Search NOVA Teachers

Back to Teachers Home

Missing in MiG Alley

Classroom Activity


Activity Summary
Students research technological advances, tactical strategies, and roles aircraft have played in the United States' five major international conflicts of the 20th century.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • search for and locate information related to wars of the 20th century.

  • report on technological advances and tactical strategies used in wars of the 20th century.

Materials for Teacher
  • copy of the "Historian Fact Sheet" student handout
    (PDF or HTML)
Materials for each team

Part I

  • copy of the "The Changing Face of War" student handout
    (PDF or HTML)
  • sheets of white drawing paper
  • white poster paper
  • assorted colored pencils, pens, and markers
  • glue sticks or tape
  • access to print and Internet resources

During the 20th century, the United States was involved in five major international conflicts (not including the Cold War): World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict, and the Persian Gulf War. The outcome of each one of those wars depended on a number of factors, including the combatants involved, the number of armed forces engaged, the technologies employed, the campaign strategies applied, and the politics and policies of the time.

In this activity, students explore the details of each war and consider how changing technology has impacted how wars have been fought over time.

  1. Organize students into five teams, one for each of the wars listed below:

    • World War I
    • World War II
    • Korean War
    • Vietnam Conflict
    • Persian Gulf War
  2. Distribute the student handout and other materials (cut up the teacher handout that lists the statistics for each war and provide each group with the statistics for its war). Review the student handout with the class and explain the roles for the completion of the classroom project. Assign or have team members choose roles.

  3. Have students conduct research in each of their assigned roles: historian, technologist, airplane specialist, and operational methods specialist. Each team member should create a poster containing research learned about his or her role for the war he or she has been assigned.

  4. Have each team member present a poster about his or her role, either presenting by role across the five wars or having each role presented for one war before moving onto the next war.

  5. After all teams have presented, have a class discussion to compare and contrast technologies across all of the wars and to consider the impact technology has had on how wars are fought. What were the most striking technological developments? How did these changes affect tactical strategies? What technologies helped cut down on human casualties? How has the role of aircraft changed over the course of the five wars?

  6. As an extension, have students research and create posters on everyday technologies that resulted from technological innovations that occurred during wartime.

Activity Answer

Students will create bar charts using supplied statistics, and provide basic facts about each war.

The following is a partial list of major technologies introduced or refined by each war:

  • World War I: aircraft (used mainly for reconnaissance and to adjust artillery fire), heavy artillery, poison gas (i.e., phosgene and mustard), submarine warfare, battlefield tanks, field telephone and radio

  • World War II: combat aircraft (used in strategic bombing of targets), transport aircraft, airborne warfare (paratroopers, gliders, and aircraft carriers), mechanized warfare (armored and mechanized divisions on suitable terrain), nuclear weapons, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles (V-1 and V-2), radar, sonar, electronic computers (most importantly for code breaking), antibiotics, napalm, radios and movies (for public information and propaganda)

  • Korean War: helicopters (for casualty evacuation and combat rescue), jet aircraft

  • Vietnam Conflict: helicopters, guided missiles, bio-chemical warfare (Agent Orange), television (for public information and propaganda)

  • Persian Gulf War: smart bombs, global positioning system, stealth aircraft, satellite communications

Airplane Specialists
Soon after the beginning of the 20th century, many nations used aircraft for reconnaissance. The technical advancement generated by World War I led to the development of specialized reconnaissance aircraft, and later fighters and bombers. World War II witnessed the development of strategic bombing and of the earliest jet fighters. The Korean War pitted American and Soviet pilots in history's first jet-vs.-jet war, while helicopters were deployed to evacuate the wounded and rescue downed pilots. During the Vietnam Conflict, aerial bombing was used to put diplomatic pressure on the enemy, to interdict the flow of supplies, and to provide close support to ground troops. In the first Persian Gulf War, fighters (especially the stealth fighter) were used as first-strike weapons before ground troops entered the combat zone. This strategy sought to break Iraqi resistance before infantry invaded.

Over time, as aircraft attained higher speeds and armament proved more powerful, aerial engagements rapidly changed from close-in dogfights to long-range missile duels. The advent of computer-guided missiles in the 1950s allowed pilots to be more selective in their targets. Modern laser-guided bombs use the accuracy of the global positioning system to guide weapons to within a few feet of their targets.

The introduction of radar bombing systems during World War II made night bombing more accurate, and steady improvements in the 1950s and 1960s permitted precision radar bombing. The introduction of radar and infrared guided air-to-air missiles in the 1960s allowed for long-range missile engagements. At the same time, the adoption of laser- and television-guided bombs permitted unprecedented bombing accuracy. With the advent of guidance systems using remote inputs from global positioning system satellites in the 1990s, this accuracy could be achieved without visual contact with the target. The following table lists some of the airplanes used in each war.




