The Soviet Union considered nuclear strikes against Western Europe.
In his recent series of articles “Estonia and Estonians in the Strategic Confrontation of the Cold War” (Diplomaatia, February and March 2017), Kaarel Piirimäe analysed the situation from that time and how it relates to today. The following article contributes to that retrospect by exploring the Soviet air force and air defence force on Estonian territory in the second period of the Cold War.
On strategic starting points
The territory and aquatic area on both sides of the Cold War division line were split into battlegrounds or theatres of war. For the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, the most important was the Western theatre (Западный Театр Военных Действий), which covered most of Central Europe up to the island countries in the west. Estonian territory fell under a theatre north of this—Северо-Западный Театр Военных Действий (СЗТВД). This theatre is special due to its two neutral countries, access to the ocean and also the Baltic Sea. In addition, here was and is the ‘second capital’ of the Russian Federation, known today as St Petersburg, which is an important administrative and industrial centre.
The Soviet Union’s military potential that was built on the theatre in the west was much bigger than in the northwest. The troops and necessary supplies were stationed in several echelons. Therefore, the theatre in the northwest had a supporting function but the troop formation there was still capable of carrying out offensive military operations.
As a legacy of World War I, the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation hold what is referred to as the Brusilov Offensive (Aleksei Brusilov, Russian general – ed.) in high esteem. On the basis of this event, Triandafillov (Vladimir Triandafillov, Soviet commander and military theoretician – ed.) already came up with “deep operation theory” during the inter-war period. Those who wish to study the military plans devised during the Cold War should first and foremost learn about this theory.
The theatre in the northeast was noteworthy for the army groups in Kaliningrad, the military forces in Estonia and the forces gathered in the Leningrad Oblast. This article will not cover the North Sea Fleet, which was the most modern fleet in the Soviet Union.
The preparation of new strategic bases began in the 1970s, and it brought about the need to renew tactical battle regulations. Considerable effort was put into this and the more important results could be seen during the military exercises of the time.
After World War II, the first generation jet aeroplanes were introduced. Aeroplanes such as the MiG-15, MiG-17, Il-28 and Tu-16 landed in the airfields of Estonia. By the mid-1950s, the second generation or supersonic jets appeared. In the West, the era of third generation jets came at the beginning of the next decade, when the Soviet Union invested in ballistic missiles, while military aviation was cut considerably. It was not until the 1970s that the Soviet Union started to manufacture third generation jet aeroplanes. Therefore, at the beginning of the second period of the Cold War, second generation aircraft were still in use, the most well-known of which were MiG-21, Su-7b, Tu-22, which could also be seen in the Estonian airspace.
The mid-1970s saw intensive rearmament with third generation aircraft. These were characterised by better engines and on-board equipment, which made navigation and the use of weaponry considerably more efficient. Third generation aircraft followed the “trends” of the time and many of them had variable-sweep wings.
The arsenal of the 14th Air Defence Army included MiG-MLDs, which were similar to MiG-29s in close combat air battles but superseded the latter in terms of flight range and in air battles over longer distances. These planes were located in Haapsalu, Pärnu and Tapa.
The headquarters of the 326th Heavy Bomber Aviation Division was in Tartu and the 132nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment was also stationed there. The latter’s arsenal included Tu-22-M3s and also some Tu-16s.
Ämari was home to the 321st Naval Shturmovik Aviation Regiment. This was for a long time (until 1983) armed with second generation Su-7BKL aircraft. In 1987, this unit was given over to the naval air force and by then it had retrained to use front-line Su-24 bombers.
Tartu was also home to a cargo plane regiment with Il-76 aircraft. Tapa had a single helicopter squadron with Mi-24 attack helicopters. The Soviet border guard had their own helicopter units, which used Mi-8s.
Infrastructure had been established for aeroplanes and helicopters. Tartu had a first class airfield where all aircraft could land, including large strategic bombers. Other airfields were second class. Sections of roadway had also been prepared so that they could be used as runways. The most well-known of these is probably the section of road between Jägala and Soodla. Rutja had an alternative airfield with a concrete block runway that was actually used by fighter plane units. There were several alternative airfields in Estonia with unpaved runways and some of these were in regular use. The number of airfields with paved runways remained stable. The only one that had been eliminated was the military airfield that used to be located in the Lasnamägi city district since it was already within the city boundary.
