Reference:Improvements in Command and Control of the Red Army Air Forces
From On Airpower
"Translator's Note: For operational purposes, the Soviet military was divided during both peace-time and war into large geographic regions known as Military Districts or Fronts. Each Front had both ground and air forces assigned to it. As this article discusses, the Front's air forces were split between subordination to the ground forces (Armies) belonging to the Front, translated here as Army Aviation, and direct subordination to Front headquarters, translated as Frontal Aviation. To avoid confusion, the combined total of all aviation assets assigned to the Front will be translated as air forces of the Front. In theory, Army Aviation would cooperate closely with the ground forces it was attached to, while Frontal Aviation would perform independent air operations. The main point of the article is a discussion of the problems that this attempted split caused."
Throughout the history of Soviet & Russian military development the issue of optimizing the command of air forces never lost its urgency. However, there were two major points when the problem became more urgent and demanded an immediate solution. One of them was during the first year of World War II, and the second began at the end of the 20th century and continues to the present, caused by a sharp decline in aircraft inventories and the lack of ability to rapidly increase them. The root cause of the problems was in a flawed scheme for command of the air forces. This article uses archival material to examine the nature of the flaws and to attempt to draw conclusions on how they were addressed during World War II.
As history has shown, the organizational structure of the air forces and their subordination--particularly of air forces of the Fronts--to combined arms (Army) command did not allow full realization of their maneuver and combat potential, and hindered their concentration on the objectives that were most important to support advancing or defending forces.
The root causes of the situation were set in place before the start of the war, when views on the employment of air forces of the Fronts were formed and units were withdrawn from direct subordination to centralized Front command and subordinated to combined arms (Army) command. The 1936 Provisional Instructions for Air Forces of the RKKA stipulated that in the case of war, air units would be concentrated, as a rule, under Front command and used for support of one or another army. That scheme for subordination of air units allowed concentrating air forces of the Front, when necessary, to support accomplishment of the Front's primary objectives. But in practice it also prevented, or at least made it extremely difficult, to maneuver air units between Fronts. Over the course of the year, based on experience gained in RKKA air maneuvers, it was concluded that in order to facilitate the “appropriate level of cooperation” air units should be placed under direct subordination to the command of an Army, and the role of Front's air commanders was reduced to coordination of air forces during the course of “execution of general tasking for establishment of air superiority and support for offensive operations”. That subordination of air forces of the Front to combined arms (Army) command complicated not only the organization and execution of inter-front maneuvers, but also maneuvers within a front between armies.
The developing tendency for the dispersion of air forces to combined arms (Army) command in the Front was reinforced during the Soviet-Finnish War (1939-1940). During that war, Army Aviation and Frontal Aviation were formed for the first time, with 49% and 36% of the Front's total airpower, respectively. In practice, command of the units of the Army Aviation was frequently exercised by commanders of Rifle Corps. Irrespective of the obvious error of such an approach, the conclusions drawn at the end of the war were extremely optimistic. In the Final Report to the Chief Military Council of the RKKA of 19 March, 1940, the Chief of the Air Force noted: “The need to divide air forces into Army Aviation specifically tasked for cooperation with ground forces, and operational (Frontal) aviation acting in the broader interests of operational and strategic objectives was proven with complete certainty.” These and other similar conclusions led to the decision on the transfer of units from Front command to the combined arms (Army) command during wartime. It was planned to assign 2-3 mixed air divisions as Army Aviation for tactical cooperation with the forces of each army operating to accomplish primary objectives, and a single division for armies operating on secondary objectives. The remaining air forces stayed under Front command (Frontal Aviation or the "Frontal Air Group") and were to be used for operational tasks in the interests of the Front as a whole.
In pre-war estimates each Front was to have 15 to 30 air divisions in total assigned to Frontal and Army Aviation, with from 2700 to 9000 airplanes. Army Aviation was to have 50-55%, and Frontal Aviation 45-50% of the total number of aircraft assigned to the Front. In practice by the beginning of the war the number of aircraft assigned to Army Aviation was somewhat lower (in the western border military districts, 45.5%).
