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Red Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of the Soviet Air Force

Red Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of the Soviet Air Force

Posted by John Tiehen on Sep 27th 2018

Red Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of the Soviet Air Force

Working the Soviet Air Force in Thunder in the East

By John Tiehen

In Thunder in the East, asymmetry of forces also extends dramatically across the steely Russian skies. Of course, being Air Forces, they deliver comparable in-theater effects (bombing, striking, transporting, and engaging in combat), but each faction’s approach to handling their air war couldn’t be more different.

What the Soviets call the Correlation of Forces leads us to ask, “What tools do the Soviets have to bring fury from the skies onto the foe?”

Soviet Il-2 illustration by Tim Allen

Quality Versus Quantity

Soviet Su-2

A quick survey of both the Axis and Soviet Air units reveals the qualitative advantages of the Luftwaffe, particularly in Fighter Strengths. One need only see all of those Vulnerable (8-Ball) symbols among the early war Red Air Force to imagine the Axis, cue in hand, looking to rack them up and break. In individual “Turning Battles” (Dogfights), the Axis player can channel their inner Eric Hartmann and smile confidently.

A gestalt accounting of Air units reveals some 27 for the Axis to 70 for the Soviets (should they build them all). If everything were flying, that is better than a 2:1 advantage the Soviets enjoy. However, Soviet Fighter units do not approach qualitative parity until very late in the war, offsetting their numerical advantage. The Germans, however, keep pushing their technology edge as their first 4-Strength Fighter unit (the Vulnerable FW-190As) appear in October 1942; in contrast, the Soviet’s first 4-Strength Fighter unit (the Vulnerable La-7s) arrive eighteen months after that! The Luftwaffe retains its qualitative edge if the Axis player strives to keep it.


Many reinforcing Axis Air unitsrepresent improved Fighter units storyboarded as equipment upgrades rather than being there to expand their numbers on the Air Unit Display mat; the Bf-109Fs improve into Bf-109Gs, for example. The Axis player will typically see their Fighters improve in quality (which is fairly inexpensive at 1 Equipment Point per Air unit upgraded at a rate of one per month, maximum), not quantity (which is very expensive but you can do as much of this anytime you can afford it). Plaguing the Luftwaffe in Russia are its numerous scheduled departures (sent to conduct the war against the Allies in other theaters). Each withdrawal hurts, and the Luftwaffe’s cumulative erosion over a Campaign Game is telling.

For their part, the Soviets have an Olympic-size Force Pool that can (at some considerable strain on their economy) put all 70 Soviet Air units into play, but the practical limits to deploy them are daunting. Typically, the Axis has 15 or fewer Air units on the Air Display mat at any time (supported by a small, expensive Force Pool of previously withdrawn units and older-model Fighters from previous upgrades). This means Soviets’ 2:1 advantage in on-mat Air units grows to better than 3:1 and dims Axis hope of air supremacy.

During a scenario, the mix of Soviet Air units on the Air Display mat, their Force Pool, the RPs available to keep ‘em flying, and the number of turns to play are, considered in aggregate, fairly well balanced. Each scenario presents the Soviet player some limited options and opportunities to adjust their correlation of Air Forces. In a Campaign Game, the Soviets can shape their destiny more dramatically with resource management strategies over the long haul; that is, producing a steady, massive quantity of EPs-cum-airpower.

Soviet reinforcements in Thunder in the East

Soviet Air Reinforcements will take time to get into service.

The story of the Luftwaffe goes from supremacy after their Sneak Attack against the Soviet Air Force on the ground, to superiority as the Red Air Force crawls out of the hole and slowly upgrades its Air Force, and degrades from there dropping to air parity (with local air superiority still attainable) and worse as the war drags on. By 1944, just getting Air Missions back from the map unscathed become moments to cheer and put in Axis newsreel highlights. Relentless growth of the VVS (i.e., the Soviet Air Force), coupled with its modest qualitative improvements over time, inexorably swings the pendulum to the Soviets.

Rebuild, Repair, and Ready

For the Soviet player, the lamentable condition of your Air Force when you can first use it during Barbarossa features pronounced quantitative and qualitative inferiority. You will not find qualitative parity (much less advantage) in this war so you must instead flood the skies. This takes time and many resources, but if you should be able to Lazarus Soviet Air units from the Destroyed box faster than the Axis can add more to it, and eventually spread the Luftwaffe thin. Then, with growing frequency, the VVS can start to dictate terms. From the beginning, you must ply your resources to ensure that enough Soviet Air units populate the Air Display mat that even your inefficient Soviet Ground Crews can keep enough of them flying to at first distract, then concern, then worry, then harass, and finally put some serious smack down on the Luftwaffe. It is a long journey to contest the skies, but assiduously sticking to a plan that will get you there and being mindful of excessive Dogfight risks will pay off over the course of the war. Nothing kills Soviet planes like a pair of Luftwaffe fighters intercepting your Vulnerable, shabbily escorted Bombing missions, so do not get ahead of your skis!

The first turn Soviet Air Force, all Destroyed!

The grim state of the Red Air Force after Barbarossa.

When the Axis smite the VVS with their Blitzkrieg! card’s Sneak Attack (as pictured above), you should find some two dozen Soviet Air units in the wreckage. At a repair rate of 10% per turn (rounded up) maximum out of the Destroyed box, that means on your June IV turn’s OOB Step you can spend up to 3 FPs to raise 3 Air units to the Flown box (Damaged). It’s a start, and an expensive one, but Stalin has been carefully husbanding RPs for this day and now is the time to spend them! With Soviet Oil cities producing 18 FPs per Season, let tomorrow’s needs take care of themselves -- without the presence (and therefore threat) of a Red Air Force, there might be no tomorrow. Spend!

