Artillery Ammunition in
the Korean War
by Captain David A. Martin
As the war became a stalemate across the Korean peninsula, artillery assumed a dominant tactical role and ammunition logistics became crucial to success.
Artillery has been and remains the great killer of communists. It remains the great saver of soldiers, American and Allied. There is a direct correlation between piles of shells and piles of corpses. The bigger the former, the smaller the latter. General Matthew B. Ridgway
Artillery is sometimes called the "King of Battle." Never was that nickname more deserved than during the Korean War. The way in which the war developed created a key role for artillery, and since artillery requires a robust logistics commitmentperhaps more than any other combat armit should come as no surprise that artillery logistics requirements influenced the entire conflict.
Several factors were responsible for the important role artillery assumed in the Korean War and for the influence of ammunition requirements on the war's conduct. Rapid maneuver during the opening months of the conflict soon gave way to stalemate, somewhat like that experienced in World War I. As a result, during the last 2 years of the Korean War, while the truce talks at Panmunjom progressed at a glacial pace, U.S. commanders relied on artillery to do the lion's share of the fighting: interdicting enemy movements, responding to enemy batteries, and countering enemy offensive actions. The beginning of the truce talks led to a change in battlefield tactics, with the artillery barrage replacing the hill assault as the primary battlefield activity. The number of artillery pieces increased during the course of the war, which, of course, led to greater demands for ammunition.
However, the ability of the U.S. defense industrial base to meet the demand was affected by the change from a wartime to a peacetime economy that occurred after World War II. It took time to establish production lines and increase ammunition output. Two other factors also affected ammunition logistics. Distribution problems in Korea, resulting from a poor transportation network, hilly terrain, adverse weather, and the flow of combat, sometimes created local shortages of ammunition. And changes in the standard for days of supply for ammunition complicated logistics planning. Increases in the standard had the effect of making supplies on hand instantly inadequatewithout a single round having been fired.
Artillery and Ammunition in Korea
The United Nations (UN) forces used three basic calibers of artillery during the Korean War: 105-millimeter (mm), 155-mm, and 8-inch. However, the artillery rounds did not come completely assembled. The 155-mm and 8-inch howitzers fired separate-loading ammunition, which was composed of four separate components: primer, propellant, projectile, and fuse. Components were issued and delivered separately, which created a logistics nightmare. The 105-mm howitzers in the UN inventory fired semifixed ammunition; propellant was divided into increments, or charges, and the charges were tied together and stored in cartridge cases. Each howitzer crew adjusted the charge by lifting the projectile from its case, removing increments not required, and returning the projectile to the case.
The forces in the field also required several different ammunition types. Depending on the tactical situation, maneuver commanders could call for smoke, illumination, or high-explosive ammunition, and each type required a different shell-and-fuse combination. The average 155-mm round, fully assembled, weighed almost 100 pounds. The standard 105-mm projectile weighed half that, and the 8-inch round weighed an average of 198 pounds. Thus, delivery of artillery rounds required a significant lift capability in terms of both weight and volume.
Effects of Demobilization
After World War II, the United States quickly demobilized. The Ordnance Department almost ceased to exist. Eventually, the munitions inventory became unbalanced. For example, for every five propellant canisters of 105-mm ammunition, there was only one shell casing and fuse. The number of management personnel was insufficient to examine this imbalance and supervise ammunition stockpiles.
The defense industrial base of the United States also throttled down from its wartime footing. When hostilities broke out in Korea in June 1950, businesses were reluctant to convert to munitions manufacture, figuring that the Korean situation would be settled in weeks. Once Congress appropriated funds for munitions, manufacturers needed 18 to 24 months to fulfill the contracts. In the war's initial stages, the Army's lack of field artillery pieces was probably fortunateat least from a logistics standpointbecause it depressed the demand for ammunition. Fewer guns required fewer rounds.
In addition to the units committed to Korea, seven divisions remained in the United States, but only one, the 82d Airborne Division, was fully operational, and it comprised the Strategic Reserve. The General Reserve, in particular, was short of artillery, having only 11 battalions (four of 105-mm howitzers, five of 155-mm howitzers, one of 155-mm guns, and one of 8-inch howitzers). In early 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the UN forces in Korea, requested the immediate commitment of those battalions to the Korean theater of operations. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, having decided that they had to husband assets to maintain Western European defenses, authorized the deployment of only five battalions to Korea.
MacArthur needed the artillery battalions because the four divisions he had in Korea were short of artillery. For example, each field artillery battalion lacked a third of its howitzers. The shortage of assets was particularly acute at the division artillery, or DIVARTY, level. A typical DIVARTY modification table of organization and equipment (MTOE) allocated three or four field artillery battalions of 155-mm howitzers.
