In 1942 under General Aleksandr Novikov, the whole command-and-control system of the Red Army Air Force was radically centralized. The air units were withdrawn from direct operational control of the ground forces command and grouped into 17 air armies. These were attached temporarily to the fronts as well as to Long-Range Aviation Command and strategic air reserve.
These innovations enhanced the ground support role of Soviet military aviation, allowing it to mass airpower rapidly and decisively during all major operations on the Eastern Front. Additionally, it gave more flexibility to the air force command to conduct independent air operations. During the war, the Red Army Air Force performed some 3.125 million sorties and claimed 57,000 enemy planes shot down. Naval aviation claimed to have sunk 2 million tons of enemy shipping.
The professional skills of Soviet pilots as well as the combat and technical characteristics of the aircraft improved. Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Kozhedub had the final score of 62 aerial victories, which qualified him as the most successful Allied pilot of World War II. The contribution of Soviet airwomen was unprecedented in history (with three all-female air regiments). Junior Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak, with 12 confirmed victories, became the most successful woman fighter pilot in the world.
Despite Soviet air dominance during the last years of the war, there was nothing resembling the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign in Europe. Small-scale strategic raids performed by long-range aviation on Berlin, Budapest, Constanta, Ploesti, Danzig, Königsberg, and other Axis targets revealed the lack of experience of Soviet pilots and problems in navigation.
The strategic and technological realities of the postwar world (the growing confrontation with the West, the invention of the atomic bomb, and the introduction of jet engines) shaped the development of the air force, which was reconstituted in 1946 as a fully independent armed service. Additionally, the Soviet concerns about the Anglo-American strategic air preponderance impelled the development of Soviet Air Defense (1954) into an independent service with a formidable air arm.
The study of German jet engines helped the Soviets develop their first jet fighters (in 1946, the MiG-9 and Yak-15 were introduced). At the same time, Soviet designers benefited from the wartime acquisition of several U.S. B-29 bombers. The strategic bomber force was reorganized in 1946 within the Soviet Air Force, equipped with Tu-4 heavy bombers (based on the B-29 design) and Il-28 medium bombers.
During the Korean War (1950–1953) the Soviets sent one air corps with three divisions, one separate night-fighter regiment, and a naval aviation regiment as well as the air defense and support units to fight the UN air force in Korea and on the Manchurian border. The Soviets performed 60,894 sorties and lost 335 aircraft and 120 pilots. While the air force and air defense units effectively forced UN bombers to suspend daytime raids, in pure air-to-air combat the Soviet MiG-15s were outgunned and outmaneuvered by the U.S. North American F-86 Sabre fighters.
The Korean experience led the Soviets to emphasize maneuverability and interception capability in their jet fighters. In 1955, the first Soviet supersonic fighter, the MiG-19, was introduced. Since 1950, the first helicopters appeared within the transport aviation. Also in the 1950s, the Soviet Air Force advanced its bomber development. Since 1956, the Tu-20/95 Bear turboprop bomber became the mainstay of the Soviet strategic bomber force.
The progress of the Cold War since the 1960s, the development of nuclear, thermonuclear, and missile weaponry, as well as the development of entirely new technologies, prompted significant changes in the Soviet Air Force. The political and military leadership needed a world-class airpower to back up rising global ambitions and be able to participate in any number of contingencies—nuclear and conventional. At the same time, the greater emphasis on ICBMs in the development of strategic power allowed the Soviets to reduce a number of obsolete aircraft without lowering the combat capability of its air force.
From the 1960 to the 1980s, the Soviets modernized their fleet of strategic bombers and introduced the supersonic Tu-22 bomber (1963). Beginning in 1987, the Tu-160 strategic bomber entered service. This bomber force was an integral (although the smallest) part of the Soviet strategic triad. Additionally, air-to-surface cruise missiles enhanced the strategic function of these aircraft. The cruise missiles, as well as the introduction of the Tu-26 longer-range bomber, in 1974 gave the Soviet Air Force the ability to carry out deep strikes across Western Europe, the North Atlantic, and North America.
