Since the creation of the British Royal Flying Corps in 1912 (merged into the Royal Air Force in 1918) the terms “air power” and “air superiority” have become ubiquitous and synonymous with military action. For a nation that wants to maintain power on the global stage, well-protected airspace and a modern and capable air force that can strike anywhere around the world are essential.
There are some arguably surprising omissions from this list, such as the RAF (UK), the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the French Air Force. These forces have hundreds of aircraft at their disposal and personnel in their thousands, but while their air forces wield a variety of aircraft, and are among some of the strongest in the world, this particular list is ranked by the number of fixed-wing combat aircraft (so it doesn’t include helicopters either). The list was not ordered by personnel – because, of course, an air force with 50,000 people but less than a hundred aircraft isn’t much use in an air combat scenario. Naval air arms aren’t included either.
Many air forces have started to operate in more humanitarian ideologies, utilizing huge tactical transporters to offer aid to places struck by disaster. Service personnel find themselves more likely to be handing out food and clothes to the less fortunate parts of the world rather than locked in combat with an aggressor. However, having a powerful combat air force is still crucial to many countries; this was highlighted by the Gulf War air campaign in 1991: The coalition air force of more than 2,250 combat aircraft seized power over Iraqi airspace in just over a month, flying 100,000 sorties, making the following ground invasion swifter and surer. These 10 countries know the value of a large, strong combat air force, with the highest numbers of combat aircraft in the world.
10. German Air Force: 423 combat aircraft
Although smaller than the RAF by number of personnel (31,378 compared to 37,200), the German Air Force takes 10th place in terms the number of combat aircraft it can operate. Combat aircraft operated by Germany include the extremely modern Eurofighter Typhoon and the popular Panavia Tornado. The force was created in 1956, as the World War II version of the Luftwaffe had been disbanded in 1946 and Germany had been banned from having an air force until they joined NATO in 1955.
9. Republic of Korea Air Force (South Korea): 458 combat aircraft
Founded in 1949, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) has changed through the decades, constantly maintaining combat capabilities in case of an attack from its belligerent neighbor. ROKAF utilizes a number of combat aircraft, including famous aircraft such as the American F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Northrop F-5. ROKAF also has a number of fighter-bombers in its ranks, such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle and the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. ROKAF has been serving in the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.
8. Turkish Air Force: 465 combat aircraft
Turkey is a real military powerhouse, especially in its region. Not only does it have this expansive aerial combat ability, the country also has a huge army with over 400,000 personnel. Although the total fleet size of the Turkish Air Force is smaller than others not in this Top 10, the number of combat aircraft propels Turkey to the No. 8 spot. Like ROKAF, the Turkish Air Force also operates a large number of F-16 Fighting Falcons.
7. Pakistan Air Force: 502 combat aircraft
Considering the size of the air forces in countries surrounding or near to Pakistan, this Asian country has found itself with the need to operate a large combat air force itself. Dating back to 1947, the Pakistan Air Force has been involved in many conflicts since its foundation, including various confrontations with powerful neighbor India. The Chinese Chengdu J-7 is the fighter aircraft of choice for Pakistan, with the ever popular F-16 Fighting Falcon also being part of the makeup. The Pakistan Air Force also has French fighter aircraft, with the Dassault Mirage 5 and Mirage III.
6. Korean People’s Air Force (North Korea): 661 combat aircraft
Although North Korea is such an impoverished country (170th in the world for GDP per capita according to the IMF) somehow the secretive state can afford to maintain a massive combat aircraft force. Unsurprisingly, North Korea’s aircraft come from China, with some Soviet Union relics still in operation (like the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21). The KPAF has a large amount of Chinese Shenyang J-5 fighters, although many of them are believed to be not airworthy.
5. Egyptian Air Force: 900 combat aircraft
The Egyptian Air Force (EAF) is, in general, very large; it operates over 1,300 aircraft in total and has over 50,000 personnel. Amongst its combat aircraft is a huge number of F-16 Fighting Falcons: the EAF has 240 of them. With 321 armed helicopters also at its disposal, the EAF is a force to be reckoned with.
4. Indian Air Force: 1,080 combat aircraft
Dating back to 1932, the Indian Air Force is massive, with an estimated 127,000 personnel looking after the aircraft. India can even assemble its own aircraft, producing hundreds of Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighters under license from Russia. The Indian Air Force also uses a fighter that was used to fly many successful sorties during the Gulf War, the SEPECAT Jaguar (France/UK).
3. People’s Liberation Army Air Force (China): 1,500 combat aircraft
Taking a huge leap over India’s air force is the might of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), with approximately 1,500 combat aircraft. Statistics for the PLAAF are staggering: 330,000 active personnel operating over 2,500 aircraft. The Chinese also build their own fighters and bombers, such as the Mach 2.35-capable Shenyang J-11 and the Xian H-6 that can carry over 20,000 lbs of free-fall bombs. In direct conflict, there would be very few nations that could contain, never mind overpower, the Chinese Air Force.
2. Russian Air Force: 1,900 combat aircraft
Formed in 1992 from the old Soviet Air Forces (which had 6,100 fighters, bombers and attack aircraft in 1990), the Russian Air Force has had to slim down because of financial constraints. However, more money has been given to this combat arm in the last few years and now it can operate with some fearsome aircraft. The Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound” can fly at speeds of Mach 2.83 (1,860 mph) and has a service ceiling of 67,600 ft. The huge Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber can carry 88,185 lbs of weapons and fly at an impressive 1,380 mph.
1. United States Air Force: 3,318 combat aircraft
The USAF’s 1,245 F-16 Fighting Falcons alone could occupy fourth place on this list – and that’s just one type of combat aircraft! There are also the hundreds of F-15E Strike Eagles and the dozens of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs. If that wasn’t enough, there are the giant strategic bombers the USAF has at its disposal, such as the famous Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and the futuristic Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, better known as the Stealth Bomber. The USAF has an amazing array of aircraft in its fleet, not forgetting the utterly terrifying Lockheed AC-130 (variant names: AC-130 Spectre/Spooky/ Ghostrider/Stinger II). This beast, with its capability to even operate a 105mm M102 howitzer amongst its multiple armaments, is enough to send many air forces packing on its own. Only the USAF operates them, and they have over 30 of them.