How the Soviets Organize Their Airpower

Feb. 1, 1958

The organizational structure of a nation’s air forces is a revealing guide to its strategic doctrines, and the Soviets are no exception.

Their military strategic concepts have broadened in recent years to provide greater importance to the long-range offensive air arm and air defense, and the Soviet air establishment has similarly been expanded. But with this significant development there has not been any lessening of the traditional Soviet attention to powerful tactical airpower for support of ground forces.

But before examining Soviet Air Forces organization, let’s examine their Defense Ministry, their over-all armed forces agency. The basic organizational structure of the Soviet armed forces is their unity in a single powerful Ministry of Defense, now under Marshal R. Ya. Malinovsky. The army and navy have previously alternated between separate and unified ministerial representation; the Air Forces have never had cabinet representation. Under the Minister of Defense are a series of “administrations” and “chief administrations.” Among these are six major operational commands: the chief administrations of the Air Forces, the Ground Forces, the Naval Forces, the Air Defense Forces, the Long-Range Aviation, and the Airborne Troops. Among the first deputy and deputy ministers of defense are the commanders in chief of the Ground Forces, the Air Forces, the Naval Forces, and the Air Defense Forces. Their functions, however, vary; the commanders in chief of the Naval Forces and air Defense Forces have a direct operational command relationship over all their component forces, including respectively the naval aviation and interceptor aviation components of these commands.

For an organizational summary, three diagrams outline (1) the administrative relationships among the headquarters air forces and the other air force headquarters; (2) the operational subordination of the various military air components; and (3) the internal organization of the air force headquarters.

As these charts illustrate, the Chief Administration of the Air Forces (GU-VVS-SA or GU-VVS-VS) and its commander in chief, Marshal of Aviation Vershinin, have very far-reaching administrative responsibilities for the various aviation components of the military establishment, but no operational command over any of the five military air forces. Nonetheless, direct responsibility for the tactical air forces extends directly down to the field level subordination of these forces to Front and Military District ground force commanders. Also, a degree of command over the Long-range Air Forces may be exercised in practice. Finally, Vershinin represents the air forces in highest-level general decisions taken by the Minister of Defense with his Military Council.

The Air Force High Command

The commander in chief of the air Forces (an office that has existed since 1937) represents all the air forces in the Military Council of the Ministry of Defense, and for certain aircraft and ordnance development and procurement and personal training. But operational command is limited to the tactical air forces, and this is shared with the corresponding superior army units in the field. As we have noted, the Long-Range Aviation is an autonomous command, and the Navy, Air Defense, and Airborne Troops aviation components are part of combined commands.

The present commander in chief of the soviet Air Forces is Marshal of Aviation Konstantin A. Vershinin, in the post since January 1957. This is the second tour in office for Vershinin, who occupied the post from March 1946 to July 1949. Chief Marshal of Aviation Pavel F. Zhigarev served in the interim period from 1949 until 1957 (the second tour for him also; he had briefly and unsuccessfully he’d the office from July 1941 to May 1942). Zhigarev now heads the Civil Air Fleet, and in listings of governmental officials is usually accorded a place higher than his successor despite the evidently lesser real importance of his new post. Chief Marshal of Aviation Aleksander A. Novikov, wartime chief of the air force (from August 1942 until March 1946) was imprisoned, after his sudden relief by Stalin in 1946, until 1953. For a time in 1954 he served as a deputy to Zhigarev, but he is now in retirement. Marshal of Aviation Sergei I. Rudenko has been first deputy commander in chief since 1949, and chief of staff of the Air Force Staff for most of this period.

In addition to Marshal Rudenko, there are about ten “deputy commanders in chief,” including the four commanders of the active air combat forces not under Vershinin’s operational command, and the deputy who in fact commands the tactical air forces, which are under his operational direction. These five men currently are: Marshal of Aviation V. A. Sudets, commander of the Long-Range Aviation (DA) (and former chief of staff of the Air Forces under Vershinin’s earlier tour, from 1946 to 1949); Colonel General of Aviation I. D. Klimov, commander of the Fighter Aviation of the Air Defense Forces (IA-PVO); Colonel General of Aviation Ye, N. Preobrazhensky, commander of the naval Aviation (A-VMF); Marshal of Aviation N. S. Skripko, commander of the Aviation of the Airborne Troops (A-VDV); and Colonel General of Aviation Ye. F. Loginov, probably Vershinin’s deputy for the tactical, or, as it is now termed, Frontal Aviation (FA). They are all capable and experienced men; Klimov held the same command during the war; Skripko was the deputy chief of the Long-Range Aviation (then ADD); Rudenko, Sudets, and Loginov filled varied command and staff positions; and Preobrazhensky had various naval air commands.

