Air University Review, March-April 1983

The Changing Role of Air Power
in Soviet Combined-Arms Doctrine

Tommy L. Whitton

In soviet military thinking, the concept of combined arms has a dual meaning. In the organizational sense, combined arms refers to a ground forces unit consisting of elements from a number of arms and services as well as engineering and other special troops and rear support units. A combined-arms army, for example might consist of one tank division and three or four motorized rifle divisions; artillery, air defense, engineering, and chemical defense troop units; and a full complement of staff and rear service units.

The purpose of this type of unit is to optimize both shock power and mobility and to provide the soviet commander with sufficient forces of all types to afford him flexibility in accomplishing his complex objectives in the rapid pace of modern warfare. A combined-arms unit prepared to perform a wide variety of combat functions: fire suppression, maneuver, organic defense, and combat support.

The concept of combined arms, at least in an organizational form resembling modern Soviet units, was first introduced in 1943, when Stalin formed a combined-arms army consisting of several rifle corps, reinforced with tank and mechanized units, as well as artillery and engineering support. The organizational structure of combined-arms units was continuously in a state of flux during the time when Soviet infantry was becoming more and more mechanized, when artillery was becoming self-propelled, and when tactical battlefield missiles were entering the weapons arsenal. Air forces had not been an organic element of these units until only very recently. Rather, air power came into play in the second sense of the concept of combined--arms integrated, all-service operations.

The operational component of the combined-arms concept is manifested in combined-arms staffs, which direct combat operations generally through a front command or a high command of forces in a theater of operations (teatr voyennykh deystr--TVD). Assigned to these commands are air force representatives, who serve as liaison between the front commander/TVD commander-in–chief and higher level authorities and who control air assets allocated to the front/TVD. At the highest level, combined-arms integration is achieved though the Soviet General Staff, which plans and controls strategic operations according to one coordinated plan, employing forces form all five Soviet service branches.

Air Power for the Strategic
Intercontinental Mission

The operational combined-arms concept for intercontinental theaters integrates Soviet long-range bombers, along with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), into the Soviet version of the triad for strikes against the United States. Long-range air power has also become a vital element of Soviet antiship operations far from Soviet shores and of Soviet power projection into the Third World. Ever since the mid-to-late 1950s, when the Bear and Bison were entering the inventory and refueling techniques for the Badger and Blinder were being perfected, the Soviets have seen a role for the manned bomber against the continental United States. The advantages that the Soviets see in having such a capability are the same ones we see with regard to U.S. manned bombers.

The development of the Backfire epitomizes the Soviet formula for weapons development manifested in new systems appearing since the early 1970s—one part specialization and one part flexibility. The Soviet requirement for manned bombers in an anti-CONUS mission has remained relatively constant since the creation of the other two legs of the Soviet triad. As a result, the Bear/Bison force has been able to fulfill the need for aircraft specifically dedicated to the intercontinental strike mission. Yet with the development of a Soviet "blue-water" navy and increasing Soviet emphasis on continental theaters, the requirements for bombers with sufficient range capabilities for long distance antiship and deep-theater strike missions substantially increased. Hence, there appeared the "one part flexibility"—the Backfire, which is best suited for these missions but which was designed with an intercontinental range capability to augment the specialized Bear/Bison force if the situation requires them to do so. Indications that the Soviets are developing a new long-range bomber specifically to replace the aging Bear and Bison in the intercontinental strike role suggest that the Backfire will continue to represent the flexibility ingredient of the intercontinental formula throughout its life cycle.

