Key Point: The five most powerful will be very similar to the most powerful now.
By 2030 the most powerful air forces in the world will be very familiar. The list will be dominated by traditional air powers, particularly the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. These countries continue to hedge against a number of conflict scenarios, from modest air campaigns against nonstate actors to full-blown war across a wide geographic expanse. Towards that end, these powers consider maintaining large, rapidly deployable and modern air forces vital to their national security.
The People’s Republic of China will be a new entrant on the list. China continues to build up air power commensurate with its status as the second-largest economy in the world, a perfectly reasonable position to stake. That having been said, the country itself has taken a number of unreasonable positions on issues such as the South China Sea, adding a certain foreboding to China’s buildup.
The United States Air Force/Navy/Marine Corps
The United States military actually has three fixed-wing air arms, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and as now, in 2030 they will still form the most powerful “air force” on the planet.
By 2030, the U.S. Air Force will be flying its legacy fleet of 187 F-22 Raptors. It will also be flying 178 so-called “Golden Eagles,” F-15Cs with significant radar and infrared sensor upgrades. The Air Force will also have purchased the bulk of its fleet of 1,763 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to replace the F-16C and A-10. The USAF will also have partially rejuvenated its tanker fleet with one hundred KC-46 Pegasus tankers. The B-21 bomber should be in production, with an eventual order of about one hundred of the second-generation stealth bombers.
In the meantime, the U.S. Navy will have standardized on the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter—the F-35C—and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The MQ-25 Stingray tanker/ISR drone will also be in service, extending the range of manned fighters, and the V-22 Osprey will be delivering supplies and mail to aircraft carriers at sea. The Marine Corps will likely have an all–F-35 fighter fleet by then, split between the vertical-takeoff B model and C carrier variant.