Realization of the plans for the above-mentioned allocation of Front air units to combined arms (Army) command for close cooperation with ground forces would have been feasible given the availability in the Fronts (Military Districts) of the number of air units expected in pre-war estimates (15-30 air divisions, 2700-9000 airplanes). Only under those circumstances would it be possible for each Front to have both powerful Army Aviation and Frontal Aviation forces. However, even the Military Districts with the largest air forces, the Kiev and Western Special Military Districts, had only 9 and 8 air divisions, respectively, at the start of the war. In other western border Military Districts the number was lower (in the Leningrad Military District there were 6, and in the Odessa and Baltic Military Districts, there were 5 each). With the size of losses at the beginning of the war and in the subsequent months the numbers decreased even more, which led to the reallocation of air units to Army Aviation. At the beginning of 1942 in the Western Front's 9th Army, for example, there were 29 air regiments and 8 independent air squadrons, while Frontal Aviation had only 6 air regiments and 1 independent air squadron. According to those numbers, 83% of the Front's air regiments were assigned to Army Aviation, and only 17% to Frontal Aviation. The air forces in the Kalinin Front were divided between Army Aviation and Frontal Aviation by approximately the same proportion.
It is worthwhile to note that at the time only around 15% of German aviation fell under the command of field armies, while the remainder was combined in a Luftflotte (air fleet) directly subordinate to the Air Force high command and tasked only with operational-level cooperation with ground forces. This significantly simplified organization and execution of maneuvers along the front and concentration of the main Luftwaffe forces at the needed locations and times to support the German ground forces, since it didn't require the creation of large reserves in order to transfer air forces from one location to another.
The concentration of a significant percentage of air units under combined arms (Army) command resulted in their dispersion and precluded centralized command and massed employment of air forces at the scale of a Front. The subordination of Front air units to combined arms (Army) command also had a negative effect by practically eliminating centralized command of air forces by their commanders, which in turn hindered massed employment of aviation to support the accomplishment of strategic objectives and prevented realizing the full maneuver and combat potential of both Frontal Aviation and Army Aviation. This is illustrated in the directive from the RKKA Air Forces Commander Lt. Gen. P. F. Zhigarev of January 25, 1942. In particular, it noted: “The use of aviation of the Front, taking into account its quantity, is at the current time being realized improperly. Commanders of frontal air forces are diluting air power along the entire front rather than making focused, massed use of it along main points of attack and against the primary objectives and groupings of enemy forces. Confirmation of this is provided by the uniform distribution of aviation amongst armies.”
Given that Army Aviation was not able to maneuver within the Front and Frontal Aviation was not able to maneuver between Fronts due to the less than optimal organizational structures and command, it was necessary to rely on High Command (Stavka) air reserves in order to realize a more favorable aviation force ratio when a Front or group of Fronts was defending against an enemy offensive, or conducting an offensive itself.
Thus the mistakes made in the pre-war years in developing organizational structures and mechanisms for command of Frontal air forces, and the failure to correct them in the beginning of the war prevented the full realization of the combat potential of the frontal air forces in that it complicated, and at times made impossible, their rapid concentration in decisive spots in order to achieve the most important objectives. Under such conditions it was necessary to form aviation reserves, the need for which became more urgent the more that air forces were dispersed. Consequently, the organizational structure that was in place did not allow execution of large scale operations with the available forces, and created conditions under which certain air units were hard-pressed with intensive combat operations, while at the same time other units were inactive or assigned to tasks with significantly less importance, and frequently, as it is said, "flew a lot, but accomplished little".
The dispersal of air units amongst the combined arms (Army) command continued to May, 1942, up until the decision was made to combine almost all of the air forces in each Front into a single operational unit, the Air Army. Formation of the Air Armies began after repeated and thorough reports by air commanders to the highest levels of military command on the necessity to centralize command of the RKKA air forces in order to allow inflicting significant losses to a more powerful enemy air force, and to do so using fewer forces than the enemy had. They also cited the entirely logical argument, based on an analysis of mistakes made and on accumulated combat experience, that the concentration of the necessary air forces at strategic points had to be accomplished not through the use of reserves, but by maneuvering air units between Fronts and between armies. Making efficient use of the air units available to the Fronts would not obviate the need for reserves, but the need for them would be significantly less than it had been up to that point. Thus, on March 15, 1942 the commander of the RKKA Air Forces, Lt. Gen. P. F. Zhigarev, in a report to Stalin wrote that the air forces had an inadequate level of organizational unity and unity of command to successfully combat the enemy. In order to remedy these deficiencies, he recommended the formation of large aviation units (the Air Armies). Two weeks later, on April 3, he sent another report to the High Command, “On the Reorganization of the Red Army Air Forces”, in which he again openly and courageously enumerated the obstacles that were preventing the proper use of aviation given the current situation and the dictates of military art. “Military practice,” reported Zhigarev, “has shown that modern aviation is capable of exerting a decisive influence on the course of ground operations, but only under conditions of its massed employment to achieve primary objectives. If air forces are evenly distributed along an entire front, their effectiveness is significantly reduced.”
