Air Force

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Air Force


an armed service of a state designed for independent action in the fulfilling of operational and strategic missions and in joint operations with other armed services.

Depending on its combat capabilities, the air force can inflict defeat on groupings of enemy aviation, rocket forces, and ground and naval forces, as well as destroy important military objectives in the enemy’s rear. The air force can also support ground and naval forces in their operations, conduct aerial intelligence in the interests of all armed services, transport large-scale airborne landing forces along with materiel, provide security for the maneuvering of troops, and supply troops with materiel by air. The main characteristics of the air force as an armed service are great maneuverability, a very wide scale of operations, and the ability to swiftly redirect efforts onto other axes and objectives, to operate deep in the enemy’s rear, and to deliver sudden attacks that destroy large or small and stationary or mobile objectives.

The USSR’s air force consists of three branches of air power: long-range (strategic) aviation, frontline aviation, and military transport aviation. Naval aviation and air defense are elements of the Soviet Navy and the National Air Defense Forces. The air force is armed with long-range (strategic) and frontline bombers, fighter-bombers (attack airplanes) and fighters, reconnaissance aircraft (piloted and pilotless), and military transport planes and helicopters.

The air forces of the big capitalist countries consist of strategic, tactical, transport, and air defense. In addition, the US Air Force also has large units of intercontinental ballistic missiles and military aerospace facilities. The navies of the USA, Great Britain, and France each have their own air force. Organizationally, the air forces of most countries consist of operational air commands, large units, regular units (wings in the USA), service elements, signal communications units, and electronic units.

The history of the air force is related to the development of aircraft technology. The first military airplanes made their appearance in 1909-10 in the large countries. In Russia, airplanes were first used for military purposes on maneuvers in the St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Kiev military districts in 1911. Each side had one aviation detachment for reconnaissance and photography of the terrain. In wartime, Russian planes were first used during the first Balkan War (1912-13), when a Russian aviation detachment was active on the Bulgarian side.

On the eve of World War I (1914-18), Russia had an air force of 263 military airplanes, mainly French-produced; France, 156; Great Britain, 30; USA, 30; Germany, 232; Austria-Hungary, 65; and Italy, 30. Military aircraft of the period had a top speed of 120 km/hr and a maximum altitude of 4,000 m. From the beginning of the war, airplanes were used mainly in aerial reconnaissance and the adjustment of artillery fire. Early in 1915 the reconnaissance airplanes of the belligerents were equipped with bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, and bombsights and armed with machine guns; this was the origin of bombardment aviation. In 1914, Russia introduced as armament the world’s first four-engine bomber, the Il’ia Muromets, and in December 1914 the first squadron often such bombers was formed; by the summer of 1916 the squadron included 20 bombers. At the beginning the fastest and most maneuverable reconnaissance airplanes with machine guns were employed in combat with enemy reconnaissance and bomber planes. Later, with the construction of fighters, the new mode of fighter aviation emerged. In 1915 several single-seat fighters were in service, including the Nieuport and Spad in France and the Fokker in Germany; Russia used the French Nieuport. In the course of the war the air force became a combat means for exerting pressure on the enemy. A struggle for air supremacy began, which resulted mostly in air fighting. Russian pilots initiated active air combat with the enemy; foremost among them were such men as P. N. Nesterov, E. N. Kruten’, and K. K. Artseulov. They developed complex acrobatic flight maneuvers and the principles for conducting air combat.

During World War I the numerical strength of the military aviation of the belligerents increased sharply. In the beginning of the war, the total number of military aircraft of all the belligerents was 806, whereas toward the war’s end Germany had 2,730 planes; Austria-Hungary, 622; France, 3,321; Great Britain, 1,758; the USA, 740; Italy, 842; and Russia, 590. In all, there were over 10,000 military aircraft, of which 44.9 percent were reconnaissance planes, 40.4 percent were fighters, and 14.7 percent were bombers. By the end of the war the speed of the best fighters reached 200 to 220 km/hr, reconnaissance planes reached speeds of 170 to 180 km/hr, and bombers attained speeds of 160 to 170 km/hr. As a consequence of technological and economic backwardness, the Russian Air Force was composed mainly of obsolete planes manufactured by foreign firms.

