Soviet Air Force – Pre WWII


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.

Alksnis, Yakov I. (1897-1940)

Commander of the Red Air Force during the 1930s. Yakov Ivanovich Alksnis was born in 1897 in Latvia. He joined the Bolshevik Party in 1916 and participated in the Russian Revolution and civil war. Remaining in the Red Army, he became an aviator during the 1920s, and in June 1931 he was appointed commander of the Red Air Force. He was closely associated with Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a former Chief of Staff and later marshal of the Soviet Union, and under his command the Red Air Force saw rapid expansion and modernization. Notable was the large-scale introduction of the TB-3, the world’s first four-motor monoplane bomber, though these bombers were not intended as an independent strike force. He also oversaw the dispatch of pilots to fight in Spain. In December 1937, during the purge of the Soviet high command, Alksnis was arrested on false charges of treason. He was executed in 1940.

Soviet Volunteer Pilots

Soviet pilots often participated in foreign military conflicts without official government involvement. The dispatch of volunteer Soviet airmen to assist allies and revolutionary forces was a regular practice from the beginning of the Soviet state. It allowed the Soviets to intervene on a limited scale without risking a wider conflict and provided the chance for practical tests of new tactics and equipment.

Soviet airmen were first sent to assist the Mongolian communists in their war against the Whites in June 1921 when Lenin sent a unit of four aircraft and crews that operated for several months before returning home. In October 1936, the first of several hundred Soviet volunteer aviators arrived in Republican Spain with the dual task of combating the Nationalist air forces and training the Republicans to fly Soviet aircraft.

Soviet pilots nominally camouflaged their presence by wearing Spanish uniforms and using noms-de-guerre, such as Pablo Palancar, Captain Jose, and General Douglas and generally stayed for about six months. The Soviets flew in squadrons integrated with Spanish and international volunteer pilots as quickly as they could be prepared to handle the modern Soviet equipment. Even before the Soviet withdrawal in October 1938 in the face of Republican defeat, Spanish pilots were being phased into command of the squadrons.

In October 1937, the Soviets again dispatched volunteer pilots, this time to assist the Chinese government against the Japanese, four fighter and two bomber squadrons initially being sent. Soviet pilots flew in China until 1939, and a few advisers remained through 1941. Though the number of aircrews dispatched is unknown, 1,250 aircraft were sent for use by Soviet volunteers and Chinese pilots, and during 1938 they provided the core of Chinese air defense.

References Andersson, Lennart. Soviet Aircraft and Aviation 1917-1941. London: Putnam 1994. Erickson, John, The Soviet High Command. London: Macmillan, 1962. Rapoport, Vitaly, and Yuri Alexeev. High Treason Essays on the History of the Red Army, 1918-1938. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 1999. Sarin, Oleg, and Lev Dvoretsky. Alien Wars: The Soviet Union’s Aggressions Against the World, 1919 to 1989. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996. 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.

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