The other five deputies to Vershinin head responsible services of the air forces. One is the inevitable chief of the Aviation A. G. Rytov. The incumbent chief of the Rear Services is unknown to the author. Colonel General of Aviation Engineering Service I. V. Markov is chief of the Aviation Engineering Service. The chief Inspector, probably Colonel General of Aviation N. S. Shimanov (once chief of the political administration in the air forces), and the chief of Training are the other two deputies.

Among other senior officers in the air Forces’ high command are Colonel General of Aviation I. M. Sokolov, deputy chief of staff; Colonel General of Aviation F. A. Agal’tsov, a former associate of Zhigarev’s and for a time chief of staff while Rudenko apparently devoted full attention to being first deputy commander in chief; and Colonel General of Aviation P. I. Braiko, assistant to the commander in chief.

Gone from the scene, retired, are many of the World War II chiefs who rose, and fell, meteorically. In addition to Chief Marshal of Aviation Novikov, his wartime deputies, marshals of Aviation Vorozheikin, Kudiakov, and Astakhov are all in retirement (as was Falaleev, who died in 1955). Chief Marshal of Aviation Aleksander Ye. Golovanov, head of the Long-Range Aviation from its establishment in 1942 until 1948, is ill. The chief of the Engineering Service during the war, Colonel General A. K. Repin, and the wartime Intelligence Chief, Colonel General D. D. Grendal, are now retired. Several of these men—Novikov, Repin, and possibly Grendal and Khudiakov—fell victim to Stalin’s irritations, but they have now at least been rehabilitated into honorable retirement. Chief Marshal of Aviation Zhigarev and Marshal of Aviation S. F. Zhavoronkov, wartime chief of the naval air forces, are now in a sense “retired” from the air forces, as the two chiefs of the Civil Air Fleet, Aeroflot, which has received so much attention throughout the world lately.

What have been the implication of this wholesale change of command? The main elements have been two first was Stalin’s immediate postwar “purge” of the air force high command—paralleling a similar purge of the navy, and a similar but less drastic shift in the army. The causes of this move, beyond Stalin’s whims and fears of the victory-flushed military leaders in general, are obscure. The second element was a drive for modernization of the air forces. On this ground, Vershinin was replaced by Zhigarev in 1949 —and in turn replaced him in 1957!

Speculations in the Wet that Zhigarev had personally favored greater stress on long-range missiles seem ill founded in view of evident Soviet emphasis and achievement in this field, and Vershinin’s own comment that strategic aviation is inferior to missiles. But it remains possible that Zhigarev had tried, and failed, to get for the Long-Range Air Force operational subordination of the long-range ballistic missiles (intermediate or IRBM, and intercontinental or ICBM). For the indications are strong that a separate ballistic missile force will be created, since the Soviets consider ballistic rockets to be an advanced artillery weapon. It may be that Marshal Vershinin’s deputy, Marshal Sudets, will be given a combined on including both ballistic missile artillery and his present strategic bombers; but it is more likely that a combined force will be established in the next year or two under a senior Marshal of the soviet Union (perhaps the one who is both politically close to Khrushchev and an artillerist, Marshal Moskalenko). This solution would parallel that which has occurred with the other major arm of increased significance: the Air Defense Forces.

The Air Defense Forces

The commander in chief of the air Defense Forces is a post, which has existed for many years, but only recently has it come to be considered to have particularly great importance. During and after the war, the commanders of this force were invariable antiaircraft artillery generals, even though fighter-interceptor aviation had come to be regarded as the main means of active air defense by the beginning of 1946.

In 1954 or early 1955, in keeping with the rising importance of the command, Marshal of the Soviet Union S. S. Biriuzov was named its head, and the Air Defense Forces (PVO) came to occupy a position of rough equality with the ground forces, naval forces, and air forces. The PVO embraces all the components of the active air defense system; the radar and other warning system, the fighter aviation component, the conventional antiaircraft artillery (still retained on a wide scale, in marked contrast to recent US and UK practice), and the new rocket and missile antiaircraft artillery introduced in recent years. Colonel General of Aviation Klimov, commander of the Aviation Vershinin and simultaneously a deputy to Marshal Biriuzov. The interceptors are organized in Fighter Air Armies (IVA-PVO), and are assigned to joint air defense districts. These districts overlap and ignore military established only in key areas to be defended. The commander of each district is the direct superior for all air defense installations and forces in his district and is directly under Marshal Biriuzov, who in turn is under the Defense Minister. The commander of the key Moscow air Defense District is Colonel General P. R. Batisty (for much of the period form 1946 to 1953 the commander was Lieutenant General of Aviation Vassily Stalin. Information as to Stalin’s son’s present role is unavailable).