Shelters were built for front-line air force planes to protect these in the conditions of nuclear war and also from hits by ordinary weapons. The shelters in Estonian airfields are almost identical. There is only one characteristic that distinguishes the standards of air force and air defence force airfields. The system for opening the air force shelters used sliding doors but in the air defence force shelters the doors opened by rotation. The sore spot in both solutions was the weight of the doors that reached dozens of tons because the thick concrete cover was filled with sand. Strategic aircraft, however, were placed on ramps that were surrounded by earth walls.
What can be considered unique is that the [Soviet] 14th Air Defence Army was located on Estonian territory. This consisted of air defence brigades and air regiments, and could have even been called a corps owing to the number of subunits. What is more, the division was the only one to be located solely on the territory of what was then a Soviet republic. The three air defence subunits that were part of the air defence force in the Leningrad Oblast were an exception. Thirdly, in comparison with the composition and capabilities of the air force units stationed on Estonian territory at the time, the 14th Air Defence Army was equipped with modern fire-control systems and weaponry that made it possible to hit targets in the air in border areas, between 50 metres up and the stratosphere and several hundred kilometres away from Estonian borders. All combat activity could be directed from the control centre in Pääsküla. Although the air defence on Latvian and Lithuanian territories was not weak, the situation there was slightly different. The S-200 complex in Saaremaa had a very important position.
In regular bomber aviation regiments, in the air force as well as the air defence force, there were 40 fighter aircraft and (up to 9) training fighter aircraft. Fighter-bomber regiments had the same number of aircraft. A regiment had 30 front-line Su-24 bombers. These numbers have been given on the basis of a composition chart; the actual number could have been smaller by a few aircraft due to accidents. There might have been 20–24 strategic bomber and cargo aircraft in the regiment. The helicopter squadron usually had 20 aircraft.
Each aviation regiment was supported by two battalions, one for the airfield and rear support, the other for communication and radio technical services.
The strategic units of the air force had two aviation regiments on Estonian territory and these were managed from more senior headquarters further away. In fact, the strategic units received their battle missions from high command in Moscow.
The front-line aviation force of the air force had only one aviation regiment until 1987 and this was also transferred to the Baltic Fleet naval air force. Tactical strike capability from Estonian territory was limited, with only local aviation units present.
Land-based air defence
The 14th Air Defence Army consisted of three fighter aircraft regiments, as mentioned, and these—in addition to the anti-aircraft rocket units—were supported by the control centre and 4th radio technological brigade in Pääsküla. The latter also used the newest radars at that time—the 5N84. This division alone had nearly two hundred radars.
The division had four anti-aircraft rocket brigades that, among other weapons, were armed with S-200 long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets at least a few hundred kilometres from the Estonian coast. The same S-200 missile used liquid fuel, making its engine very powerful. The elements of liquid fuel were a threat to all life forms.
The Pääsküla control centre was an underground facility on three levels. It was not covered with a thick layer of concrete and was therefore defenceless against direct hits. At its heart was a large computer room where the information required for guiding missiles and fighter aircraft was processed. It was probably one of the largest computers in Estonia at the time. The headquarters of the Air Defence Army brigades were in Keila-Joa, Kingissepa (today’s Kuressaare), Rakvere, and the air defence missile regiment was in Valga. Anti-aircraft missiles were in prepared positions and there were also backup positions.
Assigned targets were part of general combat readiness and the respective files and envelopes were kept in safes behind multiple locks. If anyone believes that these targets were definitely in the territory of a “probable enemy”––NATO member states––I would suggest them to think thrice. Neutrality has not been a guarantee of security, at least this is what history has shown.
Respecting the sovereignty or neutrality of airspace might become secondary or be forgotten altogether in a combat situation. For example, if bomber aircraft had approached Leningrad across the North Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean or simply from the west, it is unlikely that any Soviet fighter pilot would have halted before entering Finnish or Swedish airspace out of fear of causing a diplomatic note.
With their range, strategic bombers could reach the Atlantic Ocean and even further with aerial refuelling. The cargo aircraft regiment was capable of carrying up to a battalion of airborne forces. A Spetsnaz Brigade under the control of the GRU was stationed in Viljandi and its subunits were ready for action far across the sea.
On 28 May 1987, Mathias Rust flew partially through an area under the responsibility of the 14th Air Defence Army. The plane was detected and a fighter interceptor was at hand. What was missing though was a decision in regard to what to do with the trespasser. Without discussing the further course of the situation, one can say that the efficient capabilities of the radar coverage (lower limit 20–50 metres above the ground) had been assured in practice.
In order to effectively use all opportunities and capabilities, the management of forces and military units has to be optimised. The armed services and strategic forces of the time had different areas of responsibility. For example, the administrative division of the military districts was not the same as that of the air defence districts. The Baltic Fleet had a completely different area of responsibility and the long-range air force operated in a much larger airspace. One of the biggest headaches was organising the cooperation between the front-line air force and the air defence force. Generally, the common highest commander for both sides was responsible for organising the cooperation.
Training in all aviation units took place according to established programmes. These were usually changed after a few years. Artillery ranges were and are important locations for the fighter aircraft and helicopters that use armament to destroy targets. There were at least two artillery ranges on Estonian territory that were used for training pilots. In larger exercises, on-board weapons could also be used in artillery ranges normally used by ground troops. Dog fighting and exercises involving the destruction of airborne targets were usually carried out in artillery ranges specifically created for this purpose because these exercises required more airspace and were far from Estonia. These artillery ranges also used unmanned radio-controlled targets.
Accident rates relate to both aircraft equipment and the staff that use it. Different countries use different indicators to determine accident rates. For example, the United States proceeds from the value of the damage caused. The Soviet Union divided aviation accidents into three categories. An accident with human casualties was considered a disaster. If there were no casualties but the aircraft was destroyed, it was an accident. While the third category was for those incidents where the aircraft equipment was restored and the aeroplane or helicopter went back into the air after some repairs. The latter was called поломка, Russian for the repairable breakdown of equipment. Sometimes in the case of accidents, in order to move them from the second category to the third, everything possible and more was done in the course of repairing so that the aeroplane or helicopter could make at least one short but successful flight. After this, it was left on the ground, ended up on a monument or was just written off at some point.
But in absolute numbers, even in these glory days, the Soviet Union lost about a hundred aircraft a year—this constitutes an entire aviation division. They lost trained people as well.
There were many more aviation schools back then than in Russia today, more than a dozen. More than 100 cadets graduated from every aviation school each year. In the 1980s, the number of aviation school cadets increased even more. This tendency was similar, albeit not of the same magnitude, to what occurred in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Accidents also happened in the air force units on Estonian territory, some of them very serious. For example, an entire squadron of fighter pilots died in an An-26 disaster. A cemetery in Ämari bears witness to the accident rate of the aviation regiment that was stationed there.
A slightly bigger picture
Naturally, the forces and military units on Estonian territory were not autonomous units. The commander of the 326th Heavy Bomber Aviation Division in Tartu received orders from the chief of the 46th Air Army in Smolensk. The former gave orders to the commanders of the 132nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, also stationed in Tartu, and two other regiments—one in Russia (Soltsy) and the other in Belarus (Balbasovo). Until 1987, the 321st Naval Shturmovik Aviation Regiment in Ämari received orders from the 15th Air Army headquarters in Riga. After this the regiment was incorporated into the Baltic Fleet and was subject to the division commander in Chernyakhovsk, Kaliningrad Oblast. Another regiment of this division was in the same base and a third was stationed on Latvian territory in Tukums.
The 15th Air Army included the 39th Bombardment Air Division formed at the beginning of the 1980s with its headquarters in Lielvārde. Two regiments of this division were on Latvian (Lielvārde, Daugavpils) and one on Lithuanian (Šiauliai) territory. They had MiG-27 aircraft. The cargo aircraft regiment in Tartu was part of a division whose two other regiments and division headquarters were in Lithuania (Šiauliai, Panevėžys, Kėdainiai). The stationing of the said air force units provides an idea of the main direction of their possible combat activity.
Two aviation regiments were located to the east of Lake Peipus, in the Leningrad military district (Smuravyevo and Siversk). Both regiments replaced the Su-17m2 fighter bombers with Su-24 front-line bombers in the 1980s. One naval air force Su-17 regiment was stationed near Pskov in Ostrov. Another regiment for Tu-16 aircraft was located right next to it. These locations clearly indicated the capability to operate in the coastal areas of the Baltic Sea, being part of the defence system of objects on Estonian territory as well as in the Leningrad Oblast. Outside Estonia but in nearby regions there were several other aviation units that were either part of the air defence force, air force or naval air force.