The plight of the 24th Infantry Division illustrates the situation that prevailed in Korea in the war's early days. As Dr. William Glenn Robertson observed in Leavenworth Papers ("Counterattack on the Naktong, 1950"), "The 24th Infantry Division's artillery component was greatly reduced as a result of both the peacetime practice of deleting one firing battery from each battalion and the wartime losses associated with forced retrograde movements." The after-action review went on to cite other causes for the less-than-stellar performance of the division, such as an inadequate supply of illumination artillery ammunition and mortar rounds and a doctrinal void on how to deal with tube shortages.
MacArthur also noted that division commanders did not fight their entire
divisions. The hilly terrain and the limited road network in Korea forced
fight their divisions as regiments or battalions. Since only four field artillery battalions were present in Korea at that time, MacArthur needed six additional battalions to meet MTOE requirements (one battalion for each regimental combat team). For general support artillery, he had two battalions of 8-inch howitzers, which were spread across the entire front. Procuring ammunition for additional howitzers during the initial maneuver stage of the war strained supply lines.
General Matthew B. Ridgway replaced MacArthur in April 1951. Eighth Army, commanded by General James A. Van Fleet, expanded to 4 corps (including 7 U.S. divisions and 10 Republic of Korea [ROK] divisions). After MacArthur's ouster from command, the combat situation more or less stabilized. Major operations were canceled because senior commanders did not want to influence the truce talks adversely or waste their soldiers' lives when a truce seemed imminent.
Van Fleet shifted to an active defense posture. The enemy would be vulnerable to massed artillery fire if he attacked. Ridgway sought to bolster his artillery defenses and requested five 155-mm howitzer battalions, four 8-inch howitzer battalions, and one 155-mm gun battalion. In response, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent four artillery battalions, stripping the General Reserve to a bare minimum and further delaying the Western European buildup.
Throughout the Korean War, senior commanders like Ridgway sought to offset the huge Communist manpower advantage through the use of artillery and firepower. The conflict evolved into a contest between manpower and firepower. Logistics problems resulted as commanders sought to overcome an 8:1 Communist manpower advantage through a 100:1 UN firepower advantage.
Enormous amounts of artillery ammunition were expended. During a 60-day period in 1951, the 314th Ordnance Ammunition Group established 17 forward ammunition supply points to deliver artillery rounds to three corps (I, IX, and X). A total of 158,303 tons of ammunition was delivered, the equivalent of 27 Liberty ships or 39,527 2½-ton truck loads. X Corps Artillery fired 49,986 rounds in one day (22 May 1951).
The need to procure precious ammunition eventually led to several nondoctrinal innovations. Firing units were not emplaced to support a maneuver unit in contact with the enemy; instead, artillery commanders or logisticians sited them close to railheads and other supply lines. Munitions were offloaded directly from railcars to gun positions (a distance of less than 100 meters in some cases).
The 1st Cavalry Division used another nondoctrinal approach. The division ammunition officer (DAO), while conducting a reconnaissance of port facilities days before the division's commitment to Korea in July 1950, discovered that he could not rely on ammunition stockpiles in the theater. The division therefore deployed with extra unit basic loads for artillery: 2 unit loads of 155-mm ammunition and 5 unit loads of 105-mm.
How to offload the ammunition was another challenge. Doctrinally, the DAO was supposed to allocate, not handle, the division's ammunition. To move ammunition in Korea, however, the division commander placed the division's ordnance company under the DAO's operational control. Other arriving divisions soon adopted this novel approach.
Bolstering the ROK Army's field artillery increased the demand for ammunition. Major General Paik Sun Yup, commander of the ROK 1st Division and hero of the Pusan defense, later recalled, "The weakness of our artillery was a major reason why units found themselves fighting for their lives so frequently." Arguably the ROK's ablest general, he expanded the artillery base of the ROK Army by establishing an artillery school at Kwangju and rebranching capable infantry officers into artillery. He sought to eliminate the disdain for artillery officers that permeated the ROK Army. ROK artillery officers eventually rose to eminence.
General Paik also bolstered the artillery strength of the ROK Army division from one 105-mm battalion to one 155-mm battalion and three 105-mm battalions. Ammunition requirements increased accordingly. The heightened logistics requirements concerned General Mark Clark, who succeeded Ridgway in May 1952: when six ROK 155-mm battalions became active, the Far East Command had to supply 486 artillery pieces instead of 378.
ROK artillery doctrine, as taught at Kwangju, did not help the ammunition situation. That doctrine called for mass expenditure of ammunition during unobserved fire missions. U.S. commanders, by contrast, seldom used unobserved fire, calling it a waste of precious ammunition. In May 1952, General Paik responded to the alleged discovery of a Chinese staging point by unleashing the most powerful artillery barrage ever fired by ROK artillery up to that time, firing 20,000 rounds in 19 hours. The Chinese attack never came.
Paik's barrage stimulated much debate. Responding to U.S. criticism, Paik defended his course of action: "We had no way to verify the extent of damage, but there is no reason to doubt that the tremendous display caused the Chinese to change their minds about launching an offensive aimed at ROK II Corps."