Air Power for the
Deep-Theater Mission

Over the past several years the Soviets have made major revisions in command and control affecting all service branches but primarily centered around Soviet air and air defense forces. These changes have had a significant effect on the employment of air power in theater missions. The reorganization has been molded around a fundamental doctrinal shift, which was instituted by Minister of Defense D. F. Ustinov and Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff N. V. Ogarkov shortly after their assumption of the two top posts in the Ministry of Defense in 1976 and 1977, respectively. The new doctrine was openly expressed by Ogarkov in an article in Kommunist:

Front commands [now] have available destructive means (missiles, missile-carrying aircraft, etc.) and combat capabilities which significantly exceed the limits of frontal operations. Troop maneuverability has sharply increased and the ways of accomplishing many strategic and operational missions with formations of various force components have changed. As a result, previous forms of employing formations to a great extent have ceased to meet modern conditions. In connection with this, not the frontal but a broader-scale form of combat activity—the strategic operation in a theater of military operations—should be viewed as the basic operation in a possible future war.1

Colonel I. Vyrodov, in an article on high commands created during World War II, provided an indication of how extensively this new organization might affect the structure of Soviet forces:

The experience of world wars showed that it became practically impossible for a supreme high command to exercise direction of military operations of major groupings of armed forces without an intermediate echelon and that both an overall system of strategic leadership and its echelons must be set up ahead of time, before the beginning of a war, and their structure must correspond strictly to the character and scope of upcoming military operations.2

The shift in focus from the front to the theater of military operations (TVD) and the emphasis on the need for an intermediary command element between the Supreme High Command (VGK) and the front commands received concrete expression with the creation of a high command in Soviet Asia around the end of 1978, with Army General V. I. Petrov as the Commander-in-Chief of Forces in the Far East, the same title given Marshal Alexander Vasilevski for the Manchurian campaign in August 1945.3 Petrov has subsequently become Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces and has been replaced by Army General V. L. Govorov.

There undoubtedly are plans for the creation of high commands in TVDs opposite NATO as well. However, the establishment of these commands in peacetime would mean that certain forces of the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact nations would come under the permanent control of a Soviet commander. While the East European governments have accepted the subordination of most, if not all, of their military forces to a Soviet-dominated joint armed forces command structure in wartime, they would be most hesitant about turning over such forces to the Soviets in peacetime. Hence, high commands in European TVDs are not likely to become permanent elements but would be ready to be activated whenever a serious threat of war arises.

Since the strategic operation in a TVD is now to be the primary operational planning element and this strategic operation is to be controlled by a commander-in-chief of forces in the TVD, then it becomes apparent that the high commands, upon being activated, must be given certain assets, which must include at least a portion of the long-range air assets to carry out the deep-theater strike mission.

Historically, the Soviets have made no organizational distinction between aircraft with primarily deep-theater strike missions and those with primarily intercontinental/antiship missions. Both types of bombers have existed in geographically organized bomber corps subordinate to the Long-Range Aviation (LRA) arm of Soviet Air Force headquarters. However, while the Commander of LRA, Colonel General of Aviation V. V. Reshetnikov, continues to serve as a Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces, the organizational name "LRA" has not been referenced in the Soviet press for the last two years, suggesting that the Soviet bomber force has undergone a degree of reorganization. Any new structure that subsequently appears will have to accommodate the requirement for the TVD commander-in-chiefs to have their own air assets for conducting deep-theater strikes.

Another important factor affecting the employment of air power in a theater role has been the attainment by the Soviets of at least "essential parity" in strategic nuclear forces. This development has had the effect of decoupling these nuclear forces to a certain extent from a potential European conflict. Moreover, the acquisition of aircraft capable of striking NATO’s rear with conventional munitions obviates the need to rely exclusively on intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles to destroy NATO’s theater nuclear capability and, as a result, has given the Soviets a greater measure of escalation control.

