Since its origins in WWI, aerial combat has emerged as an indispensable element of modern warfare. Wooden, fabric-covered flying machines would eventually give way to hardened, stealthy warbirds equipped with advanced computer-driven avionics, supersonic speeds, and fire and fuhgettaboutit munitions.
As the 21st-century ushers in an increasingly volatile geopolitical landscape, nations will depend heavily on its winged weaponry in the battle for air superiority. Moreover, the uncanny pattern of history repeating itself all point to the high probability of future major global conflicts. So on that cheery note, let’s take a look at not only the world’s superpowers but some surprising newcomers to the scene.
Criteria for the list are based on all aircraft types such as fighters, bombers, trainers, helicopters, and transports. A variety of contributing factors include fleet size, performance, personnel, defense budget, strategic alliances, and quality of training.
Please note, however, beyond the “Big 3” (U.S., Russia, and China), any attempt to create a definitive ranking system is a matter of conjecture. Terms such as “largest” and “strongest” are often misleading, resulting in more questions than answers. The debate will also never fully appease all parties — just like other hypothetical quandaries, such as whether Captain Crunch could beat Colonel Sanders in a knife fight (probably, but we’ll never know).
Straddling the border between Europe and Asia, Turkey sits at a global crossroads marked by both ancient and modern warfare. Today, the country’s position in the not-so-friendly Middle East region benefits from the production and export of arms (armed drones, rockets, tanks, etc.) along with an aggressive 65% increase in military spending over the past decade. Continued sorties in the Syrian Civil War, attacks on ethnic Kurds, and the overall pugnacity of its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, makes the Turkish Air Force an increasingly serious threat on the world stage.
The bulk of Turkey’s fleet consists of Cold War-era McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber and locally produced F-16 Fighting Falcons under license from General Dynamics. The recent procurement of advanced Russian S-400 air defense systems provided a much-needed upgrade and muscle to their overall position. The acquisition, however, also created friction with the U.S., which led to the postponed sale of 100 Lockheed Martin 5th generation F-35A strike fighters.
Relations between the two countries could become further strained following Turkey’s recent decision to renew military operations against the Kurds in Northeast Syria. If the F-35 program deal can’t be salvaged, Russia has offered to provide an alternative: the S-35, the latest incarnation of the Su-27 Flanker multirole fighter series.
The Pakistan Air Force currently relies heavily on foreign support, especially from China. The communist behemoth partnered with Pakistan to develop the JF-17 Thunder, a lightweight multi-role fighter that can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack, and aerial interception.
First introduced in 2007, the JF-17 (short for “Joint Fighter”) is a crucial weapon in the on-going hostilities between the South Asian country and its other nuclear neighbor (and mortal enemy), India. The bad blood mostly revolves around the disputed territory in the Kashmir region, resulting in a stand-off that places the two rivals on the brink of nuclear war with alarming frequency.
Although ranked only 20th in global defense spending, Pakistan boasts the 7th largest air force in the world with 1,281 aircraft. The prolonged conflict with India remains the primary motivation to keep up in the anything-you-can-blow-up-we-can-blow-up-better game.
10. South Korea
Similar to the previous entry, South Korea has issues with its neighbor. A shared border with North Korea and its unpredictable ruler, Kim Jong Un, makes the South China Sea region one of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. As such, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) continues to upgrade its fleet to ensure survival against a rival prone to randomly flinging missiles around the same way a two-year-old tosses food on the floor.
In March of 2019, South Korea received the first of 40 F-35 fighter jets as part of its biggest weapons purchase ever. Those sitting on the other side of the 38th parallel didn’t exactly take the news well. Nor should they because the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is simply a beast.
The stealth, single-seat, single-engine, fifth-generation, multirole combat aircraft is designed for ground-attack and air-to-air missions. Most importantly, however, its presence serves as a deadly deterrent and provides the ROKAF with a Gangham-Style advantage over the North.
Japan’s aptly named Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) reflects the island nation’s top military priority: defending its homeland from attacks by air, land, and sea. And for a good reason: the Land of the Rising Sun remains the first and only country to be bombed with atomic weapons.
Well-trained JASDF pilots now have the benefit of patrolling Japanese airspace in top-notch equipment from the United States, including the F-15J single-seat fighters. Japan recently ordered forty-two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters while also continuing to develop the highly anticipated, Mitsubishi F-3 fighter.
Additional American-made aircraft provide early-warning capabilities, such as the Boeing E-767 and Northrup Grumman E-2C Hawkeye. Japan is also scheduled to acquire the latest E-2D Hawkeyes in response to the growing number of air intercepts from Russian and Chinese jets.