Soviet Equipment Points (EPs); learn to love them!Granted, rebuilding your Air Force is expensive, but what else do you really have to spend your EPs and FPs on early in the war? Not tanks – your outdated Early Mech Corps units are irreplaceable and your new Tank Corps units, when they arrive, are few, small, and budget-priced at only ½ EP each. You will soon discover you have sufficient EPs and FPs to rebuild your Air Force and introduce new Motorized units over time. EPs invested in upgrading to the newest airplane models remains a good value in every TitE scenario, but the throttle of only 1 upgrade per month (maximum) means you will be reaching for “crates” (crummy old-model aircraft types) in the Flown box long into the Air War.

At the very least, invest enough during the early war to achieve at least “an Air Force in being.” This is important to keep the Axis player honest (i.e., forcing them to fly Escorts with their Strike and Bombing Missions; when the Axis have a plethora of unemployed Fighters, their Strafe Mission becomes another added nuisance you don't need). It only takes a handful of Soviet Fighter units for you to create Dogfighting mischief -- the Axis may lord their individual Fighter unit Strengths over you, but never despair! When they Escort with one Fighter unit, you can Intercept with two, and that can generate Dogfights that should start to go your way. It only takes a few hot Dogfight rolls (not to be confused with fighting about hot dog rolls) to flummox the Axis for the following turn. Just keep uplifting your Destroyed Air units as best you are able until (eventually) half of your units in the Flown box each turn are roughly the same quantity of Air units as the Axis can muster – and that will be a happy day in Moscow.

Inclement weather is your friend while rebuilding the VVS, but this prohibits many missions and reduces the effectiveness (and increases the risk) of those allowed – so doesn’t expect great things from the sky other than clouds, rain, and snow.

Central Planning Budgets

The secret to keeping the Red Air Force flying is old-fashioned communist central planning. The pre-war RP stockpiles deplete soon enough, and after that only resource management through budgeting can save you! You must faithfully allocate RPs for your Air Force’s upgrades, expansions, and Rush Recoveries each turn. In the long attritional war of resources, you need to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em (or, in this case, when to save ‘em and when to spend ‘em). Plan your economy to sail toward your strategic vision for victory, not drift from turn-to-turn as a rudderless ship. You will need an RP plan, budget, and a real sense of frugality and saving.

Your first priority should be getting your best Fighters in the Available box and no matter the cost, follow this by keeping them Rush Recovered if you also need them to escort occasional Strike/Bombing Missions. Actually, Rush Recovery can be a panacea when dealing with the inferior Soviet ground crews; if you throw enough FPs at the problem of all the Air units you have jammed up in the Flown box, you can buy more efficiency. It’s expensive, but it is an option.

Harassing the Luftwaffe on a large scale won’t happen early in the war. It is not even a big concern when your Escort Fighters are brutalized in Dogfights because some of the time they will get in a lucky blow, and that will impress the Axis player by raising their “fret level.” The Axis do not have spare FPs to keep their Fighters flying double duty (i.e., Rush Recovered so that they can both Escort and Intercept consecutively). The Soviet player must chip away at the Air War attrition calculus, defeat after disaster, until a credible Red Air Force emerges to supplement the Red Army’s efforts on the ground (where the game is won or lost).

The Fall and Rise of the VVS

The last turn of November 1941 saw Clear weather and myriad clashes between the Air Forces.
The Luftwaffe (while delivering hammer blows of close support to the front) is much worse for wear after the fighting. During the next 5 turns at least (which will all be either Snow or Extreme Cold), the Axis Air also repairs at half rate, just as the Soviets do, so they should not anticipate the Luftwaffe riding to the rescue anytime soon.

You have the nerve...?

The Soviets have a few helpful cards to assist their air war effort, most notably You Have the Nerve not to Manufacture IL-2s Until Now!?The beauty of the Nerve card is not only in its 3 RPs’ worth of goodies that actually expand your Air Force by one unit on the Air Display, but that it advances the arrival of (only) one single Air unit of the next new model type by a significant amount of time (typically one or two Seasons). For an Air Force desperately looking for any kind of qualitative improvements, this is a great card! A similar Flood the Skies! card pushes more Soviet airpower both onto and up the Air Display mat (for free). Also, your Air Offensive card improves all your Flown box Air units that (Clear weather) turn (note that a few ground crews’ were probably shot for their ineptness as an example to motivate the others); this card also permits your Fighters to help bomb the Axis Air Forces on the ground, thus hobbling their ability to fight back for a turn or two. Other useful Soviet cards include those adding more resources, generally, to feed the voracious appetite of the Red Air Force.

Points, Patience, and Perseverance

The sinews of the Red Air Force are points, patience, and perseverance. That is, you must make a substantial, continuous investment in Fuel, Equipment, and even Personnel Points to contest the skies (with little help from the quality of your airplane designs or support from your ground crews). Managing that expense is all up to you.

Patience is always an asset when thinking longer-term for employment of the Soviet Air Force. Not only when rebuilding it, but even on a turn-by-turn basis not using it so that the number of Soviet Air units in the Available box next turn grows to more than 50% of your working total. You can survive (although not thrive) without immediate assistance from the skies – the Axis cannot. Without the Luftwaffe on constant call matters can halt or even deteriorate quickly for the Axis. Therefore, when playing the Soviets, have some strategic patience and time your surges against the enemy for maximum effect.

Finally, there is perseverance. The situation with the Soviet Air Force stinks and it cannot outfly the smell. Its poor quality, its maintenance stinks, and its cost (especially for what you get) really stinks! So celebrate! Your advantage is attritional in nature; your Air units can be kicked to the ground over and over again and they will continue to rise as long as you hold your nose and persevere through all that stink. Imagine the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union needing its revenge and keep going no matter what.

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