Top Guns: The Most Lethal Air Forces on the Planet

December 9, 2014 Topic: DefenseState of the Military

Top Guns: The Most Lethal Air Forces on the Planet

Which nations have the most fearsome planes in the sky? 

The Air Force has finally entered a period of sustained modernization, with new fighters coming online and in development. One example is the Su-35 fighter , a new combat aircraft that combines the agility and versatility of the venerable Su-27 Flanker platform with new, cutting-edge technologies, is entering service in limited numbers.

Russian defense contractors are currently working on the T-50/PAK-FA fighter , which promises to be Russia’s first fifth-generation fighter. Russia is also reportedly working on a new strategic bomber , PAK-DA.

The Russian Air Force has recently adopted a high-profile role as President Vladimir Putin’s rattling sabre, flying extensive missions near NATO, Swedish and Japanese airspace. These missions are primarily designed as demonstrations of Russian power.

China

The People’s Liberation Army is an umbrella designation for China’s armed forces, and the two main flying branches of the PLA are the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force.

 

Combined, the PLAAF and PLANAF possess 1,321 fighter and attack aircraft, 134 heavy bombers and tankers and twenty airborne early-warning aircraft. China also operates 700 combat helicopters, mostly of the medium-lift category.

While this may sound like a sizable air force, despite large increases in the defense budget, the majority of those aircraft are obsolete. Only 502 aircraft are modern, variants of the 1980s-era Russian Su-27 Flanker and the indigenously developed J-10 multirole fighter. The remaining 819 fighters date to the 1970s and would not present a serious threat to foreign air forces.

China’s air forces continue to modernize , however, and China’s aviation industry is cranking out new designs quite rapidly. The country is simultaneously developing not one, but two fifth-generation fighters—the heavy J-20 fighter and the smaller J-31 fighter bomber. It is also developing the Y-20 strategic transport and is rumored to be working on a strategic bomber to replace the Xian H-6. Like the American air forces, China is also pushing forward with a variety of unmanned combat aircraft, such as the Dark Sword .

One growth area for Chinese air forces is naval aviation. China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, will likely be followed by additional carriers, although reports concerning capabilities and numbers vary dramatically. The J-15 fighter, a domestic derivative of the Su-27, is currently China’s main carrier fighter, with reports that the multirole J-31 fighter will take on a role similar to the F-35C on American aircraft carriers.

Japan

The dark horse on this list is the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF). Japan has more than 300 air superiority and multirole fighters that are finely tuned toward defending the island-nation from threats in the air, land and at sea.

Reflecting the nation’s defense-only military policy, the JASDF is highly specialized towards defensive combat. First and foremost is the mission of air defense: Japan remembers very well what happened the last time it lost air superiority over the Home Islands.

Japanese pilots also practice ground attack against invading forces on Japanese territory and anti-shipping missions against enemy transports and fleets. They do not, however, practice offensive missions such as long-range strike missions.

Japanese pilots are well trained and regarded by their peers. Japanese pilots routinely attend the U.S. Air Force Red Flag exercises, and are kept on their toes by a growing number of scrambles against foreign aircraft nearing Japanese airspace — 533 scrambles in the first half of 2014 alone against a mix of Russian and Chinese aircraft.

Japan buys only the very best air superiority fighters from the United States, having purchased 223 F-15J single-seat and two-seat DJ fighters in the 1980s. These were set to be replaced by the F-22 Raptor; however, Japan was disappointed by U.S. law preventing the F-22 from being exported overseas.

Japan is now set to procure forty-two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, with the first four aircraft ordered just last month. It is continuing development of the indigenous F-3 fighter project to replace the F-15, under the assumption that future first-line American fighters will be off limits. Meanwhile, F-15J and F-2 fighters are receiving upgrades to boost their air-to-air capability.

To provide early-warning capabilities, as well as command and control, Japan has a fleet of America-sourced aircraft. Japan has four E-767 airborne warning and control system aircraft, and thirteen E-2C Hawkeye airborne early-warning aircraft. The JASDF is set to acquire the latest E-2D Hawkeyes to help deal with the growing number of air intercepts.

Kyle Mizokami is a 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.

Image: Flickr/ Official U.S. Air Force /CC by-nc 2.0