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Soviet Air Force Theory 1918-1945 Review

Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.

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Soviet Air Force Theory, 1918-1945 by James Sterrett

The Red Air Force underwent meteoric and seismic shifts throughout the period of the Russian Civil War to its service during the Second Civil War, dramatically altering its capabilities, size, and effect. But as James Sterrett examines in his look at the operational and strategic thought of the Sovie Air Force, in Soviet Air Force Theory, 1918-1945, in many regards, its thinking stayed remarkably the same - focusing on a tactical and operational air force that would be devoted to helping ground forces, and although the particulars could change as more resources became available to it, and the degree that it would be subjected to the army waxed and waned, its core principles stayed largely intact.

This is a relatively short book that covers extensive periods of time. Given this, it does a quite remarkable job in managing to discuss the key points of air force development and thinking and how ongoing events in the USSR impacted them. It shows how Soviet theorists had to grapple in the 1920s with the challenges of how they would use a small air force to counter much larger enemy forces under the assumption that the then relatively poorly industrialized USSR would face off against hostile capitalist powers. Sterret also shows how in order to compete it would need to use careful camouflage of air bases, dispersion of aircraft, and yet conversely concentrate on of them on key sectors.

There was a vigorous doctrinal debate about what the air force would be used for. While this almost always came down as against strategic bombardment, discussion of close air support or interdiction was a much more pronounced affair, as well as what were the appropriate aircraft to use. And as with many air forces, there was the continued debate about just how closely the air force should be subservient to the army, in that while most agreed that the correct role was to support the ground forces,

It also gives interesting thinking for today, both as far as general air force theory goes and for particular problems and capabilities of Soviet/Russian air forces. One of the crucial problems experienced by the Red Air Force in the beginning of the Second World War was that despite having a highly sophisticated doctrine which, as shown by the book, saw a lot of thinking and development underpinning it, it was incapable of being applied or was simply unknown to most units in the field.

This is not something unique to the Soviet armed forces, of course, and books such as March to the Marne comment on similar problems in the French army in 1914 which led to units distilling down doctrine to the most simple and basic element: charge at the enemy. This was due to ignorance, but it seems particularly relevant in light of contemporary performance problems of the Russian Air Force and army in general.

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Russia's air force has had many learning and training experiences, most notably in Syria and before that in Georgia, and despite the lessons learned and better practice, such as the need for air and air defense units to cooperate without risk of friendly fire, battlefield networking and communication, training in strike missions, and precisions weapons, it has largely failed to be passed on to the Russian air force as a whole.

Similarly, the Soviets gained extensive combat experience before WW2 in Spain, China, the Soviet-Japanese Border War, and the Winter War, and yet when WW2 came were still faced with severe deficiencies in pilot training, communication problems, airfield distribution, airfield camouflage, readiness rates, etc.

The book does comment on this regarding excessive security over manuals and after-action reports, but if there is ever a second volume, this is a clear area where a lot more could be added to great use.

Some topics which are related to this are a fascinating look at air force components which don't receive much look in other books, such as air force manuals—not so much in what they intended to do, but rather in how they explained this. For instance, how Soviet doctrinal books became much more precise and explicit as the war went on—so that a Soviet 1945 Sturmovik attack guide precisely described how a ground attack operation would be conducted, while a pre-war book focused on more general ideas and philosophy.

The pre-war books were useful, even thought-provoking, for an experienced commander, but for an inexperienced commander, it left them little concrete instruction about their operations. While other books talk about training and manuals, this gives a great idea of the changing face of Red Air Force operational instruction.

Despite its brevity, Soviet Air Force Theory helps lay out the evolution of the Soviet Air Force and provides good coverage of its conflicts, including a great analytical study of Soviet air operations in WW2 and a discussion of its role and military impact. In an understandable but decisive term, it shows the nature of its focus on ground operation and some of the key subjects, including air base defense and deployment, aircraft type, mission role, and centralization/flexibility which dominated Soviet doctrinal writing.

It makes for a great look into the thinking of the Red Air Force and even a good introduction to the topic as a whole. While it could have been longer, it deserves credit for what it manages to accomplish in such a short span.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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