Air Force of the Soviet Union

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Air Force of the Soviet Union
Военно-воздушные силы СССР

Flag of the Soviet Air Force.svg

Flag of the Soviet Air Force

Active 24.May 1918 until 21 December 1991
State Soviet UnionSowjetunion Soviet Union
Forces Red Army
Type Sub-Force
Traditions Russian Air Force
Original red star as main symbol of the air force until 1943 Red star.svg
Red star with white border as of 1943 Roundel of the Soviet Union (1945–1991).svg
Emblem of the Soviet Air Force RAF AF branch insignia.svg

The Air Forces of the Soviet Union(Russian Военно-воздушные силы СССР, transcribed: Wojenno vosduschnye sily SSSR, abbreviated WWS) were a branch force of the Soviet Army.

The Air Forces existed from 1918 to 1991, having emerged from the Tsarist Air Force and being divided among the successor states after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Cold War division

The air forces were divided into

  • Long-range forces (strategic bombers),
  • Frontline Air Forces,
  • Transport air forces, if necessary reinforced by aircraft of Aeroflot.

In addition, there were – organizationally separate from the air forces – the air defense combat aircraft (PWO) (interceptors), the army air forces, and the naval air forces.


The beginnings 1917

bomber Ilya Muromez

Russia had a total of 1,109 military aircraft at the start of the October Revolution. Most of these aircraft, as well as their engines, had been acquired in Great Britain and France before and during the First World War or had been copied under license. Of the aircraft developed in-house, only the famous Ilya Muromez and the single-engine Anatra D, Anatra DS and Lebedj-12 were ready for series production.

Shortly after the overthrow, a newly formed college began to record the available resources and list the available aircraft, engines and production facilities. On November 10, 1917, the first division of the revolutionary aviation forces was formed.

Ten new aviation schools were founded to train pilots, as well as the Moscow Aviation Technical School in 1919, which became the Red Air Fleet Engineering Institute in 1920 and the Air Fleet Academy, now the Military Academy of Air Force Engineers, in 1922.[1]

In mid-1918, the Bolsheviks divided the air forces of the Red Army into aviation departments, which were subordinate to the Central Administration of the Red Workers’ and Peasants’ Air Fleet, established in May. An aviation department consisted of six aircraft with 113 members and had a fleet of four motor vehicles and six horse-drawn vehicles. While there were initially only nine of these divisions, by December 1920 their number had grown to 65 land divisions as well as 18 naval divisions.

These newly formed Soviet air forces took over a large part of the aircraft stock of old Russia, which, as indicated above, consisted of a hodgepodge of the most diverse types. Available as fighters were, for example, 307 French Nieuports of versions X to XXIV and some SPAD S.VII, British Sopwith Triplane, RAF S.E.5 and Vickers F.B.19 as well as some captured German Fokker D.VII biplanes.

During the course of the Civil War, there was also intervention by Western countries and Japan against Soviet Russia. About 150 more aircraft could be captured and added to the inventory. In particular, the 15 operational Ilya Muromez, which had been combined in a special bomber division, as well as the French Breguet 14 proved themselves well in this conflict in bombing raids against the horsemen armies of the White Guards of General Mamontov, but the main task of the air forces was mostly limited to reconnaissance tasks due to the lack of resources. The consequences that the government therefore drew from this civil war, among others, consisted in building a strong air fleet. For this reason, in the years 1921-1928, new aircraft factories were built with great effort, as well as schools and research facilities, in order to quickly advance the development and production in this field.[2]

First own types – the twenties

On 1 December 1918, the father of Russian aviation, Nikolai Yegorovich Zhukovsky, founded the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (ZAGI), laying the foundation for the research on which Soviet aerospace was based in the decades to come. At ZAGI, new types of aircraft were developed and tested, and aerodynamic conditions were researched. A large wind tunnel was also built for this purpose, in which the flight behaviour of complete aircraft could be observed.

