Soviet Air Power In Perspective: Development

And Impact, 1925 - 1942


CSC 1995

SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy



LCDR Victor A. Steinman

United States Navy

Conference Group 2



Title: Soviet Air Power in Perspective: Development and Impact, l925 - l942

Author: LCDR Victor A. Steinman, United States Navy

Thesis: Soviet air power, while not the predominant military service

component during these years, did in fact play a large supporting role in

ensuring the victory of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War.


Background: Frequently in conversations concerning World War II, one

hears criticism of the Russian military for its general neglect of airpower,

specifically in a strategic role. Likewise, the Russian Air Force has been

lampooned for being merely an airborne extension of the Red Army, or

'airborne artillery'. While there is certainly an element of truth to each of

these suppositions, when taken in context of time and place, clear justification

for these roles emerge. Furthermore, as the largest land power in the world at

the time, a body of logic and science supports the Soviet Union's emphasis on

fielding a massive land army as the lead service in her defense. History has

certainly borne out these observations, and some critical supporting evidence is

contained in this paper that substantiates these points.



There are many commonly held misconceptions about the

development and implementation of Soviet military aviation as it emerged

prior to and during the Great Patriotic War.1 The ensuing fifty years have

perhaps made it easier levy indictments of Soviet air power. Some of the

more prominent of these are: the Soviet Union did not adequately promote

aviation as part of its national military strategy, that the Soviet Air Force

was largely just an element of airborne artillery, and that the pilots

themselves were second-rate and lacked initiative. However, a critical

examination of this transition period offers us some tangible evidence

which, in the main, vindicates Russia of much of the commonly held

rhetoric about her air force. Certain overriding factors served to script the

form and function of Soviet aviation to a large extent. Irrespective of the

Aryan supremacist overtones, the following comments of a highly

decorated Luftwaffe general officer serves to summarize my point:


As events show, Russian (response) to German Air Force operations,

however primitive and makeshift in character, and however crude they

might have first appeared to be to their more enlightened Western

opponents, proved throughout the course of the war to be highly efficient,

effective, and ultimately an important factor in the defeat of Germany.2

This paper will briefly highlight the developmental history of Soviet

aviation from its modem beginnings to the period of Soviet air superiority in

World War II. In doing so, emphasis is accorded to the following issues:

(l) that the geography of the Soviet Union significantly impacted the

makeup of the military (favoring land armies over air or naval components)

and the national military strategy, (2) that early implementation of air

power reinforced its position as in support of, if not always subordinate to,

the Army and, (3) that within the constraints of these first two points, the

Soviet air force and the individual aviator managed to perform quite

admirably as the war progressed.

Literally dozens of pertinent, first-hand accounts of the air war on the

Eastern Front are available, and more information is cascading from the

new Russia. The attempt here is to meld these source documents

(primarily German, British and Soviet) and yield a resultant product which

may be less characterized by the particular national overtones of the source.

Perhaps, as Richard Stockwell states early in his book on Soviet air power,

"there are no experts on Russia - there are only varying degrees of


Impact of Geography

The Soviet Union has frequently been lambasted for lacking vigor and

commitment in embracing air power in WWII - implying a lack of vision or

general neglect for an emerging potent military component. Here, all one

needs to do is review some of the essential tenets of geography and history to

better understand the introductory position of air power in the USSR. "Wars

are not tactical exercises writ large. They are ... conflicts of societies, and

they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the

society fighting them. The roots of victory or defeat often have to be sought

far from the battlefield, in political, social, and economic factors". These

words of Michael Howard are poignantly relevant when studying the role of

Soviet aviation in their struggle with the Wehrmacht.

It is impossible to truly understand the complexion and role of Soviet

aviation in World War II without thoroughly factoring in the predominant

impact of geography. The geography of a region largely predetermines the

economy, commerce patterns, culture, and productivity of that area. It also

directly impacts the infrastructure, development, and dispersal of the

military. The Soviet Union l94O was the largest contiguous land mass

on the face of the earth, fifteen loosely assembled states totaling over

8,35O,OOO square miles - nearly one seventh of the earth's land surface.