But the biggest headache is, once again, North Korea. As recently as October 2, 2019, the hermit kingdom fired a test missile into the Sea of Japan — one of many provocative actions that underscore the slippery slope of retaliating against this outlying nation with nukes.
For all its outstanding contributions to civilization (Beer, Beethoven, Bratwurst — and that’s just the “Bs”) Germany must also live with a shameful past of having started (and lost) two world wars. But to be fair, the Luftwaffe did produce the top aces in both conflicts, pioneered jet propulsion, and arguably had the most stylish uniforms of any branch of service. And so with this illustrious history, today’s German Air Force remains a formidable (albeit small) fighting force.
Germany counts roughly 400 military aircraft, with nearly half of the fleet dedicated to its fighter force. While this may seem paltry compared to other top world air forces, the German Navy by comparison currently employs only four submarines and no aircraft carriers.
The Bundeswehr’s focus on air combat features a mix of aging Cold-War era planes as well as the modern Eurofighter Typhoon and the PANAVIA Tornado IDS (InterDiction Strike). Both are twin-engine multirole fighters jointly developed and manufactured by a consortium of European powers not named Russia. The Luftwaffe also boasts a stout rotorcraft force, led by the American-designed Sikorsky CH-53 Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters equipped with three mounted .50 machine guns.
With the largest defense budget in Europe, the Armée de l’Air is well-positioned to maintain its secure placement as a world military power. Dassault Aviation, France’s leading manufacturer of military aircraft, provides cutting edge avionics and performance to not only the home team but also a growing number of countries, establishing strategic alliances for the Tricolour.
The French Air Force is a modern, balanced inventory of fighters, trainers, transporters, and rotorcraft capable of launching a full range of operations. But without question, the pièce de résistance is the Dassault Rafale, featuring a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 and a whopping 10-ton ordnance capacity.
Since first entering service in 2001, the Rafale (meaning “gust of wind”) built a well-earned reputation as one of the best fighters in the world. The French unleashed the single-seat, twin-engine multirole jet on a variety of NATO missions and operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, and most recently against ISIS forces in Syria.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is big and strong and recently became a whole lot bigger and stronger. On October 8, 2019, India received the first of an order of 36 Dassault Rafales. The $8.78 billion purchase not only expanded the world’s 4th largest fleet (over 2,000 aircraft) but also upgraded their vast stock of aging Soviet-made Mig fighters.
India still maintains deep familial ties to Mother Russia — especially relating to the Su-30MKI, a twin jet multirole air superiority fighter developed by Moscow-based JSC Sukhoi Company and built under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to push a homegrown “Make-in-India” agenda that now includes a deal with Lockheed Martin to manufacture wings for F-16s. Production is scheduled to commence in 2020 from a facility in southern India.
Lockheed Martin is also bidding for an estimated $15 billion contract to supply the IAF with 114 combat jets. The American aerospace giant even offered to relocate its F-16 production line from the United States to India — and sweetened the deal by specifically developing an upgraded version of the aircraft and re-branded as the F-21.
Finding room for its new armada shouldn’t be difficult. India boasts 60 air bases throughout the country, including the station at Siachen Glacier in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayas. Interestingly, at an altitude exceeding 20,000 feet, the avalanche-prone area lies in the un-demarcated and hotly contested Kashmir region, making it the highest battleground on earth.
5. United Kingdom
During the Battle of Britain in World War Two, the Royal Air Force (RAF) faced a numerically superior Luftwaffe as part of Hitler’s invasion of the United Kingdom. A Nazi victory would have been disastrous for the Allies and forever altered the course of history. British pilots, however, weren’t having it.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill would famously tell the nation in a radio speech, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” 80 years later, that indomitable spirit remains and alive and well.
Founded on April 1, 1918, the RAF is the oldest independent air force in the world. Since then, UK’s aerial warfare arm has successfully defended the skies over Britain and exerted influence worldwide, heeding to the motto “Per Ardua ad Astra” (Latin for ”Through Adversity to the Stars”).
The RAF is currently engaged in 15 missions on 4 continents in 22 countries. The force is spearheaded by the multirole Eurofighter Typhoon and augmented with a fleet of aging PANAVIA Tornado GR.4. Adding to its arsenal like a Thiery Henry thunder strike, the Brits have also acquired a dozen multirole F-35B variants, featuring short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL). Another 122 units have been ordered as a replacement for both the Tornado and the Harrier GR9.
The imposing flock of warbirds is complimented by state-of-the-art training aircraft that make up nearly 44% of its overall inventory. If only the RAF could inspire the British government to fix the pending calamity of Brexit.