The Soviet Air Force was created together with the Red Army. On Oct. 28 (Nov. 10), 1917, on the initiative of V. I. Lenin, the Bureau of Commissars of Aviation and Aeronautics was formed, with A. V. Mozhaev as chairman. In December the All-Russian Aviation Board for the administration of the Republic’s air fleet was instituted, with K. V. Akashev as chairman; this board was responsible for directing the formation of aviation units, for administering the Republic’s air fleet centrally and locally, for the training of cadres, and for furnishing logistic support. In January 1918 the first six aviation detachments (12 planes in each) were formed and sent to Petrograd, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia. An administrative reorganization occurred simultaneously with the creation of the first aviation units. On May 24, 1918, the Central Administration of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Air Force was organized, with K. V. Akashev as director until February 1921; this organization united the country’s air forces. By November 1918, 38 aviation detachments had been formed, and by the spring of 1919 there were 61 detachments (45 reconnaissance, 12 fighter, three artillery, and one aerial photographic). On the fronts during the Civil War (1918-20) a total of up to 350 Soviet aircraft were operational at one time. In August 1918 the Field Administration of Aviation and Aeronautics of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, also known as Aviadarm (aviation of the army in the field), was established to direct the combat activity of aviation units on the fronts during the Civil War. Its chief from September 1918 to February 1921 was A. V. Sergeev. In 1918 flight cadres for the air force were trained at the first Moscow Pilot School and the Egor’evsk Pilot School, as well as at the Petrograd Military Air Observer School. In 1919 the Moscow Aviation Technicum was organized, which in 1920 was reorganized into the Institute of Engineers of the Red Air Fleet. On the basis of this institute, the Academy of the Air Fleet (now called the N. E. Zhukovskii Air Force Engineering Academy) was established in November 1922.

During the Civil War aviation detachments were united into aviation groups that were employed on the operational axes of the ground forces. These detachments bombed enemy objectives, engaged in air fighting, conducted reconnaissance, maintained communications, and dispersed leaflets and agitational literature. During this time the fundamentals of the air force’s operational skill and of the basic tactical principles for different branches of aviation were established. For carrying out combat missions with bravery and courage, 219 pilots and air observers were awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and 16 pilots won it twice.

After the Civil War ended, the air force gradually began to grow in numerical strength and improve in quality. In the period 1924-33 the Soviet-produced fighters 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, and 1-5 came into service, as did the reconnaissance plane R-3 and the heavy bombers TB-1 and TB-3. During the 1930’s the production of military aircraft increased times. The fighters 1-15, 1-16, and 1-153 came into service, as did the bombers SB, 11-4, and TB-7. In 1939-40, Soviet aviation engineers developed new types of modern combat aircraft.

In 1924 aviation detachments were organized into homogeneous squadrons (from 18 to 43 planes), which toward the end of the 1920’s were organized into aviation brigades. In 1938-39 the brigade organization of the air force was transformed into a regimental and divisional organization. The regiment became the basic tactical unit, consisting of four to five squadrons (60-63 planes, whereas a heavy bomber regiment consisted of 40 planes). According to the assignment and missions of the air force, the proportion of the different air arms changed: bomber and attack aviation in 1940-41 composed 51.9 percent of the air force; fighter aviation, 38.6 percent; and reconnaissance aviation, 9.5 percent. However, by the basic performance data many types of air-craft were still below the standard of the same types of planes in the air forces of capitalist states. The growth of the air force’s technological equipment and its increase in numerical strength required significant improvement in the training of command, engineer, and pilot and technician cadres. In 1938 the training of the air force’s pilot and technician cadres was carried out in 18 flying and technical schools. The commanders’ department at the N. E. Zhukovskii Academy was transformed in 1940 into the Air Force Academy for Command and Navigational Personnel (now the Iu. A. Gagarin Air Force Academy).

From 1921 to 1941 the commanding officers of the Soviet Air Force were A. V. Sergeev (February 1921-end of 1922), A. P. Rozengol’ts (March 1923-December 1924), P. I. Baranov (December 1924-June 1931), Army Commander Second Class la. I. Alksnis (June 1931-December 1937), Army Commander Second Class A. D. Laktionov (December 1937-September 1939), Lieutenant General of Aviation la. V. Smushkevich (September 1939-April 1940), and Lieutenant General of Aviation P. V. Rychagov (April 1940-April 1941).