Recognition of the enormity of the land mass itself may obviate the

emphasis on a land army, however, some very prominent scholars have

gone to great pains to examine and explain the linkages.

British geographer and political theorist Sir Halford J. Mackinder, in

his seminal book, Democratic Ideals and Realities, gives us the most

detailed treatise on the direct relationships between geography the

subsequent military focus of particular regions. The strategic significance

of prevailing geography virtually mandates the size, type, and disposition of

the military a country will field. Mackinder describes the Heartland4 (a

region roughly equivalent to the boundaries of the Soviet Union) as an area

of great insularity - an area nearly impregnable to armed forces by land or

sea. He developed compelling argument, predicated on climate, economy,

population base, terrain, weather, and resource distribution, that Russia

was the largest insular land mass in the world - susceptible to land

invasion from only a very narrow flank. That area he defined as the

transitional split between East and West Europe. History has repeatedly

scripted the failures of attacking foreign armies that have traversed the

Russian steppe - and to a great extent the factors of land mass and climate

have been primary contributors to the ultimate demise of invaders.

The preponderance of data drawn from a historical analysis of the

Soviet Union intrinsically points towards a military posture which very well

should emphasize a land army over all other forms of military power, and

that is exactly what we find prior to World War II. As a huge land power,

Russia was naturally suited to field an equivalently massive army, having

only to muster a critical threshold population base. Mackinder illustrates

his theory through the use of historical example, demonstrating Russia's


emphasis on a land army, from the early Cossack horsemen to present, as

perfectly consistent with their geographic domain. The following statement

related his Heartland concept to population base, and also proved to be quite

prophetic (keeping in mind that the book was published just after the

signing of the Treaty of Versailles):

It is evident that the Heartland is as real a physical fact within the

World-Island as is the World Island itself within the ocean, although its

boundaries are not quite so clearly defined. Not until about a hundred

years ago, however, was there available a base of manpower sufficient to

begin to threaten the liberty of the world from within this citadel of the

World-Island. No mere scraps of paper, even though they be the written

constitution of a League of Nations, are, under the conditions of today, a

sufficient guarantee that the Heartland will not again become the center

of a world war.5


Just as the island nation of Great Britain derived its power from

command of the seas, then, so has the great insular power of the Heartland

traditionally been suited to land defense by an army. The fact that Russia

had always placed exaggerated importance on a standing army cannot be

overlooked - and surely makes great strategic sense in light of her inherent

geographical characteristics. An eminently qualified Luftwaffe general

officer, who spent most of the first three years of the war in the East during

the second world war, best substantiates the impact of geography at the

operational level, recalling:

Germany's fundamental problem in Russia was the conquest of space.

This could be achieved only by a far superior mass of manpower and

material or by possession of much greater mobility, neither of which the

Germans had in l943. The acuteness of logistical problems at the same

time forced German troops to place an ever greater reliance upon Soviet

transportation methods.6

Soviet Aviation: Inception to the Eve of War

The modern Soviet Air Force can trace its formative beginnings to the

mid-l92Os. During World War I, aviation remained an organic arm of the

Army and Navy, and was largely ineffective. It was during this period that

an affiliation developed between Russia and Germany7 - the Weimar

Republic which had been victimized by the terribly punitive provisions of

the Versailles Treaty after World War I. This treaty effectively neutered the

German Reichswehr infrastructure, and simultaneously fixed the Soviet

Union behind an artificially prepared 'cordon sanitaire' - a region of buffer

states between the two countries, drawn with political boundaries which

were largely irrespective of long-standing cultural, ethnic and national

orientations. Under the Treaty, the Germans were prohibited from all

activities leading towards remilitarization. The interests, then, of both the

Reichswehr and Nicholas II's Russia were tentatively served by the

cooperative (albeit illegal) venture of cross-military training and

development. A system of tenuous contractual agreements between the two

countries facilitated the training of approximately l2O senior Soviet officers

in Germany between l926 and l933. Attendees of particular note for

advanced military training in Berlin were two of Russia's greatest

contemporary military figures - Mikhail Tukhachevsky8 (then Red Army

Chief of Staff), and Georgi K. Zhukov, Minister of Defense.