Israel’s Air Force (IAF) is one of the most skilled and technologically advanced powers in the world. They also get plenty of opportunities to prove it. Long-standing border disputes, threats of nuclear annihilation, and defending an ancient city considered sacred to all three of the world’s major religions makes for a busy schedule and an unholy mess.
The armed air service formed not long after Israel gained its independence in 1948. Since then, the IAF has fought in eight recognized wars with Arab nations as well as a multitude of other skirmishes and operations in the perilous Middle East.
Israel relies primarily on U.S. aircraft that includes the F-4, F-15, F-16, and F-35A Lightning II. Although the airframes are American-made, Israel uses its own electronics on the F-15I and F-16I. Apache attack helicopters provide added firepower in close-support engagements, and the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk series is the IAF’s primary troop-hauler.
The relatively modest size of Israel’s entire armed forces is offset by mandatory military service for all national citizens over the age of 18. The IAF, in particular, is forced to cover a lot of ground, patrolling an area surrounded by hostile forces such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS. The latest developments in Syria involving the withdrawal of U.S. troops will only heighten the need for Israeli hyper-vigilance on all fronts.
Historically speaking, massive scale wars involving high attrition usually favor sides with more manpower. That said, China’s world-leading population of 1.3 billion people combined with cutting edge technology, robust defense spending and a stockpile of nukes makes the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAFF) one mighty an All-You-Can-Kill buffet.
Officially founded on November 11, 1949, PLAFF continues to steadily up its game with an eye towards the future. China’s path to modernization is reflected in the heralded and super stealthy, J-20. First introduced in 2017, the single-seat, twin-jet aircraft is the first fifth-generation fighter in Asia. Although the exact specifications are shrouded in more secrecy than Masonic rituals, the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation designed the J-20 as an air superiority fighter with precision strike capability. And the recent purchase of Su-35s from Russia bolsters Beijing’s already impressive lineup.
The Chinese military also possesses an array of lethal drones and hypersonic missiles — munitions that could possibly destroy aircraft carriers. Enemies of the Communist nation could have another worrisome concern with the development of the DF-ZF, an unmanned hypersonic glider capable of traveling at several thousand miles per hour. China flaunted some of its latest wares during a parade marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic in a frightening display of lethality.
According to Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, the DF-ZF reflects China’s commitment to develop weapons that could undermine U.S. missile defenses. “The threat of hypersonic missile attack not only impacts conventional warfare scenarios like we are seeing develop in the South and East China Sea, but it also puts US nuclear defense strategies at risk as well,” Fanell said.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly created Russian Federation inherited worn out Cold War-era jets in dire need of an upgrade. The overhaul wouldn’t be easy in the wake of a crippled economy, social unrest, and massive corruption at every level. But like a modern-day Phoenix, the Russian Air Force rose from the ashes with a former KGB officer-turned-dictator riding bareback and hellbent on making Russia great again by any means necessary.
Russian pilots have plenty of swagger these days thanks to a well-funded, home-grown military infrastructure. Leading the charge is the Su-57, a technologically advanced, multi-role fifth-generation fighter with all the bells and whistles of its competitors. This Russian bear can also can do tricks. The Su-35 gives Moscow another top-notch performer that combines the agility and versatility of the trusted Su-27 Flanker platform with new and improved avionics.
In short, recent operations in Ukraine, Chechnya, and Syria — as well as being frequent, uninvited guests in airspace around the world — sends a loud and clear signal that President Vladimir Putin is no longer content with just saber-rattling.
1. United States
The United States Air Force (USAF) exemplifies the old adage, “strength in numbers.” The same goes for “size matters.” To wit: Uncle Sam stocks more military aircraft than China, Russia, India, UK, Germany, Japan, and France COMBINED. Moreover, a joined U.S. Navy and Marine Corps create the world’s second-largest air force, making America the undisputed heavyweight champion of the skies.
Formerly known as the United States Army Air Force, the USAF became an independent branch of the U.S. military under the administration of President “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” Truman on September 11, 1947. American aircraft are strategically located throughout the country and in U.S. territories on 59 active bases,10 joint bases, and can also be found on foreign soil installations from the United Kingdom to South Korea.
While the USAF boasts a sophisticated, fulsome inventory covering all aspects of aerial combat, the F-22 Raptor receives top billing. Just how powerful is this bird of prey? U.S. law prohibits the F-22 from being exported overseas. ’Nuff said.
At the risk of nit-picking, the USAF motto (“Aim High, Fly-Fight-Win”) is a bit clunky and uninspired compared to other military branches. However, the air service atones itself by managing two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad that includes racks of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the entire strategic bomber force.