Are large air forces a thing of the past?

Rewind 71 years to the bleak skies over Schweinfurt, filled with dark clouds and exploding flak. Combat boxes of American heavy bombers, amounting to hundreds of aircraft from the now famous Eighth Air Force flying overhead. The objective? To carpet bomb the very same set of factories. Fast forward to Kosovo about 50 years later where we see a single B-2 take out not one, but multiple targets with pinpoint accuracy and minimum collateral damage.

Though it is unfair to put these iconic aircraft on a level and compare them head on, it does raise a very pertinent argument. Does aircraft fleet size really matter anymore?

With most national defence budgets shrinking, countries are increasingly favoring the aspect of versatility. One aircraft taking on the role of three specialized aircraft will result in some serious savings. Apart from that, smarter aircraft and smarter munitions mean greater efficiency. Greater efficiency means fewer sorties. The fewer sorties translate into a smaller requirement for operational aircraft.

Bearing this in mind, why do we still see countries boasting huge fleet strengths? Shouldn’t size be replaced with smarts? Not so fast.

The size of an air force is in direct correlation with its operational requirements. The statistics imply that the United States Air Force is the largest in the world with over 6000 operational aircraft, followed by the Russian Air Force with nearly 3200 operational aircraft. So it’s the USA and the Russian Federation again. No surprises there.

They are followed by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force with 2500 operational aircraft, the Indian Air Force with nearly 1500 operational aircraft and the Egyptian Air Force with about 1100 operational aircraft.

All these statistics are great, but how do they really add up? Firstly and most importantly, the size of an air force and the strength of an air force are two completely different things. While the size of an air force merely depends on the numbers, the strength of an air force depends on numerous factors such as the pilot training programme, technical expertise, operational capabilities etc.

The Israeli Air Force and the Royal Air Force do not boast the same number of aircraft as some of the others mentioned here. However, in terms of overall air force strength, they are right up there.

To illustrate this point further, let’s take the example of one of the largest air forces in the world – the Korean People’s Air Force, which operates an impressive fleet strength of about 1600 aircraft. However, the air force constitutes obsolete aircraft of primarily Soviet and Chinese origin. The pilot training programme isn’t what you would call exceptional and international sanctions have taken its toll on the technical part of the equation.

So does this mean that the future lies in smaller and smarter air forces? Yes and no.

Yes because we are seeing a steady inclination towards multi-role, jack of all trades aircraft such as the F-35 JSF, the V-22 Osprey and the Rafale. And no because in the end it all boils down to the geopolitics, as it always has.

Though technology evolves, certain things never change. Operating a number of bases all over the world warrants the need for a huge fleet strength. Throw in the odd regional rivalries and we are back to square one.

Though we can see ourselves moving towards smaller, smarter air forces, in the end it doesn’t seem that we will be seeing anything drastic for at least another decade. I would love to read your thoughts in the comment section, do large Air Forces make sense? What do you think?

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About Marvin Diaz

  • Spiderman

    The smaller size of the fleet is at least partially due to the higher cost per aircraft as aircrafts become increasingly sophisticated. Take F35 for example, a single aircraft cost $200 million! That’s more than the cost of an entire WWII fleet. So the reduction in fleet size isn’t necessarily something the military wanted, but rather a constraint of budget as military hardware becoming too expensive due to increase sophistications.

    • That’s luxury countries like China can afford. They make cheaper products and have large production.

      Chinese stealth fighters worry me only in numbers.

      • Spiderman

        Nah, when it comes high tech, even China cannot make them cheap. China so far only managed to equips 200-300 J10 and a few hundreds type 99 tanks. Much less than the numbers in the US military. They also only have a few hundred advanced attack helicopters, the U.S. as thousands of these. I don’t think China will ever equipt more than a few hundreds of its new stealth fighters. Where as the U.S. will have over 2000 F35.

  • Luis Lopes

    IF the “Air Forces” of the near future have to be smaller and higly sophisticated ,it as to do with budjet and budjet again. The high level of quality seen today will not turn back,so the development will not stop,money will be found. I hope for the sake of the mankind.

  • Mike

    Large airforce makes great sense depending on size country how modern aircraft are and maintenance and pilot training and doctrine top ten air forces
    South Korea

    In that order some worthy countries Sweden Turkey Saudi Arabia Spain Norway Canada Australia Greece

  • Sudarshan

    I agree with views of Mike on top ten air forces. Choice of an air force with large inventory of aircraft with role specific aircraft or one with small inventory of smart versatile aircraft depend on the geopolitical situation, terrain and adversary capabilities. There is no one mantra for all. However, as the machines become expensive and budgets shrink, it may become inevitable to have smart fleet which may include unmanned dispensable platforms too.

  • rough man

    air power ranking by 10/10 index:
    1. USA 10/10
    2. China 9.8/10
    3. EU 9.3/10
    4. Russia 9.2/10
    5. any other country 5/10 and less (who cares)?

  • rough man

    why I rank cats that way? do you really care bolts nuts stuff? because to be qualified as a genuine air power an entity needs to meet these hardcore points:
    1. big land (at least the size of Brazil) and big population at least 150 millions
    2. capable of completely independent air projects from design to mass production
    3. own completely independent and broad industrial capacity for advanced engineering (do you really care copy or not? if smart copy makes better than original jets)
    4. highly efficient in organising large project and production build through both political means and existing industrial channels.
    Counting the above 4 points tell me why you bother any geopolitical entities other than the top 4? And Europe has to be united as one. Yes China is so close to USA because what? if hyperthetically there is war between the two cats USA would take advantage of existing inventory while would lose to China’s technical improvisation and a cultural-bound tenacity in resistance. Taking away air and nuclear means China would be a clearer winner. But the conflict is just assumption only since people from the two countries actually do not hate each other. Russia appears to have both deep inventory and great design and production capacity but due to its location and limits imposed by history and fragile economy relation with neighboring countries it has unfortunately to be #4.

  • rough man

    And yes God create people FOR different sizes!

  • Eddie Faulk

    i believed they are! reason i believe this, sealth and many upgrade in land base systems as well marine systems and don’t forget satellite defence and intelligence
    systems. collectively the US military has multi faceted systems to work from. clue!
    no one (avege people ) know what the space plane is about, yet!

  • Another Guest (from Australia)

    The question all the pro-F-35 advocates/fanbase like Lt.Gen Chris Bogdan, Steve O’Brien, Billie Flynn, Marillyn Hewson and all who have gone before need to ask themselves (and answer honestly) is:

    “What is America and its allies are going to do in the post-2015 ‘stealth-on stealth’/’counter-stealth’ world where all the leading reference threats, both airborne and surface based, being proliferated around the world by some of the world’s best capitalists, have the common design aim of going up against and defeating the F-22A Raptor, F-35 Joint Super Fail and B-2A Spirit stealth bomber; especially when there are so few of the latter capabilities to be a persuasive deterrent let alone an effective defence?”

  • Sand_Cat

    There will always be attrition, no matter how “smart” and capable the aircraft. Perhaps thousands will not be needed in peacetime, but have a lot of “extras” might prove critical in a real war.