Soviet military aviation had its formative beginnings in this setting,

and henceforth we see an immutable relationship between the German and

Russian approach to air power. Arrangements were made for the

construction of a huge aircraft manufacturing facility (the Fili Plant;

approximately l5O miles south of Moscow), initially staffed by German

engineers and skilled labor. Concurrently, a large flight training and

testing area was established near Lipetsk, where some limited numbers of

Soviet aviators directly familiarized themselves with German air tactics.

Thus, the Soviets became benefactors of an accelerated jump start in their

fledgling "air army".


Stalin, as Lenin before him, recognized the importance of an "air

army". Accordingly, great emphasis (yet not at the expense of the Army)

was placed on the complete rebuilding of the organizational structure,

infrastructure, and personnel of the "Air Forces of the Red Worker and

Peasant Army". At this early growth stage, it is apparent that the Russians

strove to model their air force after the Germans'. The emerging role of the

air force would be as an auxiliary force for the Army and Navy, and though

the Luftwaffe would eventually become a component part of the defense

structure in Germany, the Russian system would largely remain as it had

begun. Although the writings of Douhet9 were accessible and read by key

individuals in Russian military aviation, very little attention or merit was

paid to their bold vision of air power as a strategic implement.

By l927, the Russians had thoroughly schooled themselves on

German engineering and design techniques, and had begun to incorporate

certain manufacturing and assembly processes based on the German

model. That same year, all contact was severed with the Germans -

cooperative ventures and contracts were dissolved - as Stalin was readying

the country for the first Five Year Plan (l928 - l932). The next decade would

be one of tremendous relative growth for aviation, but also one in which we

see a fledgling air force severely retarded by the impact of the purges.

The execution of Tukhachevsky and his companions was only the first

step in a senseless blood purge of the Red Army that all but eliminated

the top echelons of the officer corps. During the Purge, the Red Army

lost 3 marshals, 11 deputy commissars for defense, 57 corps

commanders, l10 divisional commanders, and l86 brigade

commanders. ... Soviet aviation was especially hard hit by the Purge. .

About 75 percent of the senior officers in the (VVS) were eliminated by

l939. No army could stand a blood purge of that dimension without

suffering pernicious anemia in its command system.10


Although production goals set by these early Plans were often

unrealistic, great progress was made in the standup construction of


aircraft fuselage and engine manufacturing facilities (nearly all of these

plants built in European Russia - west of the Urals in the Moscow-

Leningrad-Donets basin). By the end of l933, the Germans estimated the

strength of the Soviet air force at approximately l,5OO front-line aircraft,

with an annual production rate nearing 2,OOO. Thus, with a good deal of

outside assistance and direct German cooperation, the Russians had built

an aviation industry from almost nothing. Most importantly, perhaps, is

that by l936, the Soviets had gone a long way towards establishing self-

sufficiency in production and training - assets which would pay great

dividends in the not-too-distant future!

In l936, marginal advances towards independent operations by the

air forces were made, removing them from direct control of the Army and

Navy. The changes were largely organizational, and the establishment of

air "divisions" or brigades were created - larger units of single type/model

aircraft than had existed before. Still, little changed with respect to the

traditional subordinate position of the Air Force to the Army.11 Here again,

though, we gleen the candid perspective of a ranking Luftwaffe officer who

dispels some common rhetoric often attributed to the Soviets in building

their aviation industry:


Together with the ruthless methods of labor management of

the totalitarian government, the inborn Russian characteristics

of tenacity, endurance, frugality, and, particularly, obedience,

promoted the speedy development of a solid foundation of suitable

personnel. The widespread assumption that the average Russian

has little, if indeed any, technical aptitude was soon proved a fallacy.