In the period 1918-39, the air forces of the capitalist states developed significantly and by the outbreak of World War II (1939-45), Germany had 4,400 combat aircraft; the USA, 8,000; Japan, 4,500; Great Britain, 4,030; France, 3,330; and Italy, 2,950. The proportion of bomber aviation in the air forces of all countries was 2l/2 times greater than in 1918, and the proportion of fighter and reconnaissance aviation decreased. The German Air Force was divided into five air fleets, that is, strategical combinations, each of which included 800 to 1,200 airplanes. The British Air Force was an independent armed service subordinate to the minister of aviation and was divided into fighter and bomber commands; naval aviation was subordinate to the minister of the navy. Before World War II the US Air Force did not have a unified command. Aviation units designated for the support of troops were organized into an air corps subordinate to the army command. In 1939, Germany produced 10,000 airplanes; Great Britain, 5,800; France, 3,200; Italy, 3,000; Japan, 2,500; and the USA, 2,400.

Before the beginning of World War II the CPSU and the Soviet government took measures to accelerate production of the best types of aircraft. In 1940-41 lot production of the fighters Yak-1, MiG-3, LaGG-3, the bombers Pe-2 and Pe-8, and attack plane 11-2 was begun, and air regiments were re-equipped with them. These planes were superior to their German counterparts. For example, the maximum speed of the Yak-1 was 30 km/hr faster than that of the Me-109; the Pe-2 and Pe-8 had a greater bomb-carrying capacity and greater speed than the Ju-88 and the He-Ill. The attack plane 11-2, in comparison to the Hs-129, had greater speed and range and better armament—rocket-assisted projectiles and 400-kg bombs. However, by the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War the rearmament of Soviet aviation units with new aviation technology and the retraining of flight personnel had not been completed.

At the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) the Soviet Air Force suffered serious aircraft losses because of sudden attacks on airfields by fascist German planes on the first day of the war. In spite of heavy aircraft losses at the airfields, the struggle with the German Air Force became fierce. The enemy enjoyed numerical superiority, but the Soviet Air Force countered with great intensity in its operations, great combat skill, and bravery and heroism on the part of its flight personnel. The Soviet Air Force began to be rearmed with the newest aircraft—the fighters Yak-7b, Yak-9, Yak-3, La-5, La-7, La-9, the two-seater attack planes 11-2 and, from the summer of 1944 on, the 11-10, Tu-2 bombers, new cannon and bombs, including antitank bombs, radio stations, radar stations, air navigation equipment, aerial photo-graphic equipment, and other technology and armament. In May 1942 air armies—aviation strategical units—were created in frontline aviation; by the end of the year there were 13 of them. In the fall of 1942 formation began of detached aviation corps of the reserves of the Supreme Command, which was considered the most expedient form of aviation reserves. In March 1942 long-range and heavy bomber aviation was removed from under air force command and transformed into strategic aviation and made directly subordinate to General Headquarters. A change in the organizational structure and the sharply increasing numerical strength of the air force permitted the massive employment of aviation on the decisive operational axes of ground troops and also the centralization of air force control. The high combat qualities of the Soviet Air Force were manifested with particular clarity in the battles around Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk, in operations in the Right-bank Ukraine, in Byelorussia, and in the Ia§i-Kishinev, Vistula-Oder, and Berlin operations. Whereas only 200-500 planes engaged in combat operations in 1941, in 1943-45 up to several thousand aircraft and in the Berlin operation of 1945 up to 8,400 aircraft were involved. The aviation industry systematically increased its production. The average monthly output in the second half of 1941 was 1,630 planes; in 1942 this figure was 2,120; in 1943, 2,907; in 1944, 3,355; and in 1945, 2,206.

During the Great Patriotic War, Soviet pilots flew about 4 million sorties and dropped 30.5 million bombs on the enemy. In air fighting and on airfields 55,000 German aircraft were destroyed (84 percent of all German aircraft losses on the Eastern Front). Soviet pilots provided a great deal of support to the partisans. Long-range aviation regiments and the Civil Air Fleet alone flew about 110,000 flights, supplied the partisans with 17,000 tons of arms, ammunition, food supplies, and medications, and transported over 83,000 partisans. Soviet pilots set many examples of unforgettable devotion to the homeland, real heroism, and great combat skill. The pilots N. F. Gastello, V. V. Talalikhin, A. P. Mares’ev, I. S. Polbin, B. F. Safonov, T. M. Frunze, L. G. Belousov, Z. A. Sorokin, P. T. Kharitonov, S. I. Zdorovtsev, M. P. Zhukov, and many others accomplished unprecedented feats. Over 200,000 soldiers of the Soviet Air Force were awarded medals and orders; 2,420 aviators won the award of Hero of the Soviet Union, 65 pilots won this award twice, and two (A. I. Pokryshkin and I. N. Kozhedub) won it three times. Two-thirds of the aviation units received honorable citations, and over one-third of them were awarded the Guards’ rank. During the Great Patriotic War the commanders of the air force were Lieutenant General of Aviation P. F. Zhigarev (April 1941-February 1942) and Chief Marshal of Aviation A. A. Novikov (April 1942-March 1946).

