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Reviewed by:
  • Red Wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea
  • Steven J. Zaloga
Xiaoming Zhang , Red Wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. 300 pp.

Until recently, historical accounts of the Korean air war in 1950-1953 have been one-sided, covering it only from the perspective of the U.S. and United Nations forces. Soviet participation in the air war was widely suspected even at the time, but until the 1990s the role of Soviet pilots was a state secret and was never officially acknowledged by Soviet leaders. Following the end of the Cold War, Russian veterans began to recall their experiences in Korea, and a number of Russian-language accounts appeared as newspaper and magazine articles; a few accounts appeared in book form as well. These Russian accounts touched peripherally on the operations of the allied air forces of China and North Korea, but the coverage tended to be cursory and often [End Page 164] dismissive of the performance of the Chinese forces. Although at least one American doctoral dissertation has been written on the Soviet role in the Korean air war, there has been little scholarly writing on the subject for the English-language audience.

Xiaoming Zhang's pioneering account is an attempt to redress the balance by providing a look at Chinese participation in the Korean air war in the broader context of the Communist air operations. Zhang begins with an overview of the origins of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), which is useful for Western readers because so little else is available in English. China was almost entirely dependent on Soviet aircraft during the war, and thus the history of the early PLAAF is inextricably linked to relations with the Soviet Union. The discussion of ties with Moscow establishes a thread throughout the study, as Zhang reviews the trials and tribulations of Chinese-Soviet military cooperation and technology exchanges. He provides the first widely available account of little known aspects of early Soviet-Chinese military cooperation such as the employment of Soviet aircraft in the defense of Shanghai against the Nationalist Chinese air force in 1950, an important but little known precursor to the subsequent Korean air campaign.

Clandestine Soviet air support for the North Korean People's Army was a critical issue in the discussions between Mao Zedong and Josif Stalin before and during the Korean War, and Zhang examines recent archival revelations about this debate. This is a very useful account for readers who do not have access to recent Russian and Chinese accounts, and a fine summary even for those who do. Although Zhang's primary focus is on the Chinese air force, he provides an excellent and detailed survey of early Soviet air operations in Korea in 1950-1951, which are essential in understanding the later participation of the PLAAF. These chapters will be welcome to readers who do not have access to the recent Russian writings on the Korean air war. The small-scale North Korean participation in the air war is still obscure, but Russian and Chinese accounts indicate that it was never significant in a military sense.

Zhang engages in the newly revived debate about the relative kill ratio between U.S. and Soviet/Chinese jet fighters. This ratio has become a proxy for measuring the relative performance of the various air forces. Whereas traditional U.S. accounts have often repeated the wartime claims of a kill ratio of more than ten-to-one in favor of U.S. fighter aircraft, Russian accounts in the early 1990s and more recent Chinese accounts have claimed that this was not the case. Russian accounts have gone so far as to claim that Soviet pilots performed far better than their American adversaries, particularly in the first year of the air war. Zhang also notes that the PLAAF claims to have ended the war at a time when the exchange-ratio was in its own favor. This issue remains to be sorted out, but Zhang's study provides a crucial ingredient for a reexamination of the performance...