Role of Armor in the Korean Conflict
As the U.S. Army went to war in Korea in June 1950, it once again found itself unprepared to fight and win the first and succeeding battles. In order to understand why the Army was unprepared, we must examine the postwar development of doctrine regarding mechanized warfare with tanks as the main maneuver element.
On the eve of the Korean War, the nation's defense establishment had set aside much of what had been learned about the conventional combined arms armor doctrine so successfully demonstrated in Western Europe in World War II, and instead had begun to depend on nuclear weapons delivered by air power. As this was happening, the Army was digesting the war's lessons, attempting significant changes in organizations, weapons systems development, and doctrine, based on the success of the combined arms approach developed during the war.
It was quite evident that the tank had revolutionized battlefield dynamics. The armored force that swept across Europe had learned some important lessons, chiefly that it was essential for ground forces and tactical air to fight in combination, and that tanks could not operate independently in battle. Another lesson was that it was important to have tank units organic to infantry divisions, and consequently, a tank battalion was made organic to each infantry division to assist in the assault. Armor was expected to exploit the breakthrough, then strike out to pursue the enemy. In short, the Army believed that the combined arms team, built around the tank, could make operational level exploitation possible.
General Joesph Stilwell "Vinegar Joe"
One doctrinal milestone emerged in January 1946, with the "Report of the War Department Equipment Board," the Stilwell Board, which was named after its president, the respected General Joseph W. Stilwell. Based on immediate postwar reports from Europe on tactical employment of armored and infantry divisions, one of its many recommendations called for establishment of a combined arms force to conduct extended service tests of new weapons and equipment. The board suggested that this proposed combined arms force formulate a doctrine for its employment, specifically aimed at providing a ready force quickly available for any military contingency.
M4A3E8 Upgunned Sherman tank of the 89th Tank Battalion
These 89th TB M-4 Shermans were better known as "Rice's Red Devils" in Korea
The report proposed three types of tanks: a light tank for reconnaissance and security; a medium tank capable of assault action, exploitation, and pursuit; and a heavy tank capable of assault action and breakthrough. The board also recognized the importance of developing components specifically for tanks rather than relying, as in the past, on standard automotive components. It was now accepted that the tank was a special vehicle. Finally, the board based its recommendations on the idea that the next war would again be total, with the use of air power and atomic weapons, and that victory could only be achieved by occupying the enemy's territory.
Based on another recommendation of the Stilwell Board, the commander of the Army Ground Forces, General Jacob L. Devers, disbanded the tank destroyer branch. Tank destroyer doctrine was no more than an early World War II defensive response to the threat of mechanized warfare and its main ground maneuver element, the tank. But as the war progressed, tanks improved and accounted for most of the tank-on-tank combat. By the end of the war, the M26 Pershing tank offered better armor protection than the openturreted tank destroyers and mounted a 90mm gun as good or better than the guns on the TDs.
Overhead comparision of US M-4 and M-26 tanks during Korean Era
As the Army was steeply down-sizing, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement the Stilwell Board's recommendations. The cuts were so drastic that during his tour as Army Chief of Staff, between November 1945 and February 1948, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked that implementing the rapid demobilization of the wartime army was more unpleasant than being head of the occupation forces in Germany. His tenure as Chief of Staff, Eisenhower noted, was full of frustrations. The wartime Army was falling apart, rather than demobilizing, while he was struggling with Congress over budgetary problems and the public outcry to "bring the boys home." Adding to this dilemma, troop discontent over inequities in demobilization almost turned into a mutiny. Eisenhower struggled with the need to redeploy the Army for occupation duties in Germany, Austria, Japan, and Korea, and there was an ongoing debate over the unification of the military services.
US M-4 Sherman tank being used for indirect fire support
US M-46 Patton tank being used for indirect fire mission
By 1950, Army doctrine had been revised in many ways; however, it was basically a refinement of World War II experience. It was Eurocentric, designed to fight a total war, rather than contingency operations in present and future less-than-total war situations around the world. Congressional and White House actions had reduced nine of ten Army divisions into ineffective skeletons, impacting training. This was especially true of the four occupation divisions stationed in Japan. That congested country and its road conditions did not permit extensive training exercises, especially for medium and heavy tanks. Moreover, because of the military austerity program, these divisions were deficient in authorized tank strength. Rather than having a standard complement of one heavy tank battalion of M26s and three regimental medium tank companies of M4s, each division had only one company of M24 Chaffee light tanks, no match for the Soviet-built T34/85 tanks that the North Koreans Peoples' Army used to spearhead their invasion of South Korea.
