The Red Army Air Force played an important role in World War II. During the war, Soviet pilots reportedly flew 3.125 million sorties. By 1943, Soviet aircraft production surpassed that of Germany. With more than 36,000 built, the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 ground support aircraft was the most-produced plane of the war by any nation. The effectiveness of Soviet aviation was enhanced by the country’s receipt of some 20,000 U.S. and British aircraft. Nonetheless, the Soviet air arm operated primarily in a ground support role. The Soviets had nothing that approached U.S. or British strategic bombing capability.
The Voyenno-Vozdushnyye Sily (VVS, Soviet Air Force) became an entirely independent military service in 1946. Soviet concerns over U.S. strategic bombing and nuclear weapons also led to the establishment of a separate Soviet Air Defense Service as an independent branch with its own interceptor air arm in 1954. In addition, the navy retained its own air arm, and the rise of nuclear weapons led to the creation of a separate strategic striking force to control long-range strategic nuclear missiles. Nonetheless, their World War II experience caused the VVS to place primary emphasis on support of ground forces.
The VVS was composed of three major operational branches, the most important being the theater support arm, Frontovaya Aviatsiya (FA, Frontal Aviation). The other two components were Voenno-Transportnaya Aviatsiya (VTA, Military Transport Aviation) and Dal’naya Aviatsiya (DA, Long Range Aviation), both of which supported theater operations but also served as strategic national resources under the Soviet General Staff.
FA units provided tactical air support for Soviet theater operations, with responsibility for defensive and offensive counter-air operations, deep attacks on critical theater targets, fire support for ground units, reconnaissance, and electronic combat operations. During the 1950s, the FA component numbered as many as 12,000 aircraft.
Compared to Western systems, Soviet aircraft designs tended to be less technologically advanced. Building on German jet engine design, in 1946 the Soviets placed into production their first jet fighters, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 and Yakovlev Yak-15. For their strategic bomber, on Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s order the Soviets produced a carbon copy of the U.S. Boeing B-29, some of which had been forced to land on Soviet territory during the war. The result, produced by reverse engineering, was the Tupolev Tu-4. The first Soviet jet bomber, the handsome and versatile twin-engine Il-28, entered service in 1950.
During the Korean War (1950–1953), the Soviets sent substantial air units to southern Manchuria to fight on the side of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Soviet pilots dueled with United Nations Command (UNC) aircraft in far North Korea. They also trained units of the Chinese air arm and then turned over their aircraft to them, creating the Chinese Air Force.
Soviet fighter attacks did force the UNC to end daytime raids by B-29 bombers, but the Soviets refused to supply air support to communist ground units in Korea. Reportedly, the Soviets lost 120 pilots and 335 aircraft in the war. Their MiG-15 aircraft was one of the most successful of Soviet jet fighters and a close match for the North American F-86, which was hastily rushed to the Korean theater to meet the Soviet MiG-15. In dogfights with the MiG- 15, the F-86 generally prevailed, thanks largely to superior American pilot training.
In aircraft design, the Soviets continued to emphasize maneuverability and interception capability in their fighter aircraft. Their MiG-19, entering service in 1955, was the first Soviet supersonic fighter aircraft. That same year, the turboprop Tu-95 entered service. It was the world’s fastest propeller-driven aircraft and the first true Soviet intercontinental bomber. Already in 1950 the Soviets had in service their first military helicopters.
The progress of the Cold War and the threat posed by nuclear and thermonuclear war as well as the development of missile technology led to major changes in the VVS. Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviets modernized their fleet of strategic bombers. In 1961, the Tu-22 entered service as the Soviets’ first supersonic strategic bomber. This process reached its culmination with the 1987 appearance of the Tu-160. With a gross weight of some 590,000 pounds, the Tu-160 is the heaviest warplane ever built. Capable of carrying a payload of 36,000 pounds, the Tu-160 carries a bigger payload and is faster than its rival North American/Rockwell B-1B. Although only fourteen Tu-160s were delivered by 1991, when combined with the extensive development of cruise missiles it gave the Soviets the capability to carry out deep strikes around the world.
Strategic bombers nonetheless played a less-significant role than land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), especially compared to the American triad structure. The Soviet bomber program was relatively small compared to that of the U.S. Air Force, reaching a high point of more than 800 aircraft and an average inventory in the 600s, with fewer than 200 truly intercontinental-ranged bombers.
At the same time, the Soviets continued to develop their fighter and interceptor capability, bringing on-line a wide range of fighter aircraft with the MiG-21, MiG-23/27, MiG-25, MiG-29, and MiG-31 as well as the Sukhoi Su-9, Su-11, Su-15, and Su-27. Ground attack aircraft appeared in the form of the MiG-27, Su-7, Su-17, Su-24, and Su-25. With the increasing importance of helicopters, in 1973 the Soviets introduced the superb Mikhail Mil– designed Mi-24 attack helicopter, prompted by U.S. development of the Bell AH-1 Cobra. The heavily armored Mi-24 saw wide service in Afghanistan.
The VTA component of the VVS performed long-range air transportation functions. The VTA controlled tactical—parachute and airfield assault landing and resupply—and international or strategic airlift. With a peak strength of 1,500 aircraft, the VTA was also charged with the delivery of Soviet airborne forces, which were also controlled as a strategic national asset. Transport aircraft extended their range and capabilities in the Antonov An-22, An-24, and An-26 and the Il-76.
