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.
The air forces of the People’s Republic of China, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF), are on the cusp of real greatness. Overall aircraft numbers are falling, but the quality of aircraft, including Su-30, J-11, J-15 and J-10 fighters, is rising. Still, these aircraft are at best “fourth-generation–plus” aircraft. To keep pace with the United States and other powers, China’s fifth-generation fighters under development—namely, the J-20 and J-31—must be a success.
Fighters are only part of the story. The PLAAF is flying its first indigenous long-range transport, the Y-20, and by 2030 will be capable of global reach. Meanwhile, China is expanding its fleet of support planes, including early warning aircraft and aerial tankers. With tensions in the East and South China Seas on the rise, China will continue its trend of increasing the number and capability of intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance aircraft, particularly with drones such as the “Divine Eagle” tandem-wing drone.
The Russian Air Force in 2030 is difficult to pin down, and things could play out a number of ways. Assuming the best-case scenario, in which Russia recovers from the current recession, oil and commodity export prices rise, and Western sanctions are lifted, the Russian Air Force of 2030 could be the second most powerful air force on Earth by firepower.
The two most important programs for the Russian Air Force are the PAK-FA fighter and PAK-DA strategic bomber programs. Also known as T-50, PAK-FA is necessary to provide Russia with a fighter comparable to the F-22 Raptor. Russia cannot rely on legacy airframes (MiG-29, Su-27/30/34) forever. The PAK-DA strategic bomber program, designed to produce a stealthy, subsonic, nuclear-capable bomber, is needed to replace the aging Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-22M Backfire bombers.
Of course, all of this assumes Russia’s economy recovers. Another fifteen years of modest defense budgets, watered down by sanctions, bureaucracy and corruption, will likely mean a Russian air force lucky to be included in the top ten air forces of 2030.
Today, the Israeli Air Force consists of fifty-eight F-15-A and -C model air superiority fighters, twenty-five F-15I strike fighters, and 312 F-16 multirole fighters. The Israeli Air Force of 2030 will likely continue to be the most powerful and capable in the entire Middle East region.
By 2030 the air superiority F-15s will be in dire need of replacement, with many airframes forty years old or older. Unfortunately there is no direct replacement for the F-15C, with F-22 Raptor production having ended in 2011. Israel will be forced to either extend the lifetime of its F-15Cs or transfer their missions to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, at least until a U.S. sixth-generation fighter becomes available.
Israel is currently planning on two squadrons of F-35s by 2021, with a third squadron forming up in the 2020s. While a good start, that would only be a quarter of the current F-16 fleet. A fleet of two hundred or more F-35s could eventually be fielded. These will likely be augmented by a sophisticated force of unmanned aerial vehicles carrying out supporting tasks such as intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, air defense suppression, and midair refueling.
By 2030, the Royal Air Force will be at its most capable in decades. The air service will have just under 160 highly capable Eurofighter Typhoons. Originally intended as air superiority fighters, the RAF’s Typhoons are now capable of dropping the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs. Work is also progressing only giving them Brimstone missile capability. A combat drone descended from the Taranis UAV is projected to be flying sometime around 2030, and will operate alongside manned UK fighters.
The venerable Panavia Tornado GR4 strike jet will be retired and replaced with a force of 138 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, the vertical takeoff and landing variant of the multinational, multirole aircraft. The F-35Bs will be flown by both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and will also form the fixed-wing complement on the new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
All in all, by 2030 the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy will have approximately three hundred fighters, quite possibly making it the largest and most powerful air force in western Europe.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This piece was first featured in 2016 and is being republished due to reader's interest.