In the interest of increasing the maneuverability of the air forces and decreasing the need for High Command (Stavka) reserves, i.e. in order to establish conditions for concentrating airpower on primary objectives using the air units on hand at the front, he proposed the following: “Command of all air forces should be concentrated under a single commander, i.e. the Commander of Red Army Air Forces, who would receive tasking from High Command.” In his opinion, in place of Frontal Aviation and Army Aviation that was evenly distributed along the entire Soviet-German front, there should be just “five active Air Armies.” Each Air Army would support and cover the forces of several Fronts, and would be subordinated in all respects to the Commander of Red Army Air Forces. Zhigarev also proposed: “Only reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and communications aircraft would remain assigned to the Fronts and Armies. In the Front and Army headquarters there would be air sections through which cooperation with ground units would be realized... Headquarters of the Red Army Air Forces would be renamed Supreme Headquarters of the Red Army Air Forces, and its chief would be made a Deputy Commander of the General Staff of the Red Army.” The proposal put forth by the Chief of the Air Section of the Operational Directorate of the General Staff Maj. Gen. Vikulenkov on April 19, 1942 was equally radical and had essentially the same content.
Thus the authors of the reports attempted to turn the attention of the highest military command towards the necessity for rapid and fundamental reorganization of the RKKA Air Forces. The essence of their suggestions was to take the existing quantity of air forces and appreciably increase the intensity of their combat operations via centralized control and massed employment to attain primary objectives. In the view of the air commanders, the concentration of air power had to be carried out primarily via maneuvering air units along the front, drawing units away from secondary objectives rather than just drwaing on central reserves.
The first order by the USSR Peoples Committee of Defense on the reorganization of the RKKA Air Forces and the formation of Air Armies was given on May 5, 1942. In particular, it noted: “With the goal of increasing the combat effectiveness of aviation and enabling the successful conduct of massed air operations, the aviation of the Western Front will be united into a single Air Army, to be designated the 1st Air Army.”
The new organizational structure and subordination of the frontal air forces allowed centralized command of all air forces of the front, flexible maneuvering within the front, and the use of the air forces where the situation dictated. The Air Army allowed the possibility for operations on a larger scale then the air forces of the Front allowed, both in cooperation with the ground forces of the Front, and independent of them.
The attainment of a unified organization for the air forces of the Front and the foundation of the Air Armies somewhat reduced the severity of the problem of creating and assembling High Command reserves, since the new units had essentially the same number of aircraft as were previously in Frontal Aviation and Army Aviation, and yet were capable of more effective execution of not only equally, but also more complex combat operations.
Unfortunately, during formation of the Air Armies not all of the suggestions of the air commanders were followed. This led to only a minimal increase in the RKKA Air Force command's ability to execute inter-front operations using frontal air forces. As had been the case with the former organization of frontal air forces, the Air Armies continued to be subordinated to the commanders of the fronts' ground forces, and were used according to their plans. In order to withdraw an air unit from one Air Army and transfer it to another, for example in a neighboring front, it was necessary to get intervention by High Command, or at least its representatives, which obviously took time. Thus the formation of the Air Armies successfully eliminated the dispersal of frontal air forces within each Front, but with respect to strategic objectives and the Soviet-German front as a whole the previous fragmentation remained, since each Front had its own Air Army and--if there wasn't intervention from above--used it according to its own plan, independent of the situation in other areas. As had been the case previously, in order to transfer airpower from Front to Front, from one strategic objective to another, it was necessary to draw on the large quantity of High Command air reserves, which could be maneuvered to the most important areas on the battlefield where major operations were being conducted, and would provide the necessary airpower to have a decisive impact on the ground and air situation.
