Siberia: Our Next Air Base

by Leonard Engel

Analysis of Russian-Japanese relations indicates vulnerability of island empire to air attacks by American forces if Nippon declares war on Soviet.

War will come again one day to North Asia — soon. The hardheaded men in the Kremlin have long known that the issue with Tokyo can be settled only by force and they have prepared accordingly — politically, economically, diplomatically; on land, on sea and in the air.

Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Tokyo spokesman said that relations between Russia and Japan had not been changed. The world took him to mean that they would continue to be peaceful.

He spoke the truth. If he thought it as well, however, he really meant not peaceful but hostile. For 50 years, Tokyo has schemed incessantly to seize Eastern Siberia. As a result, Japan and the USSR have repeatedly been on the verge of general war. They were before December 7, and they still are. There has been no change in Japanese-Soviet relations.

Open declaration of war between Russia and Japan might well completely reverse the status of the United States- Japanese conflict. It would immediately make possible our sending waves of bombing planes directly to the enemy's mainland from our Alaskan air bases, via Siberian fields.

Under present conditions we are allied with Russia against Germany and Italy, but she is technically at peace with Japan and therefore cannot acquiesce in our use of Russian territory in pursuing our battle against the island empire.

American war tacticians long have considered Siberian bases our logical front line in aerial war against the Japanese. This factor, more than anything else, may deter the arrogant Japanese warlords in their plan to seize Eastern Siberia. By way of preparation in the air, the Soviets have built up in the Far East a force that numbers about 1,000 first-line planes. Another 1,000 are in reserve. At first glance, this may appear an impossibly high estimate. In the west, the Soviets are locked in the greatest battle in military history. It would seem logical, therefore, to believe that they have stripped the East of every man, every gun, every tank, every plane except the bare minimum needed for policing the frontier. But, as Tokyo told the world on December 7 (by moving south instead of north), the defenses of Siberia have not by any means been impaired to the point of helplessness by transfers. First-line strength remains at the pre-Nazi-Soviet war level. Such plane transfers as have taken place have been confined to the reserves, which totaled considerably more than 1,000 aircraft before last June.

The story of the Siberian air forces cannot be told without speaking also of the land and sea units at whose side they will fight, and of the geography and strategy of Northeast Asia with its unfamiliar, tongue-twisting names. The 2,000 planes and associated land and sea units have 3,000 miles of land frontier and 2,000 miles of coast to defend. The land frontier, from Vladivostok clear around to Lake Baikal (a giant body of freshwater twice the size of Lake Ontario, just on the Soviet side of the Soviet-Mongolian border), is strongly fortified. Reliance on defense alone, however, is neither the way to win a war, nor, as the news from the European Russian front this winter has made clear, Soviet policy. The Soviets intend to carry the war to the Japanese to the greatest extent possible. The 2,000 aircraft are in Siberia in great part for that purpose.

The Soviet military base at Vladivostok, three air hours away from key Japanese war plants, and the planes based there have long been described as the loaded pistol in the small of Japan's back. Vladivostok-based attacks on Japan's wood-and-paper cities and communication lines to the mainland of Asia across the Sea of Japan, however, represent only one part of the role the Siberian air forces are scheduled to play. The decisive battle for Siberia will be fought in northeast Manchuria on the eastern half of the pancake-flat North Manchurian plain and/or on the banks of that part of the Amur River forming the northeastern Manchurian-Siberian border. Manchuria pokes a deep salient into Siberia at that point. The Japanese will obviously attempt to drive it deeper, cutting off Siberia's maritime provinces, including Vladivostok, from the rest of the Soviet Union. (The Japanese, of course, must also make a pass at Vladivostok itself from nearby Korea, strong enough at least to keep the Vladivostok garrison busy.) Conversely, the Russians will attempt to pinch out the salient, trapping in it Japan's main striking force and paving the way for occupation of all the Asiatic mainland opposite Japan. If that happens, the Vladivostok-based air attacks at the start of the war will be multiplied a hundredfold from new bases on the coast opposite the Island Empire.

These considerations, as well as others of equal importance, dictate a somewhat unusual organization of Soviet military strength in the Far East, including the air units. Until completion of the new Baikal-Amur railway line running from Taisket which is west of Lake Baikal, up and around the lake and across Siberia several hundred miles north of the border, Siberia will continue to depend on the famed Trans-Siberian railroad as its main transportation system. For more than 1,000 miles the Trans-Siberian runs hard by the Amur River frontier, exposed to severance by enemy raiding parties.