North Korean T-34/85 Armored Spearhead advancing
US M-24 Chaffee light tanks await the North Korean T34/85's
M-24 Chaffee light tank in Korea
On the eve of the Korean War, the Army had approximately 3,400 M24 light tanks in the inventory, most of them unserviceable. In addition, there were available approximately 3,200 M4A3E8 Sherman medium tanks of World War II vintage, of which only a few more than half were serviceable. The M4 mediums were the workhorse of U.S. ground troops during World War II. They were not tactically capable of head-to-head engagement with German tanks. Their battlefield success was due more too superior numbers and the ability of U.S. tankers to maneuver to a position where a penetrating round could find a weak spot.
M-4A3 Sherman tank in Korea
M-4A3E8 Sherman "Easy Eight" medium tanks in Korea
US M-26's and M-4 in Korea with crews relaxing and doing some laundry
To engage superior German tanks, the Army introduced, late in the war, the heavier armed and armored M26 Pershing. However, the first three M26s that were rushed to Korea from the Tokyo Ordnance Depot had chronic problems, especially overheating engines and defective fan belts. Also introduced to Korea was the M46 Patton. Fielded in 1949, the M46 was an M26 upgraded in engine reliability and cooling. Accordingly, tankers went to war in Korea with equipment mostly left over from World War II. In addition, many tankers were ill trained and ill-prepared, receiving equipment just days before engaging the T34/85s.
US M-26 Pershing tanks in Korea
In the beginning, the Korean War was a war of movement. U.S. tank units were assigned to various infantry divisions, regimental combat teams, and task forces for mobile fire support and antitank capabilities. No large armor units - regiments, brigades or divisions - saw service in Korea. After the counter-invasion by the Chinese Communist forces and what was left of the North Korean People's Army, the conflict became a defensive war of attrition and increased firepower to support infantry forces. Despite mountainous terrain and restricted traffic ability, tanks proved to be potent adjuncts in support of infantry. Often they were used for indirect fire missions or deployed in fixed defensive positions. Though most armor action was infantry and artillery driven, Korea demonstrated the value of tanks as infantry accompanying weapons, and on occasion, achieved spectacular results in executing fairly deep mechanized task force operations despite mountainous terrain and traffic ability restrictions.
US M-46 Patton tanks in Korea
A 1954 Johns Hopkins study, "Tank vs.-Tank Combat in Korea," recorded that U.S. tanks were approximately three times as effective as enemy tanks. It noted that American tanks destroyed about 25 percent of the enemy tank force, largely due to higher first-round engagements and hits. As a result of early experiences in Korea, a 1951 policy conference on armor revived the Stilwell Board's recommendations for three types of functional tanks: a light gun tank distinguished by its mobility; a medium tank characterized by its ability to sustain itself in all types of combat action; and a heavy tank to defeat any enemy on the battlefield. Conversely, the British, who considered the Patton tank "all too pansy," had indicated that, unlike the U.S. Army, one all-purpose tank, like their Centurion, was more suitable for armor operations.
Knocked out and captured North Korean T-34/85s
This North Korean T34/85 was just hit by a US M-26 Pershing tank round!
General Douglas MacArthur once stated that it is the study of military history that brings to light "those fundamental principles, and their combinations and applications, which, in the past, have been productive of success."
"I believe we need to read the lessons closely lest we repeat, at inestimable cost, the mistakes for which we paid so dear a price."
General Matthew B. Ridgway.
North Korean IS-2 in hull down position
Tanks and the Korean War: A case study of unpreparedness
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(Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998).
Donald Knox, The Korean War, Pusan to Chosin: An Oral History
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William T. James, "From Siege to Surgical: The Evolution of Urban Combat
from World War II to the Present and Its Effect on Current Doctrine,"
(M.M.A.S. thesis, United States Army Command and General Staff College,