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The 11 best air forces in the world

What makes an air force good? Is it combat capability? Is it their track record? Much of that can stir up debates and cause one heck of a…disagreement among patrons at any watering hole or establishment.


Then again…life gets boring without such things.

F-35C Lightning IIs, attached to the Grim Reapers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101, and an F/A-18E/F Super Hornets attached to the Naval Aviation Warfighter Development Center (NAWDC) fly over Naval Air Station Fallon's (NASF) Range Training Complex. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Darin Russell)

So, here's a look at the eleven best air forces in the world:

11. Russian Air Force

The Russians have been working on some new planes, but most of their very large force is old. Still, quantity can have a quality all on its own.

Russia also has long-range bombers and some tankers and airborne early warning planes. It's just they are old, and maintenance levels have fallen off since the Cold War ended.

Russian Su-30 fighter (Wikimedia photo)

10. Republic of Korea Air Force

South Korea's air force has come a long way in the same timeframe as China. F-5s and F-4s have been replaced by F-16s, and they developed the T-50 Golden Eagle, which is a very capable advanced trainer — so much so it has also been turned into a multi-role fighter as well.

A ROKAF T-50 at the Singapore Air Show. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9. People's Liberation Army Air Force (includes People's Liberation Army Navy Air Force)

Twenty years ago, the bulk of China's planes were copies of the MiG-21 Fishbed. Today, many of the planes are from the "Flanker family," including home-grown versions like the J-11, J-11B, J-15, and J-16.

China also has the indigenous J-10 and JH-7, while also flying two fifth-generation designs.

Photo: Xinhuanet

8. Indian Air Force (including Indian Navy)

This country has won a few wars, and also has developed some of their own planes in the past and present. The only reason they are behind the Saudis is their reliance on Russian airframes, while the Saudis and Japanese have F-15s.

Having the second-best carrier aviation arm doesn't hurt.

An Indian MiG-29K purchased from Russia. (Photo: Indian Navy CC BY 2.5 IN)

7. Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (including Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Japan could rank higher, but they have limited themselves due to Article 9 of their post-World War II constitution.

While they are stretching the boundaries, the lack of real ground-attack capabilities is very telling. But they have very good air-to-air, anti-surface ship, and anti-submarine capabilities.

With four "helicopter destroyers" that are really small carriers, Japan could vault up very quickly.

A Mitsubishi F-2A taxis during a 2009 exercise. Note the dumb bombs. (U.S. Air Force photo)

6. Royal Saudi Air Force

In 1990, the Royal Saudi Air Force had nice gear, but there was an open question of how well they could use them. Today, they've been upgrading the gear, and they have combat experience. This 1-2 combination is enough to vault them into the top air forces.

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S in its hangar. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5. United States Marine Corps

The Marines really do close-air support well. Not that they haven't had aces in their history, but the last air-to-air kill a Marine scored was during the Vietnam War.

Then there are the issues with their F/A-18s, and the need to pull airframes from the boneyard.

Capt. Jonathan Lewenthal and Capt. Eric Scheibe, AV-8B Harrier pilots with Marine Attack Squadron 231, Marine Aircraft Group 14, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), fly over southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gregory Moore)

4. Royal Air Force (including the Fleet Air Arm)

This is a very capable, albeit small, force. The problem is "the Few" are becoming "fewer" — and there have been some uncomfortable gaps, including the early retirement of their Harrier force, which was a poor way to repay the airframe that won the Falklands War.

The fact that the Royal Navy's new carrier will have to deploy with United States Marines says a lot.

A Royal Air Force Typhoon in 2012. (Peter Gronemann/Flickr photo)

3. Israeli Defense Force 

The Israelis have had a good air force — much of it based on need. Yes, the airframes are American designs, but the Israelis have installed their own electronics on the F-15I and F-16I planes that are now the backbone of their military.

Plus, their pilots are very, very good.

F-16I Sufa (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1. United States Air Force and United States Navy (tie)

The Air Force and Navy have long been rivals – always trying to one-up each other. But in this case, the two are in a virtual tie. While the United States Air Force has strategic bombers the Navy doesn't, the Navy, by virtue of its carrier fleet, is much more responsive.

The two services are complimentary and each are very good at what they do.

An F-15E Strike eagle conducts a mission over Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2008. The F-15E Strike Eagle is a dual-role fighter designed to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

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