What makes the best air forces in the world? 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.
So, here’s a look at the eleven best air forces in the world in no particular order:
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.
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 F-5s and F-4s have been replaced by F-16s, and they developed the T-50 Golden Eagle, which is a very capable advanced trainer — so much so it has also been turned into a multi-role fighter as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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.