The opposite was found to be true.12


Coincident with Russia's preoccupation with giant land armies was

her tendency to mimic the function of the German air force model -

German aircraft research and design was peculiarly different from most

other countries in the pre-WWJI years. Aircraft were envisioned more as

task oriented tools of war, and as such were designed for specific military


applications - a sophisticated and effective approach towards building an

air force.

Ground attack tactics were closely coordinated with ground operations;

within these limitations they were well planned and developed from

experience that dated all the way back to the Spanish Civil War. The

technical development that took place along parallel lines brought about

the evolution of the IL-2 ground-attack aircraft whose design, capability,

and usefulness were much more oriented to a single purpose than was

the case with the German ground-attack aircraft types.13


The Russians continued their pattern of duplicating the German

model by adopting in piecemeal fashion the fundamental air doctrine of the

Luftwaffe. Tactical air had never lost its place in Germany following

World War I (at least in theory), and as such, their air doctrine of l935 was

the best document on employment of air power, as it related to both the

strategic and political constructs. General Hans von Seeckt14, the noted

progenitor of German aviation doctrine at the time, impressed his officers

to study and formulate lessons learned from World War I. Essentially, air

power was cast in a "use when needed" approach - sometimes essential,

other times, not required at all! Both the Soviet Air Force and the Luftwaffe

always took their respective armies' needs into the equation. Likewise, both

countries, as the major land powers of Europe, knew that this was critical

to the future of war.

For the duration of World War II, Germany and Russia would

adhere to this same doctrine. On paper, it was factored into three major

applications: air superiority, interdiction (direct and indirect close air

support), and deep strike bombing (strategic). Germany got the most

effective use of its air power of any of the participants early in the war (i.e., Poland). Success had its foundation in the organizational structure, even

more so than technical apparatus. The command structure hinged on


cooperation and familiarity with the ground counterparts.

Evaluation of Pre-WWII Combat Experience

In the five years prior to Hitler unleashing the fury of Barbarossa,

the Soviet Union had ample opportunity to practically implement their 'air

army' in three different theaters. Recalling that their aviation doctrine,

design, and structure mimicked that of the Luftwaffe (to a large extent), it is

no wonder that we see little experimentation in these combat operations.

While the democracies of Europe were accelerating down the road of

appeasement, Germany and Italy aggressively participated in aiding

Franco in the Spanish Civil War15. It is estimated that as many l0,000

German and 5O,OOO Italian troops fought in Spain, with a preponderance of

war material (tanks, planes, artillery) being supplied by the two primary

fascist states of Europe to the Nationalists. Spain provided a dynamic and

furtive test bed for Germany to introduce and perfect blitzkrieg tactics. On

the other side, the Loyalists of the Spanish republic became almost

completely dependent on supplies from the Soviet Union.

The predominantly Communist "International Brigade", formed in

France by the Comintern, became the vehicle through which Soviet aviation

exercised its participation in the war. Depending on the source, widely

ranging estimates of Soviet support exist, but it is safe to say that

approximately l,5OO Russian aircraft and 5OO-6OO pilots were in Spain at the

height of Soviet intervention. The bulk of these aircraft were aging single-

engine fighters and medium bombers. The Russian pilots paid little heed to

the general direction of the Loyalists' operations, and their participation

was only loosely veiled in the trappings of the cause. There was a much

greater concern for testing new aircraft and exercising tactics. The Soviets

enjoyed an advantage in the air during l936-37, both numerically and in

performance of their machines, however, as the Luftwaffe introduced the

new Me-lO9, the tide decidedly turned in favor of the Nationalists.