The Soviets no longer believe that any NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe would immediately escalate into massive intercontinental nuclear exchanges.4 At the same time, they believe NATO would probably resort to theater nuclear weapons (at least tactical ones) to counter a massive Warsaw Pact conventional offensive into Western Europe, thereby eventually leading to general nuclear war. However, the swift destruction of most of NATO’s theater nuclear delivery systems using Soviet air forces armed with conventional munitions, followed by a massive conventional ground assault, wou1d create a serious dilemma for U.S. decision-makers. The United States would be forced either to (1) fight conventionally in Europe, in which case the Soviets are confident they could prevail; (2) escalate the conflict using surviving theater nuclear assets, which would be considerably offset by the full arsenal of Soviet theater nuclear weapons; (3) escalate to strategic nuclear war, thereby assuring massive nuclear destruction of United States territory; or (4) capitulate.

The Soviets—and we ourselves—are uncertain how we would resolve this dilemma. Nonetheless, the acquisition of the capability to destroy NATO’s theater nuclear assets with conventional air strikes would significantly enhance the prospects for achieving Soviet military objectives in Europe while minimizing the risks of escalation to general nuclear war. Indeed, the acquisition of a deep-theater, conventional counternuclear capability for Soviet air power has received high priority in recent years. This capability has been greatly enhanced with the introduction of the Backfire and Fencer in substantial numbers.

It is generally believed that if the Soviets hope to restrict NATO’s ability to employ its theater nuclear forces without crossing over the nuclear threshold themselves, they would have to mount a massive independent air operation at the very outset of the conflict in Europe.5 In this air operation, the Soviets presumably would use aircraft from strategic, theater, and frontal air assets to conduct strikes throughout the entire depth of NATO’s European defenses. The primary targets would be nuclear delivery systems, airfields, C3 facilities, and major force groupings. In addition to severely degrading NATO’s capability for waging theater nuclear war, the air operation would be designed to assure the Soviets of air superiority throughout the remainder of the conflict.

To achieve these objectives, the Soviets would use air forces in the western military districts (MDs) and the groups of forces in Eastern Europe to blast several air corridors through NATO’s forward air defense systems, thus enabling the main bomber force to proceed through the forward area with a minimum of resistance. Top cover would accompany the main strike forces all the way to their targets to engage NATO’s point defenses and aircraft that escape the initial attacks on West European airfields. In order to achieve any significant measure of success, the air operation must achieve strategic surprise, and each objective must be attained in rapid succession. As a result of these very substantial "ifs," there is much skepticism in the West as to the probability of its success.

If the Soviets intend to develop the concept of the independent air operation into a viable option, they must develop a command and control structure capable of orchestrating 1000-2000 aircraft into a highly coordinated attack. To establish command and control procedures, they would have to consider the following characteristics:

• The air operation requires the centralization of a large number of air assets at the theater and national levels, at least for the initial stage of the war.

• The importance of surprise and rapid action requires a minimum of both forward deployments and changes in operational subordination of assets immediately preceding the attack.

• During the air operation, requirements for air assets to be used in a territorial (i.e., U.S.S.R.) air defense role are diminished since the whole scenario is predicated on destroying NATO’s capability for launching a large-scale air attack.

• Aircraft capabilities and crew skills required for the air operation are significantly different from those needed to perform at other stages of the war, and hence special training is required.

• While the independent air operation concept is designed with the use of conventional munitions in mind, the command and control structure developed for it would also be effective if a theater nuclear strike with strategic missiles, augmented with nuclear-armed aircraft, were to be launched.

Theater command links become an important element in this command and control structure. The establishment of TVD high commands and the allocation to them of deep-theater strike assets are designed to take advantage of the increased capabilities of Soviet aircraft and to give the on-the-scene commander greater flexibility in accomplishing his theaterwide mission. A recent article recounted Marshal Ivan S. Konev’s criticism during the Great Patriotic War of front commanders who wanted to take fixed-wing air assets with them everywhere.6 Konev’s policy, which was discussed in favorable terms, was that such air power should be used en masse and in the decisive sectors, the implication being that at least a portion of fixed-wing frontal aviation should remain centralized at the theater/national level.

