for “squad leader” or “boss.”

Far East Air Force (FEAF) intelligence soon reported that “more proficient pilots have recently been committed in Korea.” The growing aggressiveness of the MiG-15 pilots forced FEAF’s Bomber Command to curtail B-29 raids in the MiG Alley area of northwest Korea unless accompanied by fighter escort. MiG-15s also began systematic attacks on jet fighter-bombers, thereby impeding the railway interdiction campaign then under way. The outnumbered F-86 Sabre pilots continued to exact an unequal toll against the MiG-15s, but they could not prevent heavy B-29 losses during daylight.

By September 1951, with some 525 MiG-15s in the Yalu area, Soviet and Chinese leaders were confident enough to begin planning the deployment of Chinese and new North Korean MiG-15 regiments into North Korea itself, outside Chinese sanctuaries.

The dogfights that occurred in the fall of 1951 highlighted the disparity of skills between the Chinese and Soviet pilots. In one year, China’s Air Force had expanded from virtually nothing to one of the world’s largest air arms, with more than 1,000 combat planes. The Chinese candidly admit that their pilots in Korea were poorly prepared but felt that the operations were a necessary learning experience. Soviet pilots were, on average, more experienced than their Chinese counterparts but not as well trained as their US foes. Many were veterans of World War II, but it appears that only a handful of wartime aces went to Korea.

Like China, the USSR used the conflict as a training ground for airmen, rotating no fewer than twelve divisions through Korea during the war. A Polish MiG-15 pilot who defected in 1953 said that many of his Russian instructors had served in Korea.

The Soviets made vigorous efforts to maintain technological superiority over the F-86 Sabres. By 1951, USAF pilots began to see the MiG-15bis, with its more powerful VK-1 engine. In the summer of 1951 an improved MiG-15bis, with better guns, went into service. By the winter of 1951, Fifth Air Force concluded that large numbers of MiG-15s on the Yalu, and their increasing proficiency, posed an unacceptable risk to daylight B-29 missions. There were simply not enough F-86 Sabres to provide escort. As a result, the B-29s shifted to night missions using Shoran bombing systems.

The Soviet 64th Air Defense Corps attempted to counter this tactic by dispatching two night fighter regiments to Korea. One regiment, commanded by Maj. Anatoly Karelin, was originally equipped with Lavochkin La-11 piston-engine fighters. The Soviets had no suitable radar-equipped night fighter in 1952, so the Karelin unit was trained to operate in conjunction with radar-directed searchlights. The regiment soon shifted to MiG-15s, and Major Karelin, with nine victories, became the top nighttime ace.

A Change in Soviet Attitudes

By 1952, Chinese and North Korean regiments were taking over much of the air war. The Yalu air bases were home to two Soviet PVO divisions, two Chinese divisions (with reinforcements nearby), and one North Korean division. A change in Soviet attitudes toward the war is evident in the refusal of the Soviet military leadership to dispatch newer MiG-17 fighters to Korea in 1952-53. By 1952, improvements to the F-86 Sabre largely negated the technical advantages the MiG-15bis had enjoyed. The technological balance could have shifted back to the Soviet pilots with the MiG-17, but the Kremlin continued to refuse to send them. Only in the final weeks of the war did Moscow relent.

Then, in April 1953, came Operation Moolah, in which the UN Command offered a cash bounty to defecting MiG pilots. The USSR jammed Russian-language radio broadcasts of the offer, but B-29s pamphleted several Soviet regiments. Moscow does not admit that the project succeeded. After May 1953, however, the quality of MiG-15 pilots over Korea dropped markedly. There is every reason to believe that Soviet pilots stopped flying combat missions altogether.

Soviet accounts claim that by the end of the war, their forces had shot down no fewer than 1,200 US aircraft. Colonel Kozhedub’s division alone claimed 258. China, rather modestly, claimed only eighty-five kills. Soviet claims are grossly exaggerated and reflect a tendency to accept claims without verification. The US Air Force acknowledged only 139 air-to-air losses–121 fighters and eighteen bombers. Sabre pilots claimed 792 MiG-15s.

The highest ranking Soviet ace of the conflict was Col. Yevgeny Pepelyayev, a regimental commander in Colonel Kozhedub’s division who claimed twenty-three victories. The second highest was the corps commander, General Lobov, with fourteen.

The number of Soviet aces is not known. This writer has been able to identify twenty-one pilots awarded the highest military decoration, “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Only two of the decorations were awarded posthumously. Usually the USSR decorates living pilots only if they are aces. At least two other pilots made five or more kills, but these pilots did not receive the Hero of the Soviet Union award. Given these facts, the list of purported aces may number more than twenty.

Intelligence accounts at the time recognized the presence of Soviet pilots but not of major regiment- or division- sized units. It is possible that such transfers were detected and that the intelligence remains classified today. In any event, recent Soviet articles resolve the longstanding mystery of the origins of the “honcho” pilots of the Korean air war.

Steven J. Zaloga writes frequently about the Soviet military and is the author of several books. This is his first article for AIR FORCE Magazine.