Soviet Airpower: Behind the Buildup

March 1, 1981
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official or unofficial views of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

The recent statement by the editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft that “any belief in continued Western air superiority may be illusory” must be viewed with deep concern by all members of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Airpower has always been the West’s trump card, the area of military endeavor where we were sure of technological and tactical superiority. So it is natural to ask if this superiority has been eroded and, if so, how we allowed this to happen.

This article makes no attempt to provide the answers to these questions. Rather, it provides some insights into how airpower is viewed by Soviet military theoreticians, where it fits into their combined-arms warfare doctrine, and some of the missions it must perform for success in modern combat. It then becomes clear that the expansion of Soviet airpower is not an overnight phenomenon, but the result of a carefully reasoned process that is producing results.

Doctrinal Factors

In the past two decades, the Soviet Union’s expenditures on modernizing its air forces has increased more than three times the rate for defense spending as a whole. Nevertheless, improvements in air force capability have been paralleled by similar advances in virtually every facet of combat capability in every service and branch of the arms in the Soviet Armed Forces. This has been a kind of categorical imperative because Soviet military doctrine, enunciated by the Communist Party’s Politburo, has always (with the possible exception of the Khrushchevian interlude) stipulated that war can be successfully prosecuted only through the combined efforts of all the armed forces.

There is no direct Soviet counterpart of USAF basic doctrine, nor does any other element of the Soviet military establishment has its own doctrine. There is only the national military doctrine­­—also extended to the Warsaw Pact Joint Command. Similarly, the air force does not have its how strategy. There is only a national strategy closely linked to military doctrine. Strategy and doctrine interact with military science and the Party’s military policy as part of the process that defines the size, structure, and capabilities required to enable the Soviet Armed Forces to project military power in support of political objectives.

A fundamental principle pervading all Soviet military thought is the primacy of the offensive. The offensive, with the basic goal of destroying the enemy, is the most important aspect of military endeavor; defense is merely a condition in which a subsequent offensive is prepared. The purpose of fighting a war, the Soviets believe, is to gain some political objective, and precious few political objectives of any importance can be obtained by developing and projecting a defensive force.

[Remainder of article to be posted soon.]

Col. (selectee) Lynn M. Hansen is assigned to the Office of Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs). As an Air Force Research Associate in 1977-78, he pursued post-doctoral studies in Soviet military organization and doctrine with Prof. John Erickson at the University of Ediburgh. His undergraduate studies were at Ricks College and Utah State University. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Free University of Berlin, and pursued additional graduate studies at Stanford and the University of Utah, culminating in a Ph.D. in 1970. Twice, for a total of six years, he has served in the German Democratic Republic as a liaison officer to the Commander, Group of Soviet Forces, Germany. His overseas experience includes two and a half years in Denmark, eight years in Berlin, one year in Vietnam, and one year in the UK. He is fluent in Danish, with reading ability in Norwegian and Swedish. He is also fluent in German and possesses fair capabilities in Russian.