The 20 largest air forces in the world represent almost 70% of all combat aircraft in the world. To put things even further into context, the 10 largest air forces in the world operate 43% of all military aircraft in the world. Combined with the fact that most of these countries are also on the list of the 11 Strongest Navies in the World, the gap in military power between them and the rest of the planet seems insurmountable. But as some experts suggest, we are on the verge of an aerial warfare revolution, as drones could easily make this list obsolete in the coming years.
The important thing to note is that the size of the air force isn’t the biggest factor in determining the capability of a nation to conduct air battles. Far more important are the quality of its airplanes and pilots, plus the tactics employed by both sides. A swarm of North Korea’s MiG-21 would be of little, if any, use against a pair of the USAF’s F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. They wouldn’t be able to detect them, let alone get a radar lock that would allow them to fire missiles at them at a range from which the American planes would be able to engage them. North Korean pilots wouldn’t even know they are in combat until a few seconds before the missile impact.
Pilot training is another important factor. Even the best equipment in the world is useless unless you have a trained operator, and modern fighter jets are not an exception. For instance, U.S pilots in 2013 flew 120 hours per year, which is a 50% reduction compared to the Cold War years. Some smaller air forces can barely scrape together the funds to keep their pilots in air for just 20 hours annually, which is woefully inadequate. The problem is somewhat alleviated by the use of modern simulators, but they aren’t a substitute for the real thing, merely a supplement.
In terms of combat aircraft types, the most used ones are the F-16, manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) and General Dynamics Corporation (NYSE:GD), with 2,264 flying (16% out of world’s total of 14,552 combat aircraft), followed by the F/A-18, manufactured by Boeing Co (NYSE:BA), Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC), and McDonnell Douglas, and the Su-27/30/33, designed by Sukhoi.
In order to create the list of the 20 largest air forces in the world, we used Flight Global’s review of World Air Forces 2016. For the purpose of this article, we decided to focus on manned aircraft only and exclude drones, which are taking more and more space on runways around the world. Furthermore, we counted only combat fixed wing airframes. That means we left all helicopters and support types like tankers and transport planes, out of the equation, which are essential to any air force, but not what we are looking for at the moment. Here are the results, beginning on the next page.