Key Point: Numbers are not everything.
Qualifying the five most powerful air forces in the world is certainly a difficult and challenging proposition. There are large, well-trained and well-equipped air forces that are obvious candidates for such a list. Then there are less-obvious candidates—like Russia. The Russian Air Force, while plane-for-plane older than many air forces, has numbers, the ubiquity of the largest country by size on Earth, a modernization plan and nuclear weapons. It cannot be ignored, and thanks to Putin and his repeated sorties near NATO and Japanese air space, it certainly won’t be. China is in many ways similar.
After that, however, the road gets murky. Vulnerabilities become apparent. There are air forces that are well equipped and trained, but for budgetary reasons, are too small to adequately fulfill national roles and requirements (think all of Europe.) There are also air forces that are magnificently equipped, but poorly trained. (Think virtually all of the Middle East.)
For the purpose of this article, we’ll judge air forces by the following criteria: size, influence and doing the best job of matching capabilities to the mission.
The U.S. Air Force
The preeminent air arm of the United States, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), is the primary service responsible for air and space missions. It manages everything from intercontinental ballistic missiles to X-37 space planes to A-10 Thunderbolt tank killers. It coordinates military space launches, airdrops of Army paratroopers and drops bombs on ISIS insurgents.
The USAF operates 5,600 aircraft of all types, including F-22 Raptors, F-35, F-15 and F-16 fighters. It operates B-2, B-1 and B-52 strategic bombers, as well as C-5, C-17 and C-130 airlifters. It operates these aircraft from bases in the continental United States and overseas bases from the United Kingdom to Japan.
The Air Force has roughly 312,000 active-duty members, coming in just behind the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and yet it operates more planes than the PLAAF.