For a time, however, the Soviet Union still relied on purchasing aircraft abroad. By 1922, 90% of all new military aircraft had entered the USSR as imports. So it is not surprising that the first Soviet-produced type, the R-1, was a replica of the British de Havilland D.H.4, whose manufacture had been tailored by Nikolai Polikarpov to suit domestic production capabilities. As late as 1926, the Soviet Union purchased obsolete French Farman Goliath biplanes for training bomber pilots, which were also used as drop planes for the forming paratrooper units.

The Po-2, one of the most built airplanes at all

However, it was the lack of suitable engines that caused the Soviet air forces the most trouble. All aircraft engines had to be imported or produced under license. For example, the two most powerful engines produced by the Soviet industry, the M-17 and the M-22, were replicas of the German BMW VI and the French Gnôme-Rhône Jupiter.

This situation did not change until December 1930, when the Central Institute for Aircraft Engine Construction (ZIAM) was founded. Alexander Mikulin, who had already been building aircraft engines since 1923, developed the first powerful Soviet aircraft engine there from 1930 onwards, the water-cooled 12-cylinder V-engine M-34. Another employee who later became famous for his engines was Vladimir Klimov.

At the end of 1924 the Soviet Air Force was again restructured. The existing aviation divisions were dissolved and the aircraft were combined into the squadrons corresponding to their tasks. Fighter, reconnaissance, combat and light bomber squadrons were formed. A squadron consisted of three subdivisions of 18 aircraft each. By 1928, the operational strength of the squadrons had doubled.

In the mid-1920s, the first high-performance in-house designs appeared, which also attracted attention abroad. The first self-supporting all-metal bomber aircraft in the world, the TB-1, developed by Andrei Tupolev, set the trend. Fighter aircraft of this period included the Grigorovich I-2 and Polikarpov I-3 biplanes, which could be made available to the air forces in more or less significant numbers.

Since the First World War, Dmitri Grigorovich had been leading the way in the design of flying boats. His two designs, the M-5 and the M-9, formed the backbone of the Soviet naval fleet’s shipboard aircraft.

The development that had begun with the Polikarpov R-1, namely the production of light single-engine multi-purpose aircraft, continued with the Tupolev R-3. It culminated in the 1930s in the mass-produced types Polikarpov R-5 and Polikarpov Po-2 and characterizes the production method of the Soviet industry at that time: Small types, which could be produced without great effort and which could be used variably as reconnaissance aircraft, bombers, liaison aircraft and others. Special types like the bomber TB-1, however, remained clearly in the minority. In 1929 this represented only 5 % of the aircraft of the Soviet air fleet, the single-engine reconnaissance aircraft, however, 80 %.[3]

The thirties

With the gradual strengthening of the Soviet economy, the balance of power in the Soviet air forces also changed. The foreign types had disappeared and own engines were available now in sufficient measure. With the PW-1 and the DA, two aircraft machine guns had already been developed in the preceding years, which were now replaced by such powerful weapons as the SchKAS-MG.

Whereas reconnaissance aircraft had previously dominated the image of the air forces, 43% of all Soviet military aircraft were now fighters, and as much as 53.4% at the start of the Great Patriotic War.[4]

In July 1929, the Central Committee of the CPSU issued a decision to develop new and better aircraft. In 1930, for this reason, the Central Design Bureau (ZKB) was established, in which, from 1932, design teams specialized in specific types of aircraft worked. There were development groups for fighters, long-range bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, seaplanes, rotorcraft, landing gear, aircraft weapons and propellers. The ZAGI was similarly organized.

Fighter plane I-16

Due to this specialization, powerful types were developed that brought the connection to the technological top of the world, such as the fighter planes Polikarpov I-15, I-16 or the heavy bomber Tupolev TB-3.

In 1932, the Soviet air forces became an independent branch of the armed forces and it was emphasized to build up more fighter and bomber squadrons. The share of the until then dominant reconnaissance aircraft decreased drastically due to this measure (only 31%), the fighters and bombers on the other hand made up the majority of all military aircraft from 1932/33.