During the years 1941-45 the air forces of Great Britain and the USA operated under favorable conditions in the European and African theaters, since the basic strength of the German Air Force was concentrated on the German-Soviet front. However, even under these conditions British bombers conducted only limited actions against German objectives until the summer of 1943, and the efforts of the US Air Force were concentrated mainly in the Pacific Ocean area against Japan and in the Mediterranean area to support naval landing operations.

During the course of World War II the air forces of the belligerent countries attained new heights in their development with regard to qualitative and quantitative indexes. During the war the belligerent states produced 450,000 combat aircraft. The technical flight characteristics of planes in-creased greatly and significantly; the speed of fighters reached 650-720 km/hr, the bomb load of frontline bombers reached 2,000 kg, and the range of flight reached 2,000 km. The USA and Great Britain created a strategic air force. Means of destruction were developed further; high-explosive bombs reached a weight of 9,000 kg, and incendiary bombs reached 500 kg. Germany used the V-l flying bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile against targets on British territory. The caliber and maximum rate of fire of aircraft cannon and machine guns increased. Air forces extensively employed rocket-assisted projectiles and electronic means to aid navigation in all weather conditions and at all times of day or night and also to accomplish a precise approach to a moving target and effectively destroy it. Because of an increase in transport capability, the air force began to be widely employed in transporting large airborne forces deep into the zone of the enemy’s interior for various purposes.

In the postwar years the Soviet Air Force has been rearmed with the jet planes MiG-9, MiG-15, Yak-15, La-15, and others. Modern transport planes and helicopters have also come into service. New field manuals, regulations, and instructions have been developed from the experience acquired during the Great Patriotic War as it relates to the combat application of the branches and arms of aviation. Planes have been equipped with various radioelectronic systems to provide better navigation and precision bombing and firing. Airfields have been equipped with blind instrumentation landing systems.

The introduction of nuclear weapons into the armament of the air force has brought about fundamental changes in the forms and methods of combat application of the air force and has greatly increased its role in the conduct of war. The technological improvement of aviation has proceeded at the same time. In fighter aviation, the supersonic MiG-19, armed with air-to-air missiles, was developed and the MiG-15 bis fighter-bomber replaced the obsolete attack planes. New heavy jet and turboprop planes are now in use in long-range aviation. The production of helicopters has increased, and the Mi-6 helicopter, with turbojet engines, has come into military service. The increase in numerical strength and the improvement in quality of military transport planes and helicopters have permitted the broadening of the missions of transport aviation, which has come into its own as an arm of aviation. With the air force’s acquisition of supersonic planes equipped with air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, long-range and frontline aviation since 1960 has become supersonic and missile-carrying. This has significantly increased the air force’s combat capabilities in the surmounting of enemy antiaircraft defenses and the more effective destruction of air, ground, and surface targets. The tactics of long-range and frontline aviation have continued to change. Missile-carrying aircraft now have the capacity to strike at targets from great distances without entering the zone of enemy antiaircraft defense operations. The capabilities of military transport aviation have also increased significantly. It is now capable of transferring large units of airborne troops into the zone of the enemy’s interior with their full combat materiel and armament (tanks, guns, rockets, and motor vehicles). In addition to the technological development of the air force, the forms and methods of its application have also been perfected. The basic modern forms of the combat action of the air force are air operations and joint operations with other armed services; the basic methods of combat action are massive strikes and operations carried out by small teams.

The commanders in chief of the Soviet Air Force in the postwar period were Chief Marshal of Aviation K. A. Vershinin (March 1946-October 1949 and January 1957-March 1969), Chief Marshal of Aviation P. F. Zhigarev (October 1949–January 1957), and Marshal of Aviation P. S. Kutakhov (since March 1969).

In the postwar period the air forces of the capitalist states (USA, Great Britain, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany) have also been reequipped with jet aviation technology and have (particularly the USA) guided and unguided missiles of different classes and designations. The tactical arm of the air force of the capitalist countries has received particular attention (in the USA, Federal Republic of Germany, and France), for this is regarded as the basic means of delivering nuclear weapons in a theater of war and of supporting troops. The strategic bombers of the B-52 (USA), Vulcan and Victor (Great Britain), and Mirage (France) types continue to be reserved for the destruction of objectives in the enemy’s zone of the interior.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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