Entering service in 1987, the An-124 Ruslan, with a gross weight of nearly 893,000 pounds, surpassed the U.S. Lockheed C-5A as the world’s largest aircraft to achieve production status. In 1988 it was edged out by a stretched version, the An-225. Although only two of the latter have been built, they are the largest aircraft in world history.
Unlike the U.S. structure of assigning intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) along with the bombers to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the U.S. Air Force, the Soviets’ land-based missile forces were not assigned to the VVS but rather to the separate service of the Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya (RVSN, Strategic Rocket Forces). The RVSN was created in 1959 to control the newly developed ICBM capability as well as intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). The Soviet military considered the RVSN to be the elite service of their force structure, with responsibility for ensuring Soviet security through the capability to conduct effective nuclear strikes at the beginning of any conflict, setting the stage for victory.
The nuclear capabilities of the DA and RVSN were further supported by the SLBM component of the Soviet Navy. The navy maintained a sizable long-range aircraft capability that provided maritime reconnaissance, antiship, and antisubmarine capabilities as well as air-to-surface missile strikes against land targets. Aircraft included the VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) Yak-36, which entered service in 1976 on the first Soviet aircraft carriers. The Soviets also introduced the Kamov Ka-25 helicopter with an antisubmarine warfare capability.
The final component of the Soviet airpower force structure was the Voyska Protivovozdushnoy Oborony Strany (PVO Strany, Troops of National Air Defense). The Soviet leadership created the independent PVO Strany in 1948, giving it responsibility for the integrated air defense system of the homeland. The PVO Strany organization controlled the substantial air defense system through early warning radars, weapons control systems, and a communications network. The technical systems were operated by the Radiotekhnicheskiye Voyska (RTV, Radio-Technical Troops). The extensive interceptor force assigned to PVO Strany was organized as the Istrebitel’naya Aviatsyiya PVO (IA PVO, Fighter Aviation of Air Defense). The interceptors were tightly controlled by the overarching command and control structure, which also integrated fighters that could be assigned to the national air defense role in an emergency. The Soviet interceptor inventory peaked at more than 5,000 aircraft in the late 1950s. PVO Strany also integrated the interceptor activities with the thousands of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that it controlled through the Zenitnyye Raketnye Voyska (ZRV, Zenith Rocket Troops) organization. These strategic SAMs could also be supported by the numerous tactical SAM systems that were deployed in the military districts across the Soviet Union as part of the Voyska Protinvovozdushnoy Oborony Sukhoputnykh Voysk (PVO SV, Troops of Air Defense of the Ground Forces). When ICBMs became a significant component of the U.S. force structure in the early 1960s, the Soviets reacted by expanding the PVO Strany organization to include an antimissile defense component (designated PRO). Active antimissile sites were deployed around Moscow.
Likewise, as space systems were developed by the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, the Soviet military added an antisatellite component (designated PKO) to PVO Strany.
During the 1980s, the Soviet military developed the air operation concept, an aggressive offensive use of airpower at the start of a theater campaign, designed to seize the initiative and create conditions for a rapid ground victory. The air offensive was intended to reduce an enemy’s offensive striking power—especially nuclear delivery systems and air, missile, and heavy artillery firepower—and establish at least localized air superiority over the main axes of attack. Additionally, the air attacks would help soften enemy defenses at and behind the points of attack and would limit enemy maneuvering capability in response to Soviet advances. Soviet theater operations would also include parachute and helicopter assaults to seize key enemy targets and support the rapid advance of the main ground assault. Reflecting their support role, FA units were assigned to the theater or front commander (in peacetime to the Military District commander in the USSR or to the Soviet Group of Forces outside the USSR).
By the mid-1980s, the VVS deployed some 6,000 tactical fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft as well as 670 strategic bombers. The Soviets also fielded 1,300 fighter interceptors. The VVS possessed some 3,500 helicopters and 650 transport aircraft. Soviet naval aviation added another 1,100 airplanes and helicopters.
Soviet air forces were an important component of Soviet theater war capabilities and operational concepts during the Cold War era. VVS units served during the Cold War not only in the Soviet Union but also in Central and Eastern Europe, Mongolia, and Afghanistan. Noteworthy Cold War service came during the Korean War, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and especially the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989). Soviet instructors and pilots saw air combat in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They also served with the Egyptian Air Force during the War of Attrition (1969–1970), in Angola (1975–1990), and in Ethiopia (1977–1979). Such service demonstrated the wide reach of the VVS and provided much useful training, but it also revealed serious shortcomings in equipment, logistics, and organization and could not conceal that the Soviets placed reliance on numbers and tight control rather than on more flexible training and innovation.
References: Epstein, Joshua M. Measuring Military Power: The Soviet Air Threat to Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. Higham, Robin, and Jacob W. Kipp. Soviet Aviation and Air Power: A Historical View. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977. Mason, R. A., and John W. R. Taylor. Aircraft, Strategy and Operations of the Soviet Air Force. New York: Jane’s Publishing, 1986. Murphy, Paul J., ed. The Soviet Air Forces. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984. Scott, Harriet Fast, and William F. Scott. The Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002. Whiting, Kenneth. Soviet Air Power. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986.