The first Five-Year Plans triggered a massive buildup of Soviet aviation, including many airplanes of indigenous design. Among them were manoeuvrable fighter biplanes, such as the Polikarpov I-15 and I-15 bis; the first cantilever monoplane with retractable landing gear to enter squadron service, the Polikarpov I-16; and a variety of bombers, including the Tupolev TB-7, SB-2/SB-3, and DB-3.Yet the Soviets failed to develop a reliable long-range bomber force. The established Soviet concept of air warfare envisioned the use of airpower predominantly in close support missions and under operational control of the ground forces command.
The Red Army Air Force under the command of Yakov Alksnis during 1931–1937 developed into a semi-independent military service with a combat potential, good training, and a logistics infrastructure spreading from European Russia into Central Asia and the Far East. Still, the Red Army Air Force exhibited marked deficiencies in several local conflicts (e.g., against the Chinese in 1929 and in the Spanish civil war, 1936–1939). In contrast, during the 1937–1939 air conflicts with Japan (China, Lake Khasan, Khalkin Gol) the Soviets effectively challenged the Japanese air domination and provided decisive close air support in the campaigns on Soviet and Mongolian borders. During the Winter War with Finland (1939–1940), however, the Red Air Force suffered heavy losses due to inflexibility of organization, its command- and-control structure, poor training of personnel, and deficiency of equipment.
The Soviet-Finnish conflict in the winter of 1939–1940, mostly over strategically important territories of the Karelian Isthmus. The air operations demonstrated the abilities and constraints of airpower in action in severe weather and over difficult and heavily wooded terrain. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Soviet air force had assembled about 900 aircraft, expecting an easy and quick campaign. Then Finnish air force had 162 mostly obsolete aircraft of all types.
Enjoying permanent air superiority in the course of the war, the Red Air Force was able to secure vulnerable rear areas from air strikes but failed to eliminate in a surprise strike the dispersed Finnish combat aircraft on the ground. Soviet airpower was engaged primarily in close support, air cover, and airlifting of assaulting troops in the Karelian Isthmus, some limited air operations in the Arctic area, as well as bombing raids on more than 160 rear targets.
Despite large-scale employment of bombers in daytime and clear-weather raids, the Soviets were unable to undermine Finnish defenses, economic life, supply traffic, and morale. This was due to wintertime navigation problems, bombing inaccuracy, and the fierce Finnish air defense, which claimed 275–314 Soviet air losses (more than half of them bombers).
The Finns also used fighters energetically and adapted to winter conditions: They equipped fighters with skis for takeoffs and landings on ice and snow. Their pilots demonstrated a higher level of combat skills compared to the Russian pilots. During the war, Finland received 240 aircraft of all types as well as volunteer pilots from Western countries, but massive aid was compromised by politics and logistical difficulties.
The Soviets massed reinforcements (1,500–2,000 planes) in January-February 1940 and introduced some operational and tactical changes (night-time and poor-weather bombing raids as well as fighter escorts). Nevertheless, the war was won by the Soviets mostly on the ground due to the dramatic disparity of forces involved. Moreover, the evident failure of the Soviet air campaign was one of the primary reasons the war went on for as long as it did. The total Russian war losses were 594 aircraft; the Finnish air force lost 62 planes from all causes.
References Engle, Eloise, and Lauri Paanen. The Winter War: The Russo-Finnish Conflict, 1939–1940. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Luukanen, Eino. Fighter over Finland: The Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot. London: Macdonald, 1963.