As for Soviet tactical aviation, an increasing number of attack aircraft (MiG-21/-23s; Sukhoi Su-7/-9/-11s, and others) were introduced, strengthening the traditional interceptor/ fighter-bomber priorities. During the 1970s, the Soviets put in service multipurpose aircraft (MiG-27s, Su-17/-24/- 25s) with enhanced ground support and strike capabilities to fight in Europe and the Far East. One major innovation was the 1973 introduction of the Mi-24 attack helicopter— flying tanks—which became an increasingly important component of tactical aviation.
Transport aviation expanded its airborne and long-range airlift capabilities with the new Antonov An-22, An-24, and An-26 and the Il-76. In the late 1980s, the heavy-lift An-124 entered service. The development of the Soviet blue-water navy, including the first aircraft carriers, led to the introduction of the V/STOL MiG-21, the Yak-36, as well as Kamov Ka-25 helicopters with antisubmarine warfare capabilities. Additionally, the air force expanded its contributions to the Soviet space program.
In 1980, a major reorganization of the air force’s two main combat components—Long-Range Aviation and Frontal Aviation—took place. Five Strategic Air Armies comprising long-range, longer-range, and medium-range bombers were created, deployed in the European Soviet Union (three armies), Poland (one), and Siberia (one). The Strategic Air Armies, subordinated to the Soviet Supreme High Command, were to provide nuclear and conventional support for theater strategic operations. Additionally, the Moscow Air Army had the broader responsibility of oceanic and intercontinental operations.
The Frontal Aviation forces and the combat helicopter force (Army Aviation) organized into divisions, and independent units were assigned to the military districts in the Soviet Union and Soviet forces in Eastern Europe, Mongolia, and Afghanistan. The number of foreign interventions grew as well: Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Egypt (1970–1972), and large-scale employment in Afghanistan (1979–1988).Additionally, Soviet pilots and instructors contributed to local air defense and participated in combat during wars in Vietnam (1965–1972),Angola (1975–1990), and Ethiopia (1977–1979). Although such interventions demonstrated the global projection capabilities of the Soviet Air Force and gained it ground support experience, they also revealed inadequacies in equipment, logistics, and organization, particularly in dealing with insurgencies.
By the mid-1980s, the air force had achieved its pinnacle of power. The strategic bomber force had about 670 aircraft. The tactical aviation had 6,000 ground attack, air combat, and reconnaissance aircraft and some 3,500 helicopters. The transport aviation had 650 aircraft. Additionally, there were some 1,300 interceptors in the air defense air arm. Soviet naval aviation added 1,100 aircraft and helicopters.
The development of the Soviet Air Force, particularly its enormous modernization during the 1960–1980s period, could not change the weakness and fundamental disadvantage of the underlying Soviet system. Generally, Soviet military philosophy envisaged a heavy reliance on numbers rather than on training, technology, flexibility, and innovation. The emphasis on a highly centralized command-and-control structure was sometimes effective, but it also limited pilot initiative, especially as to air warfare, one of the most individualized arts in the military.
Despite modernization efforts, most of the Soviet Air Force lagged behind NATO airpower in electronics, navigation systems, precision munitions, maneuvering, fighter-escort abilities, and other key aspects of air warfare. By 1985, some 35 percent of Soviet combat aircraft were obsolete. Moreover, long-standing weaknesses in logistics, maintenance, and repair meant that Soviet aircraft became obsolete faster than did their Western counterparts. Additionally, the failure to fulfill the potential of aerial refueling for the Long- Range Aviation forces weakened maneuverability and strategic strike capability. Maneuverability of airpower was also hampered by slow development of the Soviet aircraft carrier.
Although the Soviet Air Force has traditionally been strong in the ground support and interception abilities, its overreliance on ground command and control inevitably limited the combat flexibility of air units, as well as initiative among pilots.
Moscow’s Cold War strategy forced the Soviet Air Force to enter a hopeless competition with the strongest, ablest, and the most dynamic airpower the world had ever known. As the Soviet Union fell into the dustbin of history during 1991–1992, so too did the Soviet Air Force.
References Boyd, Alexander. The Soviet Air Force Since 1918. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. Kilmarx, Robert. A History of Soviet Air Power. New York: Praeger, 1962. Murphy, Paul J., ed. The Soviet Air Forces. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984. Whiting, Kenneth. Soviet Air Power. Boulder: Westview, 1986.