Consequently, the Siberian military forces are divided into three great army-and-air groups, each designed to act independently of the others in the event communications among them are cut. Between Irkutsk and Chita is based the Trans-Baikal army (headquarters at Irkutsk); the Second Special Red Banner Far Eastern Army is based on Khabarovsk, at the tip of the Manchurian salient into Siberia; and the third, the First Special Red Banner Far Eastern Army, garrisons the Vladivostok area. The two Red Banner armies are not under the central military command in Moscow and, organizationally, are not part of the Red Army.

The distribution of the Siberian air force units follows the army distribution. There is no separate Siberian air command. The Russian air force is within the army, enjoying somewhat the same status as our Air Forces, except that the top army officers frequently have had air training and are the opposite of allergic to airpower.

About one-third of the total air force is based on Vladivostok and the area around it. Another third is attached to the Second Red Banner army at Khabarovsk. The remainder is divided between the Trans-Baikal army and bases on the northern reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk, on the mainland opposite half-Russian, half-Japanese Sakhalin Island and on the Kamchatka Peninsula, among other places at Petropavlovsk, the new naval base the Russians have been building secretly for the last five years.

The Khabarovsk army has one-third of the planes as it is opposite the North Manchurian plain and will attempt to counterblitz the inevitable Japanese drive against Khabarovsk. It not only has plenty of planes, but is the largest and most heavily mechanized of the three armies. Just before the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war, its strength was estimated at about 15 divisions, including two of cavalry and five tank brigades. (Russian tanks are organized into brigades, each of which has about half the strength of the American mechanized division). The First Red Banner, at Vladivostok, had a strength of nine divisions (one cavalry and eight infantry), with only a small force of tanks. In other words, they are principally garrison troops, to defend the Vladivostok "pistol" while the airmen pull the trigger. The Trans-Baikal army had a strength of eleven divisions, with a not inconsiderable number of tanks. The tanks are at the east end of its sector and are designed to take part in the pincer movement against the Khabarovsk salient. Otherwise, however, it has relatively little need of heavy mechanization or great air power, for west of Chita, the Argun River, which forms the border in that area, passes through heavily forested, roadless, mountainous country whose steep slopes all face the Japanese enemy. In addition, the several hundred planes of the Russian-dominated Outer Mongolian Peoples' Republic are available as reinforcement to the Soviets.

Vladivostok is well situated to strike not only at Japan itself, but Japanese supply routes to Manchuria and North China. The Siberian base is but 680 statute miles from Tokyo; 700 from Yokohama; 720 from Yokosuka, on Tokyo Bay, one of Japan's two greatest naval bases; 650 from Nagoya, busy munitions center; 635 from Osaka, greatest industrial city in the Island Empire; the same from Kobe, Osaka's port; 620 from Kure, Japan's gorgeously sheltered "Pearl Harbor" on the Japanese-island-surrounded Inland Sea; 650 from Dairen, main Japanese port in Manchuria; 550 from Fusan, Korean port through which many Japanese troops heading for the Manchurian front will pass; 650 from Mokupo, most distant Korean port; the same from Sasebo, another important naval base in Japan proper; 170 from Ranan, the gigantic barracks where Japanese troops now are training for the ultimate renewal of the Russo-Japanese conflict; 60 from Rashin, the brand new naval base on the Korean coast (about 30 miles from the Soviet frontier); and not more than 600 miles from the vital aluminum plants on the Asiatic side of Honshu, main Nipponese island.

The closeness of Vladivostok to Japanese territory and its exposed position, with that Manchurian salient deep behind it, will make it difficult to defend and handicap its use, particularly since the Japanese navy is by far the more powerful surface fleet on the Sea of Japan. Japanese plane detectors at Yuki (near the Soviet-Korean frontier) can probably pick up the sound of the motors of any planes leaving Vladivostok. And, of course, Vladivostok itself is exposed to aerial bombardment. The Russian base, however, is fogbound a large part of the year (making accurate bombardment, as well as antiaircraft gunnery, extremely difficult); and in addition to a small squadron of new destroyers and old cruisers, the Russians have in the Far East at least 100 submarines, the great majority of them based at Vladivostok. They are intended not only to harass Japanese communications with the mainland (incidentally, spotting for the Soviet submarines is one of the missions of the Vladivostok air units), but also to play a leading part in the defense of the port itself.

The bombers, spearhead of Vladivostok's striking power, are stored in underground hangars at the edge of carefully camouflaged fields. The defending fighters still are largely out in the open, it is understood, but are carefully dispersed. The countryside around Vladivostok and the harbor with its complicated passages conceal gun after gun, boast the most complete set of prepared range markers in Asia. Vladivostok and the area have bases for about 300 bombers, plus at least an equal number of fighters.