The Long-Range Air Force

The Long-Range Air Force (formerly Aviatsiia del’nego deistviia or ADD; now simply Dal’naia aviatsiia or DA) was reestablished in 1946, following a two-year period at the end of the war when it was made the 18th Air Army of the tactical air forces. The long-range bombers which comprise its strength are organized in Air Armies (VA-DA), of which some three or four exist. These are each directly subordinate to Marshal Sudets in Moscow, and he in turn to the Defense Minister. The acquisition of the TU-4 (B-29 type) four-engine bombers in the period from 1947 to 1953 gave this force its first real reason for existence. The subsequent modernization and procurement in large numbers of the twin-jet Bison, and four-turboprop Bear long-range bombers has made this force a potent threat to the United States as well as to the United Kingdom and other Western powers. As suggested earlier, the introduction of long-range ballistic missiles may lead to a combined forces organization, possibly entirely independent of Vershinin’s air forces. (Submarines equipped for launching missiles against strategic targets may also be taken from the navy and assigned to such a combined strategic striking force.)

Airborne Forces

The Aviation of the Airborne Troops (A-VDV) has been under Marshal of Aviation Skripko since 1950. It is exclusively transport aviation, recently including large helicopters as well as airplanes. The 500 or so aircraft assigned provide a substantial airlift, though they are at present still of relatively small (twin-engine piston) types. They are organized in air transport regiments.

Naval Air Forces

The Naval Air Forces have always been an integral component of the navy, and they so remain. There are no aircraft carriers, nor any planned, in the Soviet Navy.

The fleet air forces are each subordinate to the corresponding fleet commanders (Northern Fleet, Baltic Fleet, Black Sea fleet, North Pacific Fleet, Pacific Fleet), and under the naval aviation chief in Moscow.

Frontal Aviation

Frontal Aviation is the somewhat awkward title the Soviets have used to rechristen their tactical air forces. More than half of all Soviet military aircraft are in the twelve or more Frontal Air Armies (FVA). Usually a Frontal Air Army includes about three fighter, three fighter-bomber or ground support, and three light-medium bomber air divisions. Thus the total force may be twenty-seven air regiments. One such air army is ordinarily assigned to each Font (Army Group) of the ground forces, to provide cover, support, interdiction, and reconnaissance for the appropriate sector of the front. In peacetime, those military districts designated for activation, as fronts in wartime are generally each assigned a tactical air army. The other, especially interior, military districts have an “Aviation of the Military District” to administer such tactical and training air force units and installations within it. All Frontal Air Armies are administered from Air Force headquarters in Moscow, but operationally subordinate to the senior ground force commander (front, group of forces, or military district commander).

Headquarters of the Air Forces

The Chief Administration of the air Forces (GU-VVS) is composed of the commander in chief, the military council (composed of his senior deputies), the main staff or general staff, the inspector, the chief administrations of engineering service, and rear services, and a host of other subordinate administrations for personnel, aircraft, engines, armament, aviation academies, maintenance, management, navigation, meteorology, strategy and tactics, aerial photographs, airfield servicing, industrial orders, training, communications, medical services, and still others.

The main staff of the VVS (as it is officially called in 1958, although it has also been termed in 1955 the “general staff” of the VVS) is composed of seven sections: operations, intelligence, organization, air transport, meteorological, internal (administration), and ciphers. The work of these sections is generally self-evident. They are in most instances in close touch with the superior general staff of the armed forces (the former general staff of the Soviet Army rechristened to reflect its combined military forces representation and competence).

Thus, the intelligence section is closely tied to the intelligence division of the general staff for many of its sources of information and for coordination. The operations section is responsible for tactical air forces and training forces operations—but within the framework of the joint service program established in the operations division of the general staff (under General of the Army M. S. Malinin). The other sections are more autonomous in their relation to the superiors staff by virtue of their duties, although liaison is of course necessary.

The chief administration of the rear services has very wide responsibilities for the whole supply and maintenance function. It is coordinated with the rear service of the Ministry of Defense. The chief administration of the aviation engineering service has important lateral ties with the research and development agencies of the Ministries of Aviation and Defense Industry, as well as those operated by the air forces and under its direction.

The chief political administration has dual subordination. Lieutenant General of Aviation Rytov is a deputy to Marshal of Aviation Vershinin, and a deputy to Colonel General A. S. Zheltov, head of the chief political administration for the whole armed forces (who, in turn, has dual subordination to Marshal Malinovsky and to the military section of the central committee of the Party). Also, a Ministry of Defense is the “special section,” which is staffed by secret police counterintelligence officers, ad phenomenon indicative of Party influence.

The headquarters of the VVS has occupied approximately the same place, and performed the same functions, throughout the postwar period. Its’ importance has increased as the importance of the air forces in general have risen in the Soviet military establishment, but it also has reflected the continuing dominance of the ground forces marshals in the Ministry of Defense. — End

About the Author

Dr. Garthoff, long a student of Soviet ideology, spent seven years with the RAND Corp. as a specialist on the USSR. A graduate of Princeton and Yale, he is the author of Soviet Military Doctrine and the forthcoming Soviet Strategy in the Nuclear Age. He wrote “How the Soviets run Their Missile Program” in our December ’57 issue.