In 1940, the air forces were again restructured. The brigades were replaced by divisions, which were divided into regiments. A fighter regiment consisted of four squadrons of 60 aircraft, a bomber regiment of five squadrons of either 60 medium or 40 heavy bombers. As a rule, two fighter regiments, two bomber regiments, and one bomber regiment together formed a mixed aviation division. The heavy bomber units were divided into a corps, from which the long-range aviation forces ADD (Awiazija Dalnewo Deistwija) were formed on 5 March 1942.

With the heavy bomber TB-3 the possibility was now also available to advance the development of the airborne troops. Therefore, the airdrop tests, which had already been carried out with Farman Goliath since 1930, were perfected and from 1932 the first airdrop detachments were formed. In the maneuver in the Kiev Military District in 1935, airborne troops were used in regimental strength for the first time and the Soviet doctrine of deep operation was practically rehearsed. In 1939, the Soviet Army had six airborne brigades, the number of which was doubled by 1940.

As early as the early 1930s, maneuvers were conducted to test the interaction between air and ground forces, a doctrine that would be successfully applied during World War II and on which the Red Army would rely until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the maritime field, the specialization of aircraft for tailored tasks also prevailed. Georgi Beriyev’s flying boats and seaplanes, especially the MBR-2, achieved remarkable flight performance in contrast to the obsolete Grigorovich designs. The majority of the aircraft fleet consisted of land-based machines. The seaplanes, until then part of the air forces, became from 1935 part of the naval fleet under the designation Wojenno-vosduschnije silij-wojenno-morskoij flot (WWS-WMF).[5]

The Spanish Civil War

In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and Germany and Italy used this conflict to test their latest weapons technologies as part of aid to the putschists under General Franco. The Soviet Union also sent weapons aid to the Republican government, including aircraft.

In the early stages of the air battles, the I-15 and I-16 fighters used were still able to hold their own well against the German Heinkel He 51 and Italian Fiat CR.32. But when the modern Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters appeared, it became apparent that Soviet technology could no longer keep up with the latest developments. The twin-engine SB-2 bomber, faster than any fighter of the time when it appeared in 1935, could not bring its speed advantage to bear on the faster Bf 109 and suffered heavy losses.

Taking these experiences into account, the Central Committee of the CPSU decided in September 1939 to establish new design bureaus. From 1938 to 1941, therefore, the OKBs Mikoyan-Gurevich, Petlyakov, Lavochkin and Sukhoi, among others, were established, as well as an additional nine aircraft and seven engine plants.[6] Thus, before the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, it was possible to start testing modern types such as the fighters MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-1 as well as the bombers Pe-2, Il-2 and Su-2 and to transfer them into serial production.

Second World War

The invasion of the Soviet Union caught the air forces unprepared in the midst of this important restructuring phase. The regiments consisted largely of obsolete aircraft. About 80% of the fighter squadrons were I-15s, I-16s, and I-153s. Among the bombers, 47% were SB-2s and 34% were DB-3/Il-4s. By bombing airfields, the German Luftwaffe managed to destroy some of the aircraft on the ground. By an increased production of machines in the parts of the country not affected by the war the losses could be compensated however fast.

In order to escape the danger of bombing raids and to keep them out of the reach of the advancing German Wehrmacht, about 1,300 factories had to be evacuated eastward to beyond the Urals by the end of 1941, which represented a tremendous logistical feat. During this operation, entire factories, including their workforces, were loaded onto trains, trucks, and in some cases barges and transported away. Under extreme conditions – the Russian winter had set in and the supply situation for the factory workers was insufficient – the factories were rebuilt in the depths of the country. In some cases, aircraft were produced in only half-finished factory halls under the open sky. After a production slump in December 1941 resulting from this relocation, the Soviet Union’s aircraft production rose steadily from then until the end of the war. While the German Luftwaffe had unrestricted control of the airspace at the beginning of the campaign with the Bf 109 and Fw 190 fighters, this advantage turned towards the Soviet Union from 1943 onwards. The evacuated factories steadily increased their production output and the new types La-5, La-7 as well as Jak-9 and Jak-3 were on a par with the German types, if not superior in some respects. At the end of 1944 the Abteilung Fremde Heere Ost estimated:

“By redesigning a number of types, the SU has succeeded in matching, and in some cases surpassing, the performance of the German types with the efficiency of its new fighters in particular.”[7]

Due to the large potential of people, the losses of flying personnel could be compensated without any problems, while the Germans suffered from a chronic shortage of personnel. Also the armament could be improved by the transition from the machine gun to the large-caliber machine gun, especially the 20-mm-SchWAK and 23-mm-WJa.