The most effective use of Russian air power in Spain was seen in

direct support of ground actions. Typically, composite flights (a mix of

different type/model/series) of aircraft, in groups of between seven and fifty,

would locate and target columns of Nationalist troops and vehicles. In

these scenarios, very low altitude strafing and bombing proved to be quite

effective. In retrospect, the Soviets lost an opportunity to explore the

advantages of air power as an independent strategic element, because they

had a limited capability of interdicting lines of communications, but chose

instead to engage front forces in contact. They committed very few of their

early long range bombers to this theater (which were poorly outfitted for

navigation aids and often lacked radios altogether) and had little success in

using them. It must be mentioned that the Luftwaffe operated in like

fashion, and one may deduce that to some extent, the Soviets were again

modeling their air element to the German's.

Gradually, the Nationalists wore down the republican strength, and

a non-negotiated peace was proclaimed by Franco forces on 27 March,

l939. The Germans' assessment of the impact of Soviet air was not

particularly flattering, but they did perceive strengths in their ability to

sortie from auxiliary airfields under less-than optimum conditions.


There was evidence of awkwardness in operational thinking, and

of inadequacies in general staff training. On the other hand, there

was also unquestionable evidence of the ability to master organizational

and supply problems by improvisations, and of aptitude in camouflage,

ground services, and cooperation in air-ground operations.16


At the same time operations were going on in Spain, Stalin was

forced to focus on the Far Eastern theater. Russia took advantage of an


opportunity to aggressively assist China in defending herself from the

Japanese (Sino-Japanese War17), thereby forestalling direct war Japan

itself. This war offered them an indirect approach to halting Japanese

expansion towards Russia's eastern frontiers, and once again, an

opportunity to flex their military. Over the course of approximately three

years (l937 - l94O), the Russians had between 2OO and 5OO aviators in China

at any given time. As in Spain, these pilot groups generally operated as an

autonomous component (i.e., not in combined operations with Chinese), and

likewise reinforced their doctrinal commitment of air power in support of

ground operations. Although the Soviet pilots had ample opportunity to

observe the tactics and supporting operations of both their adversaries and

the Chinese, American, and British aviation units, there is no

substantiating evidence that any real exchange was made on their part.

Operating with virtually little or no real-time coordination, the Soviet pilots

loosely planned attacks on vehicle assembly areas and units on the move,

which generally coincided with coincident friendly ground operation.

The final pre-WWII engagements were flown in the Finnish-

Russian War18, or Winter War, which provided an all-too grisly realization

that gross inefficiencies existed in both tactics and leadership. Repeated

air bombardments and massive frontal assaults eventually turned the tide

for the Soviet forces, and a short-lived peace treaty was signed on l2 March,

l94O, in which Finland ceded part of the Karelian Isthmus, Viborg and

several border territories to the USSR. German observations of the role and

impact of Soviet air power were mixed. The primary functions were still in

the direct support arena - "fighters" provided traditional close air support

and direct prosecution of ground targets in conjunction with infantry and

armor, while bombers concentrated near the front. At the height of the

Soviet offensive on the Summa Front in February, l94O, nearly one third of


the air force was committed in theater. Although flying against little to no

resistance from airborne threats, the Soviet bomber groups, which

accounted for nearly 5O per cent of all sorties, performed dismally. Severe

losses were suffered in the thick of Finnish antiaircraft barrages. Russian

aircraft losses for the war are estimated at nearly 9OO aircraft, of which

almost half were bombers. Inability to operate in adverse weather or at

night, poor navigation instrumentation, ineffective bomb sights, and engine

problems reaffirmed organizational resistance to strategic bombing.l9

In summary, the Soviets had made a commitment to aviation,

although the lion's share of the military budget was still going into armor

and artillery. To a large extent, the Soviet Air Force was comprised of aging

machines and hand-me-down tactics. This mixture made for a

cumbersome, unimaginative application of air warfare. Predictably, the

experience on these three fronts served to reinforce their fondness for close

air support, air protection of the rear, and prosecution of ground targets in

conjunction with infantry, artillery and armor. There was very little effort

to employ long range strikes for deep interdiction, and the few attempts at

strategic bombing generally netted an abysmal failure. As such, bomber

action was always concentrated at or near the front. Regrettably, much of

the expertise acquired by the Soviet officers in Spain, China, and Outer

Mongolia was liquidated by Stalin, a woeful error in light of the impending

outbreak of world war.