The concentration of a variety of air assets under the theater commander-in-chief’s direct control could more effectively ensure adequate target coverage throughout the entire depth of the TVD. For a theaterwide air operation, MD/frontal air assets would be assigned missions directly by the TVD commander-in-chief for the period of the operation, then would again be turned over to the front/MD commanders.

The retention of deep-theater strike aircraft at the theater level would obviate the need for the front commander to use his air assets to strike deep in NATO’s rear and, thus, allow him to concentrate more narrowly on sustaining the ground offensive and to employ his air assets to ways that have a more direct bearing on the attainment of his frontal objectives.

Indications of Change
in the Control of Air Power

The shift in emphasis from the front to the theater and the acquisition of a considerable deep-penetration, conventional-strike capability for Soviet aviation has led to a major restructuring of command authority for air assets dedicated to both deep-theater and ground-support missions. The evolving new structure has been partially revealed in the Soviet press through the use of new organizational terminology and the apparent resubordination of certain air and air defense components.

• At the beginning of 1981 the name of the air defense force component was changed from "Troops of National Air Defense" (Voyska PVO strany) to simply "Troops of Air Defense" (Voyska PVO).

• Of the ten Soviet air defense districts (ADDs), only two—Moscow and Baku—have over the years been referred to openly in the Soviet press. However, no reference has been made to the Baku ADD since 1980. Some of its officials, as well as other air-defense-related officers, have begun participating in military district activities. Also, the term "air defense of the military district" has begun appearing.

• Tactical air defense forces (Voyska PVO Sukhoputnykh voysk ) were a separate arm subordinate to Soviet Ground Forces Headquarters. However, since August 1980, this arm’s commander, Colonel-General of Artillery P. G. Levchenko, has been referenced in activities associated exclusively with the Air Defense Forces component. His recent obituary revealed that he had, in fact, assumed a newly created position as First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of PVO.7 In addition, sometime in early 1981 the name of the military academy created in 1977 to provide advanced training to tactical air defense officers was changed from "Military Academy of Air Defense Forces of the Ground Forces" to "Military Academy of Troop Air Defense" (Voyennaya akademiya voyskovoy PVO).

• Announcements for enrollment in higher military schools that appeared early in 1981 indicated that the five schools which train officers for troop air defense had been resubordinated from the Ground Forces to the Air Defense Forces.8 In the same announcement, it was revealed that two of the three Air Defense Forces’ fighter interceptor pilot schools had been resubordinated to the Air Forces.

• Since early 1980, the terms "air forces of the military district" and "air forces of the group of forces" have generally replaced the terms "aviation of the military district" and "aviation of the group of forces," respectively.

All of these observations taken together suggest that the structural relationship among air, air defense, and ground forces have been fundamentally altered at both the national and district levels. A concerted effort appears to have been made to improve force integration and expand force employment options by discarding the old organizational principle of dividing air and air defense assets according to whether they were offensive or defensive in nature. In the old structure, tactical surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) organic to offensive-oriented ground force units and offensive air assets fell into one chain of command (the MD) while SAMs for territorial defense and air defense interceptor aircraft were controlled through independent command channels (the ADD). Now it appears that the operative principle determining organization is whether the weapon systems are ground based or air assets. At the national level, troop air defense now apparently is to be the responsibility of Air Defense Headquarters, thereby unifying control of both tactical and strategic SAMs. Similarly, Air Force Headquarters has acquired greater, although probably not complete, authority over air defense (APVO) interceptors. APVO, however, still exists as an arm of the Air Defense Forces.

At the military district level, the new command and control principle is even more apparent. The terms "air forces of the MD" and "air defense of the MD," along with all the other recently observed changes and anomalies, indicate the incorporation of air defense assets into the military district command structure. "Air forces of the MD," therefore, would include both frontal air and APVO assets. Similarly, "air defense of the MD" would include SAMs dedicated to both troop and territorial air defense.

