"Every Man a Tiger": The RF-86A Sabre in Tactical Reconnaissance Operations during the Korean War, 1952-1953

By Mahan, John H. | Air Power History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

"Every Man a Tiger": The RF-86A Sabre in Tactical Reconnaissance Operations during the Korean War, 1952-1953


Mahan, John H., Air Power History


The work of a reconnaissance pilot lacks much of the personal glamour that is attached to the fighter pilot. His enthusiasm must be maintained by the knowledge that the information he obtains is not only of great value but is also being put to full use.

--CONAC Aircrew Training Handbook

The surprise North Korean invasion of South Korea, on June 25, 1950, caught the United States Air Force off guard and woefully unprepared to fight a conventional air war. Although World War II clearly illustrated the value of aerial reconnaissance in successfully executing an air campaign, the inevitable draw down and financial cuts after that war severely hindered the development of aerial reconnaissance weapons systems in the new jet age. However, tactical reconnaissance, the oldest and most basic mission of military aviation, would prove to be even more vital to the United Nations Command (UNC) forces in the Korean War than in any previous conflict.

In an attempt to improve the photographic results of daylight tactical reconnaissance combat operations and increase the survivability of its aircraft, the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (15th TRS) in Korea devised a series of field modifications to the legendary North American F-86 Sabrejet fighter to create a tactical reconnaissance version of the aircraft--the RF-86. This article will evaluate the effectiveness of the RF-86A Sabre in tactical reconnaissance combat operations during the Korean War, 1952-1953. Although conversions to RF-86A configuration in the Korean War never numbered more than seven aircraft, the incredible survivability of the aircraft allowed the 15th TRS to operate it with disproportionately greater success than any other type of USAF reconnaissance aircraft in Korea. The RF-86A provided the UN forces valuable photographic and visual intelligence at extremely low cost to the 15th TRS.

The tactical reconnaissance mission originated early in World War I, when unarmed aircraft of both sides ranged over the battlefields of Europe performing a variety of seemingly simple tasks, including visual observation of the front lines and artillery and naval gunfire adjustment. Throughout World War I, the interwar years, and World War II, more sophisticated forms of tactical aerial reconnaissance, such as photographic, weather, electronic, and contact reconnaissance, evolved from, but did not replace, these basic missions. (1) During the Korean War, photographic reconnaissance "provide[d] the bulk of the intelligence on which day to day operations [were] planned;" (2) it is as a collector of intelligence, "in a potentially high threat environment," (3) that tactical reconnaissance, especially photographic, becomes useful to a theater commander. The scarcity of highly skilled Air Force photo interpreters in Korea constituted the largest single post-flight hindrance to providing "near or real time" (4) and relevant intelligence to requesting agencies, usually units of the U.S. Eighth Army. However, the tactical intelligence gleaned by photo interpreters could provide great insight into enemy intentions, enemy status and activity at designated targets, threats (such as, targets of opportunity, topography, movements of troops and supplies, and construction efforts), and targeting and bomb damage assessment (BDA). (5) Such intelligence permitted the Eighth Army and the Fifth Air Force to remain at least one step ahead of the Communist ground and air forces in Korea, which greatly outnumbered the UN forces. In the interim, however, obtaining good photographic results and returning home with valuable photographic cargo remained a problem for the understrength and underequipped USAF tactical reconnaissance units in Korea.

In the summer of 1950, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF)--of which the Fifth Air Force was the largest subordinate unit--possessed only one daylight tactical reconnaissance squadron, the 8th TRS, based at Yokota Air Base, Japan, and flying Lockheed RF-80As, the unarmed camera-equipped version of the Shooting Star fighter.

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