Key Point: It depends on what your criteria are.
Airpower has played a critical role in the conflicts that have set the Asian political scene since World War II. From the Korean War to the Vietnam Conflict to the several wars between India and Pakistan, air forces have helped tip the strategic balance in war, and frame the terms of peace.
But effective air forces need more than flashy fighters. They need transport aircraft that can provide strategic and tactical airlift, and Aerial Early Warning (AEW) planes that can maintain surveillance and control of the sky. They need a defense-industrial base that can keep the warplanes in the air. This article looks at the three most effective air forces in Asia, in the context of their ability to put planes in the sky, to make sure those planes are well flown, and maintain a reliable supply and procurement base.
Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF)
The JASDF was established in 1954 as the air branch of the Japanese Self Defense Force, the quasi-military mandated by the post-World War II peace treaty. Over the decades, Japan has combined its own high level of technical sophistication with a series of airframes provided by the United States to field a formidable force.
The JASDF is well stocked with modern, capable aircraft. It flies over 300 generation 4 and 4.5 fighters (F-15s and F-2s), supplemented by an older group of F-4 Phantoms. It maintains a large AEW fleet, along with a squadron of tankers capable of keeping its fighters in the air.
The Japanese also have a reputation for high quality. The JASDF regularly participates in American Red Flag exercises, and in recent years held joint training with the Republic of Korea Air Force. Recently, the JASDF’s pace of operations has exceeded even that of the Cold War, as North Korean, Russian, and Chinese provocations have kept the branch on its toes.
Japan’s procurement programs have not always gone smoothly. The F-2 project produced a fighter mildly more capable than the F-16 at much greater cost, although it did keep defense money at home. Japan also seems likely to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in significant numbers, and we do not as of yet have a handle on how this purchase will affect the readiness and capabilities of the force.
Indian Air Force (IAF)
During the Cold War, the IAF was one of only a few air forces to use Soviet aircraft to good effect, enjoying a great deal of success in its various wars against Pakistan. India combined Soviet technology with a British system of training and management, which left it relatively well prepared when challenged by Pakistan’s Western aircraft.
The four Cope India exercises between 2004 and 2009 demonstrated that Indian pilots have maintained their edge. Using a variety of tactics, the Indians managed to go toe-to-toe with the best that the US Air Force had to offer. Even granting that the USAF was trying to make the case for the F-22 at the time, the IAF performed very effectively.
India flies over 300 generation 4 and 4.5 fighter aircraft, supplemented by a large fleet of MiG-21s. On the support side, the Indians operate a roughly 200 strong fleet of ground attack aircraft. The IAF has also stepped up its important ancillary duties. It is acquiring C-17 Globemasters to manage its heavy lift responsibilities, and has respectable aerial refueling and AEW capabilities.
Two huge question marks remain. The first involves India’s commitment to its joint PAK-FA project with Russia. The fighter has huge potential, but has suffered from numerous, predictable teething problems.
The other issue involves the struggle to purchase Dassault Rafale fighters from France. After years of trying to navigate the Indian procurement system, the French government seems equal part desperate and exasperated. The delivery of Rafales would undoubtedly improve the quality and reliability of the force, as well as ensure a good backup relationship if the PAK FA fails to pan out.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
Thirty years ago, the PLAAF was huge, but ungainly. It possessed a tremendous number of obsolescent interceptors, along with a cadre of poorly trained pilots. China’s aviation industry struggled to produce third generation fighters.
Things have changed. China now operates over six hundred generation 4 and 4.5 fighters, complimented by a large group of older interceptors and strike aircraft. China has produced most of these aircraft, including the J-10 and J-11, domestically. China is working on two major new fighter projects, including the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters.
The PLAAF also operates a growing fleet of heavy airlift, tactical airlift, and AEW aircraft. Over the past decade, it has rapidly increased its aerial refueling capabilities, giving the force extensive reach along China’s borders and into the East and South China Seas.
The PLAAF has also stepped up training, including setting up its own counterpart to Red Flag. Chinese pilots fly far more hours now than they did even a decade ago, often seeing more cockpit time than their American counterparts.
Of course, Chinese industry still struggles with quality control, especially with respect to engines. The Chinese military industrial complex also depends too much on the appropriation of foreign technology, through means both fair and foul. Nevertheless, in terms of airframes, pilots, and industrial capacity, China is now the most important aviation player in Asia.
Several other great air forces fly the skies of the Asia-Pacific. Pound for pound, the Republic of Korea Air Force may be tougher than any of the services listed here. However, the ROKAF still lacks an advanced, domestic fifth generation fighter project, and has not developed aerial refueling capabilities. And of course, including the United States Air Force, which distributes a considerable portion of its strength into the Pacific, would have revised this list.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. This first appeared several years ago.