Just where the rest of the 2,000 combat planes are the Russians obviously are not saying. But well-built airports are at the following places, stops on the network of airlines the Soviets long ago built up in their eastern territories to overcome the handicap of insufficient land transportation facilities: Irkutsk, Verkhneudinsk, Chita, Nerchinsk, Mogocha, Rukhlovo, Bochkarevo, Khabarovsk, Lazo, Voroshilov and Vladivostok, all along the border and, with the exception of Voroshilov, stops on the main Soviet airline, from Moscow to Vladivostok; others are at Komsomolsk, 200 miles north of Vladivostok; Soviet Harbor, new port opposite Sakhalin; Mariinsk, in the same area; Tsipikan; Bolshorets and Petropavlovsk. There are many more, but these are the most important of those that are known. In short, enough airports are in existence so that the Siberian units can be effectively dispersed as a safety measure against enemy bombing.

Ten years ago, when the upbuilding of Siberia's defenses was begun, the limited capacity of the Transsib's then single-track (now doubled) and its exposed position necessitated the Moscow decree that Siberia was to be made as self-sufficient in arms and munitions as possible. A tremendous factory-building program was launched. Details of arms plants are, of course, strictly guarded. Several aircraft plants, however, are known to have been built. Most of these are engine, spare parts and accessories plants, on the theory that the planes themselves could be flown eastward from European Russia and the Urals without adding to the strain on the Transsib. A large engine plant at Chita supplies the Trans-Baikal army air units. Another plant is at Vitim, far in the north; this probably is not a military plant, but supplies spare parts for and overhauls airline planes in and near the Siberian Arctic. A third plant, believed to produce engines, is at Voroshilov (formerly Nikolsk Ussuriski) near Vladivostok. Irkutsk, Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk are also the sites of important air plants. It is probable that the Irkutsk and Komsomolsk plants are the largest of the group, as both are sizable industrial cities and Khabarovsk is too exposed. Khabarovsk is right on the Soviet bank of the Amur, where it turns north to flow downstream to Komsomolsk. All these plants were dependent on European factories for many parts, at least until recently. But they now should be able to make most of them themselves. The Soviets are known to have complete locomotive, railroad car, mining machinery and agricultural implement factories in eastern Siberia. If they can build those items of heavy equipment, it is reasonable to believe that they also can turn out aircraft engines.

Considerable oil deposits have been found in Siberia (notably in Kamchatka) and large refineries have been in operation in Khabarovsk and Komsomolsk for some time. They can meet only a part of the Siberian air force and army gasoline requirements, however. At least, that is what one would deduce from the fact that the Russians have not only been stock-piling gasoline and lubricating oil (as well as other munitions) in Siberia for years, but until Japan's entrance into the war closed Vladivostok to American ships, imported high test aviation gas from us for use in the East. Enough should be on hand and in production to keep the eastern forces going for a considerable period of time.

Thus the positive side of the military air picture in Siberia as determined by what the Russians have done. It must also be pointed out, however, that there also exist many negative factors. First and most important is the fact that however great strides have been made in building up east Siberian sources of air supply, the air as well as the ground units still are not independent of European Russia or imported supplies by any means. This has resulted in some weakening of their position since the start of the Nazi-Soviet war, for since then no supplies or arms whatsoever have been shipped by rail or truck from European Russia or the Urals to the east. The Transsib has been stripped of its rolling stock. Even the output of the car and locomotive plant at Ulan Ude, in the Chita district, built to equip the Far Eastern railroads, has been sent westward to help cope with the problem of supplying the Russian armies already in action.

Furthermore, some Siberian air units appear to have been sent westward. These were apparently superior units released from the eastern front in late fall when Moscow could be reasonably certain that there would be no Japanese attack for some months. During that time new units could at least complete their ground schooling and be ready when the fighting season opens again in the difficult North Manchurian and Siberian country. (Winter conditions are tougher in that area than on the German front).

The Siberian forces' best strategist, Gen Grigori Stern, no longer is in the Far East, but in Moscow as one of the top staffmen in the war with Germany. General Stern is known, among other things, for his skillful use of airpower.

But the Vladivostok pistol is still plenty loaded. So is the Khabarovsk army. We do not know with how much success they may be used. But we do know that they have been in action against Japanese forces before, in an intermittent series of border incidents.

Two of these, Changkufeng in 1938, and Lake Nomonhan in 1939, developed into real battles, with scores of thousands of troops and hundreds of planes on each side. The Russians have generally come out on top.

This article was originally published in the May, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 5, pp 18-21, 88.
The original article includes 6 photos and the map above.
Photos and map are not credited.