Under the new system, the MD/front commander obviously assumes a more critical role since his command includes assets for accomplishing both offensive and defensive missions, including a large share of the total air defense responsibility within the territory of his MD. Thus, while the TVD has become the basic focus for wartime strategic planning purposes, the military district/front retains, and has even enhanced, its critical operational role.

Air Power in Direct Support
of Ground Operations

Air forces, while traditionally not an organic element of Soviet combined-arms units, have nonetheless always been viewed by the Soviets as a vital factor in conducting ground operations. Air power supports the ground forces by providing cover against enemy air strikes, by airlifting troops and materiel to critical areas, by providing aerial reconnaissance of enemy troop formations and firing positions, and by serving as a highly mobile and responsive means of fire suppression. In recent years, the role of air power in the ground-support mission has been greatly affected by four major developments: the designation of the TVD as the primary planning element and the accompanying Air Force reorganization, the introduction of large numbers of modern helicopters into the inventory, the deployment of a wide array of mobile or semimobile ground-based air defense systems, and the development of dual-mission interceptors. As a result of these developments, the previous orientation of frontal aviation toward primarily defensive air operations has changed; fixed-wing assets have acquired a more offensive character. In conjunction with this, the role of the helicopter in providing air cover for ground operations has increased immeasurably.

Many of the modern Soviet interceptor aircraft are dual capable, that is, while their primary mission is air defense and interdiction, they are also capable of providing some direct support to ground operations. The previous, somewhat artificial organization of air assets into fighter aviation of PVO and frontal aviation needlessly predetermined the number of aircraft available for various types of missions. Flexibility was lost. The command and control system made it difficult to rerole these aircraft since the MD/front commands and the air defense district commands represented relatively independent chains of operational authority.

If the independent air operation were to achieve any significant measure of success, the APVO assets remaining within the U.S.S.R. for defensive purposes might be underutilized since NATO’s offensive air forces would have been neutralized. Consequently, if a conventional around offensive was moving rapidly across Europe, there would be a greater need to deploy these aircraft with the advancing troops in order to extend the line of territorial air defense beyond the prewar boundaries and, if needed, to provide additional direct ground support. The release of these aircraft from the mission of air defense of the homeland would dramatically increase Soviet offensive air capabilities. The dropping of the term "national" from the name of the air defense force component suggests that this use of APVO assets in a troop air defense role beyond Soviet borders has become an accepted mission for this force.

The increasing capability of Soviet interceptors to operate independent of fixed ground control (GCI) support affords them greater opportunity to perform the forward air defense mission. The apparent inclusion of at least some of the former APVO assets into the new concept of "air forces of the MD" facilitates their use in both the forward air defense and ground support roles.

The incorporation of APVO assets into the MD structure does not preclude their use for the traditional strategic territorial air defense mission. It simply creates additional flexibility. This results in more effective use of air power in both combined-arms operations and strategic defense of the U.S.S.R. The integration of air and air defense assets at the MD level enhances capabilities for the mission of air defense of the homeland since, just as air defense interceptors have acquired alternate missions during offensive operations, SAM systems formerly dedicated to air defense of the troops can now be integrated with strategic SAM systems to augment defensive operations on Soviet territory.

Perhaps the greatest change in recent years in Soviet doctrine for the employment of air power has occurred in the use of helicopters for a wide range of missions. The Soviet helicopter force now serves as the primary air asset of armies in accomplishing airmobile, fire support, and antiarmor missions. It is also assuming greater importance in performing battlefield reconnaissance and airborne command and control.

Air power in general has become a more integral part of Soviet fire attacks, being interwoven with artillery in all phases of the fire support plan. Helicopters have steadily increased their contribution to this type of air support. Soviet helicopters, particularly the Hinds, have also become a major source of firepower for advancing Soviet divisions. The Soviets recognize the great advantage of rotary-wing aircraft in being able to move forward at the same pace as ground columns, thereby affording Soviet divisions a more uninterrupted source of air cover. Fixed-wing aircraft are still available to be called in for additional ground support near the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) and for strikes farther in the rear. Because of their speed and range, they will always be a vital element in air support of ground operations.

