Just as flight has become a vital pillar of the transportation industry, so too has it modernized military operations. In the past 120 years, the world’s armed forces have been transformed as the notion of an "air force" of military aircraft has become not only possible, but indispensable. In fact, aircraft are so deeply integrated into modern military operations that the army, navy, and other branches of the military often have significant air fleets of their own. Compare the following three tables:
Before taking these numbers to heart, it is important to note that just as not all navy ships are created equal, some military aircraft are vastly more effective than others. For example, a modern fighter jet is quite different from an unarmed training helicopter, but both count as one aircraft. As such, the total number of aircraft a country possesses offers only a partial estimate of that country's airborne military prowess.
In an effort to create a more nuanced and accurate metric, the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft (WDMMA) devised the TrueValue Rating, or TvR. This metric considers not only the number of aircraft in a given armed force, but also the type, capability, age, condition, and readiness of those aircraft. Filtered by TvR, the hierarchy changes significantly:
The United States of America maintains the strongest Air Force in the world by an impressive margin. As of late 2021, the United States Air Force (USAF) is composed of 5217 active aircraft, making it the largest, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful air fleet in the world. What's more, the United States Navy, Army, and Marine Corps are close behind, bringing the United States' total available military aircraft to 13,247. This is larger than the combined air fleets of the next five countries on the list.
Ultimately, the United States' four main military branches occupy four of the top five spots, with the order changing slightly depending upon whether the metric in use is TvR rating or overall number of aircraft. Combat helicopters make up the largest portion of the US air fleet (particularly in the non-Air Force branches), accounting for 5,463, or about 41% of the total aircraft. The USAF also includes 2,660 trainers, 2,740 combat aircraft, 744 special mission aircraft, 627 tankers, 982 transports, and more.
The Russian Air Force is a distant, but comfortable second to the USAF when it comes to military aircraft, with a total of 3,863 military aircraft (with another 310 allotted to the Navy). During the Cold War, Soviet airpower was comparable to that of the United States, 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 1,991 military aircraft in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), 857 in the Army, and 437 in the Navy (for a total of 3,285), the Chinese air fleet 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. Moreover, the PLAAF has seen, perhaps, the most notable improvement among world Air Forces over the last 20 years. The PLAAF started out with an outdated 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 its own fourth-generation aircraft, which approach—and in some cases outperform—their USAF inspirations in both innovation and technological prowess. While China sits in a relatively distant third as of 2021, its current path of expansion indicates it may soon eclipse Russia for the second spot, perhaps even challenge the United States for the top rank.
Modern military operations are not restricted to atmospheric affairs. In recent years, several countries have begun to develop some form of “space force” program, either as an expansion of their existing air force or as a standalone branch, that looks to extend their 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.
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The United States has the world's largest air force by the number of aircraft in the U.S. Air Force, 5,217.