Just as flight has come to dominate the transportation industry, so too has it modernized military innovation. In the last 100 years, the world’s armed forces have received a notable improvement as the notion of the Air Force has arisen. And as human ambitions have taken to the sky and beyond, Air Forces have become an indispensable part of many nations’ military strength.
The United States of America maintains the strongest Air Force in the world by an impressive margin. As of 2020, the United States Air Force (USAF) is composed of 13,264 aircraft and employs a total personnel of over 462,000. Helicopters make up for the largest portion of the USAF, accounting for 5,768, or about 43% of the total aircraft. The USAF also includes 2,643 trainers, 2,085 fighters, 945 transports and more.
The USAF is over three times the size of the world’s next largest Air Force, which is appropriate considering that it has a higher budget than the rest of the top ten combined. With an annual budget of $207.2 billion, American Air Force spending exceeds the GDP of all, but 47 countries in the world. The United States has budgeted more for the Air Force alone than the amount that is budgeted for every other military in the world with the exception of China’s ($261 billion).
The Russian Air Force is a far, but comfortable second to the USAF when it comes to military aircraft. Russia boasts a total of 4,163 military aircraft including 1,522 helicopters, 497 trainers, 873 fighters, 424 transports, and more. The aforementioned is facilitated by roughly 148,000 Russian personnel. During the Cold War, Soviet airpower was comparable to that of the Americans, but after the dissolving of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation, the Air Force budget was reduced considerably. However, since the turn of the 21st century, the Russian Air Force has been steadily improving and retains enough precursors to hold steady control of the #2 spot, at least for a little while longer.
With 3,210 total military aircraft, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the third largest in the world. Although China ranks behind Russia in total aircraft, they dwarf the Russian Air Force in terms of personnel, with approximately 400,000 enlisted individuals. To follow suit, the PLAAF has seen, perhaps, the most notable improvement among world Air Forces over the last 20 years. The PLAAF started out with a fleet of second or third generation Soviet-built combat aircraft that were practically obsolete on the world stage. But in the new millennium, China has taken matters into its own hands, emulating USAF models and developing a slough of fourth generation aircraft, rivaling the USAF in both innovation and technological prowess. While China sits in a relatively distant third as of 2020, do not be surprised if the PLAAF continues to infringe upon Russia, looking to usurp the #2 spot.
While it is still most suitable to evaluate the strength of an Air Force by its number of aircraft, modern Air Forces are not restricted simply to stratospheric affairs. In recent years, several Air Forces have become affiliated with the development of several iterations of a “space force” program that looks to expand military influence to outer space and its boundless frontiers. While the majority of these programs are still in their infancy, spaceward expansion is imminent as countries look to bolster their military strength.
The largest Air Forces in the world by total available military aircraft: