In the year 1923 the Soviet air force came properly into existence. While the Soviet Union had air squadrons before this, and while each squadron would remain under the authority of its local ground commander, all air units began reporting to a Chief Directorate of the Air Force of the Red Army. By 1928, after continued military re-organization, complete control of the Soviet air force fell to this Directorate.
Before World War II, the Soviet Union sent aircraft and other aid to the Republican side of the Spanish civil war. Between October, 1936 and December, 1948 they supplied 1,409 soviet aircraft – mostly I-15 and I-16 Polikarpovs – along with pilots and instructors. These planes were outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf-109’s used by the German-supported Nationalists and so 1,176 of the soviet aircraft were destroyed in battle. Seventeen Soviet pilots were deemed Heroes of the Soviet Union for their conduct in the civil war.
Soviet losses in the Spanish civil war led them to focus more on developing ground-attack and close support airframes. This doctrine is best exemplified by the famous Il-2 Shturmovik, a low-altitude, heavily armed and armoured tankbuster soviet aircraft dubbed Der Schwarze Tod (The Black Death) by German forces.
In July of 1940, under a year before Germany attacked, the Soviet Union began a further re-organization of its forces. Squadrons that formerly had 20-30 planes were put together to form 60 plane regiments. Three to five of these regiments formed an air division. Along with this change was it was planned to upgrade existing planes in the force to their newest models. Progress was slow with the re-organization and the upgrades however, and by June 22, 1941 when Germany invaded, the process was only 20% completed.
In the first two days of the invasion Germany destroyed 2,500 Soviet aircraft. Many were destroyed on the ground. Others were destroyed by poor tactics. Soviet bomber wings tried to attack without fighter escort. When threatened, bombers formed tight wedges and fighters formed defensive circles.
In April 1942, Lieutenant General Alexander Novikov took command of the Red Army Air Force. He ordered that all air power be consolidated, from the individual ground units to which it was connected, into one unified force. It was around this time as well that the factories that were moved east of the Ural Mountains began full production, pumping out roughly 1000 planes a month.
This reconstitution and increased production made the Soviet air force formidable again but so did tactical advancement. “Loose pairs” began to prevail over standard formations with planes working in tandem, or one plane covering while the other attacked. Bombers began to be escorted. Four bombers would be escorted by up to ten fighters. When fighters escorted ground attack craft they split into two groups. A group that flew with the formation and a group that flew high above and about half a mile (800M) ahead to scout for enemy patrols.
By 1945 the Red Army Air Force had 17 air armies each with 2 fighter divisions, 2 fighter-bomber divisions, a night bomber regiment, a reconnaissance squadron and a liaison squadron.