It is worth noting that the inexpediency of subordinating Air Armies to the Front commanders was revealed soon after their formation and the accumulation of some experience of their use in combat. At the end of 1942 and during 1943 the the RKKA Air Force command and also the People's Committee for Defense received a large number of suggestions from commanders of the Air Armies about a more widespread reorganization of the frontal air forces to address the still unresolved problems that had been recognized during the spring and summer of 1942. For example, the commander of the 1st Air Army, Lt. Gen. of Aviation S. A. Khudyakov, in a report of December 12, 1942 to the High Command and the Command of Red Army Air Forces proposed that 9/10ths of all air forces should be concentrated in the hands of the High Command (Stavka). Commenting on the formation of the Air Armies, he noted that it was an incomplete attempt to centralize command of aviation in order to enable its massed employment. And in fact after the seventeen Air Armies had just been founded with the goal of more effective employment of aviation, they were scattered across all fronts rather than being massed in the interests of active operations being conducted by forces of one or two to three Fronts. Under the circumstances, were the seventeen Air Armies with their large staffs that had practically no power really necessary? For example, at the end of the first and the beginning of the second period of the war several Air Armies consisted of 2-4 Air Divisions with 100-200 aircraft each, but the headquarters staffs numbered 300-400 people. Additionally, in analyzing the results of combat operations by the air forces of all fronts, it becomes clear that during the course of a day they carried out several times more sorties than the enemy air forces and did so on a wider scale--from Murmansk to the Black Sea--but on each active Front taken individually the sorties had little result. The enemy, always with a smaller quantity of aircraft but putting them under centralized control, completed 1000-1500 sorties and did so on a narrow section of the front (around 20-30 kilometers), i.e. they employed airpower in the necessary place and at the necessary time, which allowed them to attain greater effect. At the same time, its remaining air forces on other fronts usually conducted only reconnaissance activities.
General S. A. Khudyakov, in assessing the ability of Soviet command to employ massed airpower, noted: “...we will never be able to mass our air forces and effectively concentrate our forces, if we don't reshape our system of command. It begs the question, can we continue to further scatter our air forces with such expensive equipment across a large expanse of territory, while still having an equally effective force? No, we cannot. It is time to stop it, and to concentrate aviation in a single set of hands.”
Amongst the many suggestions for reorganization the structure and command of the air forces, were the following: remove Army Aviation from subordination to the Fronts, and subordinate it directly to the High Command (Stavka) through the RKKA Air Forces Commander and his headquarters; leave only reconnaissance air units and mixed air regiments under control of the Fronts; decrease the quantity of Air Armies on the entire Soviet-German front to four, one each in the northwestern, western, southwestern, and Caucauses regions; in the northern region have a mixed air corps; increase the number of staff and commanders in the Air Armies; task the Air Armies with a single objective to be accomplished operating both independently and in cooperation with forces of the Front; and maneuver High Command (Stavka) air units and sub-units of the Air Armies between primary objectives as well as between Air Armies.
In Khudyakov's opinion, as a result of reorganizing the RKKA Air Forces, 8-9 Air Army headquarters and the majority of air staff officers would be freed-up, the ability of Air Force command to employ massed airpower would be sharply increased due to the ability to maneuver air units belonging to the Air Armies between fronts, and the need to rely on the continual use of air reserves brought up from the rear areas in order to concentrate airpower on the primary objectives would be eliminated.
Yet these constructive suggestions were not implemented, and the Air Armies remained under command of the Fronts and their quantity was not decreased. Thus the concentrated employment of airpower by a unified air force against primary objectives along the entire Soviet-German front was considerably complicated. These difficulties had to be overcome through the use of air reserves of the High Command (Stavka), whose aircraft inventories reached 40-70% of the size of the entire aircraft inventories of the active Fronts. Transferring the reserves from one Air Army to another, the Stavka established a more advantageous ratio of forces at decisive points along the Soviet-German front. Consequently, a means for the concentrated employment of airpower was found via the transfer of large number of air reserves to a small number of Air Armies on each Front, although it was a less economical means than the single Air Army that had been suggested by air commanders.
by Col. (Reserve) A. G. Pervov