Speed (mph)

World War I

Sopwith Camel (1917)

Great Britain



Royal Aircraft Factory S.E. 5 (1917)

Great Britain



Fokker DR.I Triplane (1917)




Fokker D.VII (1918)




Albatros D.III (1917)




Nieuport XVII (1916)




Spad S.XIII (1917)



World War II

Messerschmitt Bf 109 (1935)




Focke-Wulf Fw 190 (1941)




Messerschmitt Me 262 (1944)




North American P-51 (1940)




Grumman F6F (1943)




Lockheed P-38 (1939)




Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 (1941)




Yakovlev Yak-9 (1943)




Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen (1942)




Supermarine Spitfire (1938)

Great Britain



Hawker Hurricane Mk. I (1937)

Great Britain


Korean War

North American F-86 Sabre (1949)




MiG-15 (1947)



Vietnam Conflict

F-4 Phantom (1962)




MiG-21 (1960)

North Vietnam



F-105 (1961)



Persian Gulf War

F-15 (1975)




F-117 (1982)




MiG-25 (1972)



* Dates indicate initial year of service for aircraft.

Operational Methods



Strategy Defined


World War I

Schlieffen Plan

attack plan to encircle Paris through Belgium; was implemented and failed; abandoned in 1914



attrition and trench warfare

forcing opponent to expend lives for small gains

embraced by Germany in 1915, then by other industrialized nations


total war involving civilian populations

destruction of non-military and non-strategic positions; destruction of resources, human and economic

embraced by totalitarian powers


alliances and coalitions

Triple Entente and Triple Alliance (alliances that dominated Western European diplomatic history until World War I)

successfully adopted by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, but misuse led to catastrophe in August 1914

World War II

island hopping

bypassing key Japanese Pacific strongholds (1942–45)

United States


massed tank formations

large-scale armor-only attacks with infantry support

heavily used by Germans


air superiority

use of fighter aircraft to secure control of the air for reconnaissance, bombardment, and ground attack

fighter aircraft first invented by French in 1915, and adopted by the Germans and other warring powers in subsequent wars


terror bombing of cities

use of massed bombing formations to sow terror

used by Germans and Japanese in the 1930s


strategic high-altitude precision bombardment

destruction of selected industrial and military targets by massed formations of high-altitude bombers

developed by United States in the 1920s; applied in World War II


night bombardment of cities

use of darkness to protect bombers from fighter attack

used first by the Germans against Britain, then by the British against Germany, and finally the United States against Japan


lightning war, aka blitzkrieg

coordinated combined arms attacks using tanks and mechanized infantry and artillery with air support

first used by the Germans in 1939–40; later adopted by Western allies


wolf packs

submarines working as large teams for massed attacks

adopted by the Germans in World War II



aerial suicide attacks against primarily naval targets


Korean War


checking spread of communism by intervention

American policy to limit the scope of the conflict to the peninsula


human wave

massed infantry attacks in close formation against defenses


Vietnam Conflict


U.S. assumption of the primary military role in March 1965

introduction of U.S. ground troops on March 8, 1965



use of chemical agents to selectively destroy ground cover (to deny cover for ambushes) and to destroy crops

United States in Vietnam from 1962–71


carpet bombing

high-tonnage bomb drops, in waves, on small areas, typically to pave the way for the advance of ground forces

used by the Americans against the North Vietnamese

Persian Gulf War


encirclement of enemy to create an indefensible "pocket"

American tactic to avoid most fixed defenses


"Hail Mary" sweep

high-speed end-around maneuver by armored divisions

formulated by American general Norman Schwarzkopf

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Missing in MiG Alley
Learn about G forces, find out how the United States looks for missing war personnel, compare the MiG and Sabre, and outfit a fighter pilot in this companion Web site.

American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics
Presents a comprehensive list of military personnel serving in, and casualties reported for, major wars and selected military operations waged by the United States.

History of Warplanes
Outlines the planes used in major conflicts, with photos, statistics, and time lines.

Statistical Summary: America's Major Wars
Compares the vital statistics of all major American conflicts, including number of troops, casualties, and financial costs.

Wars & World History-Homework Center-Multnomah County Library
Offers a search portal on wars and world history, with information on technology, statistics, and time lines.


Air Power in the Age of Total War
by John Buckley. Indiana University Press, 1999.
Analyzes the changing military role of air power in the 20th century and examines the impact of World War I, the theories and planning in the interwar period, the air arms race, World War II in Europe and the Far East, and the post-war period.

MiG Alley: Sabres vs. MiGs over Korea
by Warren E. Thompson and David R. McLaren. Speciality Press, 2002.
Includes several in-depth interviews with F-86 pilots, who explain their tactics and the details of air combat against MiG pilots.

Sabres over MiG Alley
by Kenneth P. Werrell. Naval Institute Press, 2005.
Provides a comprehensive analysis of the F-86 and how UN pilots, initially outnumbered, redefined aerial strategies and won a decisive victory.


The "The Changing Face of War" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 5-8
Science and Technology

• Abilities of technological design

Grades 9-12
Science and Technology

• Abilities of technological design

Classroom Activity Author

Steven Branting has served as a consultant for gifted and innovative programs in Lewiston, Idaho, public schools for more than 30 years. Branting and his students have won international awards for their work in physics, engineering, geographic information systems, and historical preservation.

Teacher's Guide
Missing in MiG Alley

Video is not required for this activity

Koch Foundation