A number of articles have appeared in recent years extolling the virtues of wartime army aviation, that is, aviation that was organic to ground force units. As indicated previously, in the postwar period air assets have not been an element in the organizational form of the Soviet concept of combined arms. Army commanders have conducted their "combined-arms operations" with their "combined-arms unit" plus aviation allocated by the front command. Now, however, a major development is occurring in Soviet combined-arms doctrine. A trend has developed for combined-arms units to have their own helicopter assets. Helicopter squadrons have entered the TO&E of both motorized rifle and tank divisions. The incorporation of rotary-wing assets directly into divisional structures has thus far been slow and limited to select units, primarily those located in the forward area. However, the trend is clearly toward increasing reliance of ground forces on helicopters to perform in a multiplicity of roles.

The Soviets have acquired considerable tactical experience in the combat employment of helicopters from their operations in Afghanistan. It did not take them long to see the benefits of rotary-wing aircraft in antiguerrilla operations, particularly in route security for both troop and supply convoys. Their tactics have undergone several revisions since the invasion, and much has been learned regarding the coordination of fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in strike operations.

The Ustinov-Ogarkov era has seen the most significant innovations in military organizational structure in the entire postwar period. Soviet doctrine for the employment of air power has been significantly refined as a result of new capabilities in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and the changing correlation of strategic nuclear forces. Soviet military theoreticians have expressed great concern that strategy and tactics keep pace with technological advancements. The new organizational structure for air and air defense forces demonstrates the seriousness with which the Soviets view the need to develop the most effective means for integrating all the new weapon systems into an armed force capable of responding to a wide range of threats at all levels and in all areas along the periphery of the Soviet Union.

Hq USAF Washington, D.C.

Author’s Notes: This article was presented at the 14th Annual Convention of the American Association of the Advancement of Slavic Studies, 15 October 1982, in Washington, D.C.


1. N. V. Ogarkov, "On Guard over Peaceful Labor," Kommunist, No. 10, July 1981, p. 86. (Emphasis added.)

2. Colonel I. Vyrodov, "On the Leadership of Military Operations of Strategic Force Groupings in the Second World War," Voyenno-istoricheskii zhurnal (Military-Historical Journal), No. 4, 1979, p. 23.

3. In Krasnaya Zvezda, 29 December 1978, p. 1, Petrov was congratulated by Brezhnev on his new assignment. The exact title of this position was not revealed until over two years later in Novosti Mongolii, 20 March 1981, p. 6.

4. "Soviet military strategy allows that world war may begin and for a certain length of time be conducted with the use of only conventional weapons." (Soviet Military Encyclopedia, vol. 7, 1979, p. 564—under "Strategy, Military.")

5. Lynn Hansen, "Front Aviation in Soviet Combined Arms Warfare." A paper presented at the Air Force conference entitled The Soviet Union: What Lies Ahead? in Reston, Virginia, 25-27 September 1980, p. 14.

6. Marshal of Aviation S. Rudenko, "Born in Battles," Krasnaya Zvezda, May 5, 1982, p. 4.

7. Krasnaya Zvezda, August 29, 1982, p. 4. General Levchenko retired around January 1982 and was replaced as First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of PVO by Lieutenant-General of Artillery Yu. Chesbokov.

8. Krasnaya Zvezda, January 17, 1981, p. 4.


Tommy L. Whitton (B.A., Indiana University; M.A. George Washington University) is a senior research specialist, Directorate of Estimates, Strategic Studies Division, Hq USAF. He served as a senior research analyst form 1974-81 for the Library Congress. Whitton’s forthcoming book is entitled Soviet Strategic Wartime Leadership (Washington: Government Printing Office).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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