Unlike other air forces in World War II, women flew combat missions in the Soviet Union. In 1942, three regiments consisted entirely of women pilots. One that became famous was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, in which the women aviators flew Po-2 biplanes and called themselves Night Witches. Out of 29 female pilots who received the Hero of the Soviet Union award, 23 were among the Night Witches.[8] In total, 2,420 members of the flying personnel received this highest award of the Soviet Union during the war, 65 were awarded it twice, pilots Ivan Koschedub and Alexander Pokryshkin received it three times.[9]

Battleplane Il-2

A new tactic of the Soviet Union was the formation of large mixed aircraft formations, called air armies, with up to 1,000, and later up to 1,500 aircraft. Each air army was assigned to a front (the Soviet equivalent of the German army group), to whose commander-in-chief it was subordinate. This ensured close interaction between land and air forces. It also shifted the focus of bomber production towards the battlefield aircraft, which were a tactically very effective weapon. Especially the Il-2 as well as its successor Il-10 proved to be extremely effective in interaction with ground forces. Altogether about 40,000 of these two types were produced. The total number of all aircraft produced during the war was 136,800, 62,500 of which were fighters.[10]

By the end of the war, the Soviet Air Force flew some 3 million sorties and was the second largest component force of the Red Army after the Army.[11]

Postwar and Cold War

Shortly after the Second World War, Soviet aircraft construction profited greatly from the transfer of technology from Germany. Thus, numerous sketches, construction plans and unfinished prototypes of German aircraft and engines were captured in the Soviet occupation zone. German knowledge in the construction of jet engines was invaluable and facilitated the transition of the aviation industry from piston engines to jet propulsion. A technological step was taken by the purchase of British engines and their reproduction.

Already in 1946, the first fighter prototypes were produced, equipped with captured Jumo 004 engines. In particular, the design bureaus Yakovlev, Lavochkin, Mikoyan-Gurevich, Ilyushin and Tupolev developed many new types.

The MiG-9 and Yak-15, the first jet-powered fighters, became available to the air forces shortly thereafter. In 1949, from the OKB Mikoyan-Gurevich appeared the fighter MiG-15, which was built in about 8,000 copies and established the reputation of the design bureau as the leading fighter manufacturer of the USSR. In the same year, the Il-28 frontline bomber, which characterized the move away from the battle and dive bomber in favor of the frontline bomber, was delivered to the WWS. During the entry into the nuclear age after the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a strong strategic bomber fleet. In particular, the OKB Tupolev proved to be a leader in this field. Modern versions of the Tu-95 bombers, which entered service in the early 1950s, are still partly in service today.[12]

Air manning
1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1991
510.000 330.000 440.000 550.000 570.000 420.000 420.000