The commander of the 14th Air Defence Army was directly subordinate to the chief of the 6th Air Defence Army. The latter was also the superior of the commander of the 27th Corps of the PVO (Riga) and the commander of the 54th Air Defence Corps (Gatchina).
Therefore, the forces near Estonian territory had more strike power and could provide limited support to offensive operations. The military units on Estonian territory had more defensive capability against air strikes; in other words, offered efficient air defence.
Undoubtedly, the largest “conflict” in the Cold War revolved around nuclear weapons, and learning how to use these was carried out in theory and practice. All major exercises ended with a “nuclear strike”. The above mentioned front-line bombers and fighter bombers, not to mention strategic bomber aircraft, were all equipped with a system allowing them to deploy a nuclear weapon. The nuclear arsenal included numerous bombs that might have even been tens of times more powerful than those dropped on Japan. A nuclear charge could also be mounted on an anti-radiation missile. Strategic bombers had special missiles with a nuclear charge and these aircraft were called missile carriers. A special imitation atomic bomb IAB-500 was developed for training exercises but their number was limited. There are known instances where the sight of the imitation bomb’s “mushroom cloud” caused nearby witnesses to panic.
The term “nuclear winter” was introduced in the 1980s. Any explosion lifted a great part of the soil into the atmosphere and the resulting dust clouds caused serious problems.
If a huge map depicts an infinite number of targets and there are not enough resources to hit them, the planners of operational departments, sitting in their headquarters and not the actual battleground, start playing. At first they reduce the necessary number of aircraft intended for one or another target, ignoring any objective calculations. Then, without any feeling of guilt, they increase the number of nuclear strikes to achieve the set goal. On a thousand kilometre front line in Western Europe, about 1,000 nuclear warheads could be used in theory. Of course, all of these were not commanded by one military leader and they could strike as deep as 1,000 kilometres and more behind enemy lines. It was usually taken into account that the nuclear charge would have to explode in the air at low altitudes (низкий воздушный взрыв) in order to prevent or considerably reduce polluting the ground, but the reality was different. Accidents in nuclear power plants have already taught humankind many lessons in this regard.
Military aircraft on Estonian territory were prepared to use nuclear weapons and Northern European countries lacked this potential. But according to military science logic, all nuclear carriers were potential targets.
It is impossible to look back at all this battle equipment and activity and not consider how it affected the Estonian environment. The topic of the “fuel field” left behind in Tapa has somewhat faded today but back then about 300 barrels of fuel a year were delivered to ensure the operation of just one aviation regiment. The ground in the artillery ranges has been more or less cleaned of undetonated bombs and other explosive devices from that time but the metal concentration in the soil is definitely extremely high. The depositories of rocket fuel left a toxic footprint in the ground.
In terms of noise as environmental pollution, the youth of today cannot imagine the regular flight activity of a few hundred military aircraft. Of course, there was also radiation from hundreds of radars, the extent and effect of which it is not possible to comprehend today.
Most of the armed services of the former Soviet Union were represented on Estonian territory. The aircraft of the air force, air defence force and naval force were stationed all over Estonia in different bases. In addition, the border guard had aircraft. In total, Estonian territory had a high concentration of troops and the Air Defence Army alone had an important role in defending it. The Estonian territory, which reached all the way to the west of Leningrad, also played a part in the defence plan for this big city.
The high point of the Soviet air force, as well as its other armed services, was at the beginning of the 1980s. The major military exercise Zapad-81 was carried out on the territory of three military districts, including the Baltic district and the Baltic Sea aquatic area, and its aim was to demonstrate the military might of the Soviet Union. Ten years of warfare using a “limited contingent” in Afghanistan showed that there are issues with the achieved military potential, and by the end of the Cold War, all efforts were put into maintaining the armed forces.
Kaliningrad was one of the citadels of the Iron Curtain, but the Estonian territory had a roughly similar bridgehead role and no resources were spared in order to keep it. These two locations, placed on a larger map, could well be described metaphorically as the “wall and towers”. The Baltic Sea as the moat forms a sizeable addition to this image.
The “wall” to the north of Kaliningrad and the “tower” on Estonian territory disappeared in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is possible that someone still draws the ranges of the Su-27 fighter aircraft with starting points in Kaliningrad and Estonia. But such an “exercise” is only part of the bigger game. Nowadays, the effect of troop mobility and strike range is much greater and more decisive than the impact of former strongholds. Compared to deep operations, information operations have an even larger scope.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.