In Western countries, typically known as the Red Air Force—one of the largest and most powerful air forces of the twentieth century. The rise and fall of the Soviet air force (1918–1991) reflected Soviet military might yet contributed enormously to the history of airpower.
The huge continental landmass and open areas of the Soviet Union, as well as the primacy of the ground forces in the structure of its military machine, defined air defense and ground support as the primary missions of aviation. The air force necessarily interacted with other independent airpower branches (air defense aviation and naval aviation) and undertook wider interservice coordination. Rapid expansion of the air force was driven mainly by the strategic ambitions and mobilization abilities of the communist regime and was supported by virtually unlimited resources. The air force accumulated broad experience, which greatly enhanced its operation, from the 1917 Russian Revolution through the Cold War.
The Bolshevik government inherited a shattered czarist air force. The progress of the civil war, which lasted from 1918 to 1920 and resulted in Lenin’s rise to the pinnacle of power, as well as the Allies’ intervention in Russia, forced the Bolsheviks to organize the Red Army, including an air arm. On 24 May 1918, the Chief Administration (Directorate) of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Air Fleet was organized. Simultaneously, regular Red Army air units were formed. Red Navy aviation existed in 1918–1920 as a separate service.
The rapidly changing pattern of the civil war, as well as the need to employ aircraft throughout diverse climatic and terrain conditions, posed daunting operational problems. Moreover, the air force suffered from extremely poor maintenance, logistics, and critical shortages in fuel, trained personnel, and spare parts (about 60 percent of the planes were of Western origin—Morane, Nieuport 17C.I, SPAD S.VII).
Although the air force conducted 17,377 combat sorties during the war and confronted some 635–770 enemy planes (White Russian, Allied, Ukrainian Nationalist, and Polish), air-to-air combat was somewhat rare, with only 131 engagements and 20 victory claims. Most of the effort was in ground support, bombing, and reconnaissance.
During World War I, the air force acquired significant operational and organizational experience that influenced its development. These included the value of highly centralized command and control, the use of airpower in mass, the value of interservice coordination in combined and joint operations, and some tactical innovations such as air assault on large cavalry formations and the use of aircraft in propaganda.
While previously relying on Western designs, the Soviets began building their own, such as the MK-21 Rybka naval fighter and I-1 and I-2 monoplane fighters. During the 1920s, two main design bureaus, led by Nikolai Polikarpov and Andrei Tupolev, emerged. The Soviets also benefited from the joint Soviet-German air training base in Lipetsk and particularly from Junkers production of all-metal monoplanes in Russia.
The first Five-Year Plans triggered a massive buildup of Soviet aviation, including many airplanes of indigenous design. Among them were maneuverable fighter biplanes, such as the Polikarpov I-15 and I-15 bis; the first cantilever monoplane with retractable landing gear to enter squadron service, the Polikarpov I-16; and a variety of bombers, including the Tupolev TB-7, SB-2/SB-3, and DB-3.Yet the Soviets failed to develop a reliable long-range bomber force. The established Soviet concept of air warfare envisioned the use of airpower predominantly in close support missions and under operational control of the ground forces command.
The Red Army Air Force under the command of Yakov Alksnis during 1931–1937 developed into a semi-independent military service with a combat potential, good training, and a logistics infrastructure spreading from European Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. Still, the Red Army Air Force exhibited marked deficiencies in several local conflicts (e.g., against the Chinese in 1929 and in the Spanish civil war, 1936–1939). In contrast, during the 1937–1939 air conflicts with Japan (China, Lake Khasan, Khalkin Gol) the Soviets effectively challenged the Japanese air domination and provided decisive close air support in the campaigns on Soviet and Mongolian borders. During the Winter War with Finland (1939–1940), however, the Red Air Force suffered heavy losses due to inflexibility of organization, its command- and-control structure, poor training of personnel, and deficiency of equipment.
The failures in Soviet airpower were reinforced by the terror of Stalinist purges. About 75 percent of the senior officers were imprisoned or executed, and some 40 percent of the officer corps was purged. The result was the critical decline of experience, initiative, and responsibility within the command of the air force and its combat personnel.
This decline was manifested in the initial phase of World War II. During the first six days of the German invasion in June 1941, the Luftwaffe wiped out 3,800 Soviet aircraft (most of them on the ground) and gained almost unrestricted air supremacy. The sporadic Soviet retaliatory strikes were poorly coordinated and led to devastating losses in aircraft and combat personnel.
But the highly centralized Soviet aircraft industry was relocated eastward. By the end of 1943, it resumed output of new types of aircraft to challenge the Germans. During the war, the Soviets produced about 137,000 aircraft. Among the new types were the MiG-3, LaG-3, and La-5 fighters and the Petlyakov Pe-2 bomber. Most important of all was the famous tank-killer—the Ilyushin Il-2 ground support aircraft, which Stalin said the Soviet soldier needed more than “bread and air.”
The United States and Britain also supplied about 20,000 aircraft. Allied aid was of particular importance in 1942–1943, when Soviet aircraft production grew slowly. Some U.S. and British models influenced the work of Soviet designers.