Inventory of the Soviet Air Force in 1990

Tupolev Tu-95

MiG-25 of the Soviet Air Force, 1980s

MiG-29 on an airfield

Ilyushin Il-76 on a Soviet stamp

205 strategic bombers[13]
160 Tupolev Tu-95
15 Tupolev Tu-160
30 Myassishchev M-4
230 medium bombers[13]
30 Tupolev Tu-22M
80 Tupolev Tu-16
120 Tupolev Tu-22
1.755 fighter planes[14]
90 Sukhoi Su-27
540 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29
700 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23
185 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
200 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31
40 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25
2.135 Fighter bomber[14]
630 Sukhoi Su-24
535 Sukhoi Su-17
130 Sukhoi Su-7
500 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-27
340 Sukhoi Su-25
84 Tanker aircraft
34 Ilyushin Il-78
30 converted Myassishchev M-4
20 converted Tupolev Tu-16s
40 AWACS aircraft
40 Beriyev A-50
1.015 Jamming and reconnaissance aircraft
50 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21
170 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25
190 Sukhoi Su-7R
235 Sukhoi Su-24
200 Yakovlev Yak-28
130 Tupolev Tu-16
30 Tupolev Tu-22M
10 Ilyushin Il-20
620 Transport aircraft
45 Antonov An-124
55 Antonov An-22
210 Antonov An-12
310 Ilyushin Il-76
some 3,000 other civilian and transport aircraft that could easily be converted into military transports in the event of mobilization. These were about 1,400 aircraft of other transport air forces subordinated to the air forces (with Tu-134, Tu-154, An-26) and at least 1,800 aircraft of Aeroflot.[15]

Commander in chief (selection)

  • Pyotr Ionovich Baranov (1924 to 1931)
  • Yakov Ivanovich Alksnis (1931 to 1937, victim of the Great Terror)
  • Alexander Dmitrievich Loktionov (1937 to 1939, executed in 1941)
  • Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich (1939 to 1940, executed in 1941)
  • Pavel Vasilyevich Rychagov (1940 to 1941, executed in 1941)
  • Pavel Fyodorovich Shigarev (1941 to 1942 and 1949 to 1957)
  • Alexander Alexandrovich Novikov (1942 to 1946)
  • Konstantin Andreyevich Vershinin (1946 to 1949 and 1957 to 1969)
  • Pavel Stepanovich Kutakhov (1969 to 1984)
  • Alexander Nikolayevich Yefimov (1984 to 1990)
  • Yevgeny Ivanovich Shaposhnikov (1990 to 1991)
  • Pyotr Stepanovich Deinekin (1991, afterwards also Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force of the Russian Federation)

See also

  • Russian Air Force


  • Russell Miller: The Soviet Union in the Air War. Bechtermünz Verlag, Eltville am Rhein 1993, ISBN 3-86047-052-3.
  • Wilfried Kopenhagen: Soviet Bombers. transpress, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-344-00391-7.

Web links

Commons: Air forces of the Soviet Union– Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. Wilfried Kopenhagen: Soviet Fighter Aircraft. Transpress, Berlin 1985, p. 9.
  2. Wilfried Copenhagen: Soviet bomber aircraft. 1989, S. 13–17.
  3. Wilfried Copenhagen: Soviet Bombers. 1989, S. 18.
  4. Wilfried Kopenhagen: Soviet Fighter Aircraft. Transpress, Berlin 1985, p. 44.
  5. Wilfried Copenhagen: Soviet bomber aircraft. 1989, S. 19–34.
  6. Karl-Heinz Eyermann: Die Luftfahrt der UdSSR 1917-1977. Transpress, Berlin 1977, p. 62.
  7. Olaf Groehler: Die Zerschlagung der deutschen Fliegerkräfte an der deutsch-sowjetischen Front 1941-1945. In: Erhard Moritz (ed.): Das Fiasko der antisowjetischen Aggression. Berlin 1978, p. 315.
  8. Russell Miller: The Soviet Union in the Air War. 1993, S. 119.
  9. Alexei Ivanovich Shakhurin: Wings of Victory. Militärverlag der DDR, Berlin 1989, ISBN 3-327-00822-1, p. 261.
  10. Karl-Heinz Eyermann: Die Luftfahrt der UdSSR 1917-1977. Transpress, Berlin 1977, pp. 93 and 96.
  11. Wilfried Copenhagen: Soviet bomber aircraft. 1989, S. 35–42.
  12. Wilfried Copenhagen: Soviet bomber aircraft. 1989, S. 66–80.
  13. a b List of bombers of the USSR in 1990
  14. a b List of fighters/fighter-bombers of the USSR in 1990
  15. Günter Weiße: NATO Intelligence: Military Intelligence at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) 1985-1989, ibidem Press, 2014 ISBN 978-3-8382-6563-6, Section 3.2.6.:The Air Transport Units VTA