Assessment of the Soviet Air Force:

The Days Prior to Barbarossa...

The spring l94l German intelligence estimate of Soviet air strength

was accurate in general distribution and function, but slightly

underestimated the total number of aircraft. The Russians had formed five

military districts facing the German threat, from north to south:

Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev, and Odessa (redesignated respectively

Northern, Northwestern, West, Southwestern, and Southern shortly after

war commenced). Army and air force units located in these districts were

well forward of the old "Stalin line"20 - precariously close to the German

threat. The Soviets proved to be ingenious at engineering, constructing and

camouflaging nearly 2OO forward airfields (both expeditionary and

improved) in this vast forested area. The very proliferation of these bases

became at once an asset with regard to deception and protection, but

significantly weakened their ability to mass fires or exercise any

semblance of centralized control.

The German Intelligence Digest (UdSSR21) detailed 38 known

Russian Air Divisions there, and assumed as many as 5O. Between 3 and 6

regiments made a division; each regiment nominally built on 4 squadrons

(l5 aircraft maximum per squadron; in actuality, averaged 9 - l2 aircraft

each). The UdSSR estimated a total of approximately 5,7OO aircraft

(counting 5OO reserve aircraft between Moscow and the Urals) on the

Russian west - roughly 2,7OO bombers, and 3,OOO fighters. In April of l94l,

the German air attaché in Moscow arranged for a group of Luftwaffe

officers to tour selected Russian aircraft factories. The timing and the

intent of this preview was as obvious then as it is to us now. At the end of

the tour of inspection, Chief Engineer Artem Mikoyan, designer of the MiG

fighter and brother of Anastos Mikoyan, the Peoples' Commissar for

Industry, said to (the German attaché): "We have now shown you all we

have and all we can do; and we shall destroy anyone who attacks us."22

June 22, l94l

Hitler's Directive No. 2l, "Case Barbarossa", issued on l8 December

l94O and delayed for months, came to frightful culmination in the pre-dawn

hours of 22 June l94l. The order itself specifically called for "preventing the

effective operation of the Russian Air Force by powerful blows." To this end,

the Luftwaffe was stunningly successful, even if against a somewhat

disorganized and unprepared foe.

Doubtless, the Soviet Air Force was in no way ready for the events of

summer and fall l94l. Abbreviated training programs had been introduced

to increase the throughput of both pilots and maintenance technicians.

This late effort fell far short of properly manning the divisions, and as

expected, the new arrivals were lacking in proficiency and experience. The

Russian army estimated the Luftwaffe strength massed for the attack at

approximately 4,OOO aircraft (counting all transports, reserves, and

assuming full strength per squadron). Russian intelligence reports

accurately warned of a Luftwaffe that was 'outfitted with modern aircraft,

flown by combat experienced pilots, with a large production capacity for

both aircraft and personnel'.

Prior to the attack, Soviet air strategy was focused on destroying

enemy concentrations (force on force). Although they addressed deep

operations, their concept most closely equates to the modem term rear area.

Strangely enough, the air force gave highest priority to the destruction of

enemy airfields and aircraft on the ground (considering what was about to

happen to their own aircraft in a matter of hours!). Practically, however,

air was to be employed coincident with ground troop operations. The Soviet

doctrine spoke to offense, but it is plainly obvious that the general strategy,

both for the Red Army and the Air Force, was one of defense. Soviet

historical publications had consistently been extremely critical of blitzkrieg,

often interchanging the term with the words high risk - again, perhaps,

reinforcing their own predisposition to interior defense.

The reality of the opening months of the war is documented in the

official history of the Soviet Air Force: the Soviets admit to a loss of l,2OO

aircraft on the first day! The Germans claim total Soviet aircraft losses as

l,8OO - 32O airborne and l,48O on the ground! Accounts of air action early in

the war seem almost ridiculous by today's standards! Some have made