Politics, Economics, and Artillery Ammunition
Artillery ammunition became a significant political issue of the day. Resupply proceeded slowly, and Congress investigated usage rates. The press reported ammunition shortages, and a major scandal broke out on the front pages of many newspapers. President Dwight D. Eisenhower requested a briefing from General Clark on the ammunition shortages and allegations of mismanagement and waste.
|The hilly terrain and poor road network of Korea complicated tactical operations, even for units using smaller guns. Here, soldiers of the 2d Infantry Division and laborers of the Korean Service Corps maneuver a 75-mm recoilless rifle into firing position near Yangku in August 1951.|
Some U.S. commanders went on record as preferring General Paik's approach. General Van Fleet said that the barrage "allowed us to steal a march on the enemy, preventing it from launching an attack, resulting in extra weeks of quiet which decreased friendly casualties." He felt that the quickest way to establish mastery over the Chinese was intimidation through demonstrations of sheer firepower. President Eisenhower agreed. The press eventually lost interest in the matter, but not before establishing a moniker for an enormous expenditure of artillery ammunition: the "Van Fleet Supply Rate."
U.S. production lines turned out 100,000 155-mm rounds in July 1952. The authorized daily supply rate was 40 rounds per gun. To provide those 40 rounds for each of the 486 artillery pieces in the Korean theater required the manufacture of 583,200 rounds per month. Production was slowed when 60,000 forgers of the Christie Park Plant in Pittsburgh went on strike in June 1952. The strike lasted for 54 days, but it had a ripple effect on ammunition supply that in October 1952 caused Van Fleet to limit his guns to 6 rounds per day.
In response to the strike, alternative sources of ammunition were sought. The Japanese had 600,000 rounds for sale, but the Army rejected that procurement because of its cost. (The Japanese round was one and a half times more expensive than its U.S. counterpart).
Fierce actions in September and October 1952 reduced stockpiles to a 26-day supplyan all-time low. During this fighting, Eighth Army fired 423,000 105-mm shells in just 6 days. To support Korea, theater stocks in Europe were depleted even further and reached critically low levels.
The artillery barrages that resulted from the static situation in Korea were fed by stockpiling ammunition for days beforehand. The changing nature of the war also increased demand. The 2d Infantry DIVARTY fired over 153,000 rounds against Bloody Ridge in August and September 1951. In one 24-hour period, the 15th Field Artillery Battalion fired 14,425 rounds.
Commanders continued to seek out ammunition reserves. Van Fleet feared that the Communist negotiators would seek to freeze current ammunition stocks, so he asked for permission to increase his level of supply from 30 to 45 days. In 1952, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and General J. Lawton Collins, the Chief of the Army, asked Van Fleet to look again at his ammunition usage and supply requirements. Eighth Army spent $750 million on artillery ammunition in that year alone. Of all fire missions, 68 percent were for interdiction, 19 percent were counterbattery actions, and 15 percent were responses to enemy actions. Van Fleet was encouraged to limit unobserved interdiction missions.
Later in 1952, Under Secretary of the Army Earl D. Johnson, noting the large task of providing ammunition, requested that General Collins examine the possibility of substituting mortar for artillery fire. Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett meanwhile continued to divert ammunition destined for other theaters to Korea and directed units in Korea to recycle brass casings. He also sought to reduce allocations for each 155-mm howitzer to 9.4 rounds per day. Increased congressional appropriations for munitions in 1951 began to bear fruit in late 1952 and early 1953, just as the action in Korea wound down with the imminent signing of the truce.
General Van Fleet, appearing before a congressional subcommittee in 1953, cited several reasons for the huge artillery ammunition expenditure in the war. The increase in Chinese artillery necessitated an increase in counterbattery missions. Furthermore, the enemy usually was dug in at targets like Bloody Ridge, so direct hits by direct fire were needed. According to Van Fleet, the UN was fortunate that the Chinese never launched an all-out offensive during a period of UN ammunition shortage.
U.S. Artillery and Ammunition in Korea Today
A technological revolution of sorts impacted artillery in the 1980's. Korean War-era technology was replaced with push-button warfare and the pinpoint accuracy of today's artillery. The deadly precision of the M109A6 Paladin howitzer and the destructive potential of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) require less ammunition logistics support than artillery did in the Korean War.
Nonetheless, accuracy does not necessarily mitigate ammunition needs. With two howitzer battalions and one MLRS battalion currently stationed in Korea, the Army clearly will have to do more with less. The 15th Field Artillery Battalion's expenditures of ammunition in 1951 are unthinkable today. Even in the Gulf War, howitzer battalions fired nothing close to the 15,000 rounds a day fired by the 15th in Korea.
While U.S. artillery on the Korean peninsula bolsters ROK defenses against one of the world's most dangerous adversaries, it also is worth remembering that, as in 1950, any military action today probably will commence with an artillery duel requiring large expenditures of ammunition. If history holds any lessons, only the strength of the economic and political base of the United States will win the war. ALOG
Captain David A. Martin commands the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 15th Field Artillery, at Camp Casey, Korea. He is a graduate of the Field Artillery Officer Basic and Advanced Courses and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School.