5 Most Lethal Armies, Navies and Air Forces in the World

Which Nations Have the Most Powerful Armies, Navies and Air Forces in the World? This Special Compilation From The National Interest Breaks Down an Analysis.

Where does America rank? What about Russia? Or China? 

----This Story Was Written By and Originally Published in The National Interest---

Travel by airplane at high rates of speed, modern maritime transport and faster and faster transit on the ground thanks to high-speed rail and highways that cover almost every part of the globe mean people can get to points a,b and c faster than ever before.

Modern telecommunications mean we can communicate with any willing participant in almost any part of the globe, in real time, anytime.

When we combine these technological wonders with amazing achievements such as the modern computers, space technologies and more, we have truly entered into a golden age of technological wonder with revolutionary implications.

But modern technology’s diffusion globally also means the instruments to attack and destroy one another are also advancing--and spreading rapidly. 

Nations around the globe are building impressive military capabilities, much of which are aimed to deter or deny the United States in the ability to utilize parts of the global commons to access and transport forces to help our allies or enter a conflict zone. Named anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD, nations like China, Russia and Iran and others, are developing capabilities to ensure Washington is not able to launch a Gulf-War I style offensive against them with ease. Realizing the challenge, the Pentagon has created operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle (now JAM-GC) and bigger approaches like the Third Offset to retain the ability to dominate the battlefield.

So, considering the above, today, what nations have the top navies, top armies and air forces? Who could challenge the United States in a kinetic conflict? TNI frequent contributor Kyle Mizokami, in a number of pieces several years back, recombined into this one post for your reading pleasure, takes the question head on and comes up with some interesting ideas. Let the debate commence.


It’s a universal truth handed down since antiquity: a country with a coastline has a navy. Big or small, navies worldwide have the same basic mission—to project military might into neighboring waters and beyond.

The peacetime role of navies has been more or less the same for thousands of years. Navies protect the homeland, keep shipping routes and lines of communication open, show the flag and deter adversaries. In wartime, a navy projects naval power in order to deny the enemy the ability to do the same. This is achieved by attacking enemy naval forces, conducting amphibious landings, and seizing control of strategic bodies of water and land masses.

----This Story Originally Published in The National Interest----

The role of navies worldwide has expanded in the past several decades to include new missions and challenges. Navies are now responsible for a nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent, defense against ballistic missiles, space operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. With that in mind, here are the five most powerful navies in the world.

United States:

First place on the list is no surprise: the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy has the most ships by far of any navy worldwide. It also has the greatest diversity of missions and the largest area of responsibility.

No other navy has the global reach of the U.S. Navy, which regularly operates in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa. The U.S. Navy also forward deploys ships to Japan, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. Navy has 288 battle force ships, of which typically a third are underway at any given time. The U.S. Navy has 10 aircraft carriers, nine amphibious assault ships, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers, 17 frigates and 72 submarines. In addition to ships, the U.S. Navy has 3,700 aircraft, making it the second largest air force in the world. At 323,000 active and 109,000 personnel, it is also the largest navy in terms of manpower.

What makes the U.S. Navy stand out the most is its 10 aircraft carriers—more than the rest of the world put together. Not only are there more of them, they’re also much bigger: a single Nimitz [3]-class aircraft carrier [3] can carry twice as many planes (72) as the next largest foreign carrier. Unlike the air wings of other countries, which typically concentrate on fighters, a typical U.S. carrier air wing is a balanced package capable of air superiority, strike, reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions.

The U.S. Navy’s 31 amphibious ships make it the largest “gator” fleet in the world, capable of transporting and landing on hostile beaches. The nine amphibious assault ships of the Tarawa and Wasp [4] classes can carry helicopters to ferry troops or act as miniature aircraft carriers, equipped with AV-8B Harrier attack jets and soon F-35B fighter-bombers.

The U.S. Navy has 54 nuclear attack submarines, a mix of the Los AngelesSeawolf, and Virginia classes. The U.S. Navy is also responsible for the United States’ strategic nuclear deterrent at sea, with 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines equipped with a total of 336 Trident nuclear missiles. The USN also has four Ohio-class submarines stripped of nuclear missiles and modified to carry 154 Tomahawk land attack missiles.

The U.S. Navy has the additional roles of ballistic missile defense, space operations and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. As of October 2013, 29 cruisers and destroyers were capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, with several forward deployed to Europe and Japan. It also monitors space in support of U.S. military forces, tracking the satellites of potential adversaries. Finally, the U.S. Navy’s existing aircraft carriers and amphibious vessels, plus the dedicated hospital ships USNS  [5]Mercy[5] and USNS Comfort, constitute a disaster relief capability that has been deployed in recent years to Indonesia, Haiti, Japan and the Philippines.


The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has come a long way in the last 25 years. The spectacular growth of the Chinese economy, which fueled a tenfold defense-budget increase since 1989, has funded a modern navy. From a green-water navy consisting of obsolete destroyers and fast attack boats, the PLAN has grown into a true blue-water fleet.

The PLAN currently has one aircraft carrier, three amphibious transports, 25 destroyers, 42 frigates, eight nuclear attack submarines and approximately 50 conventional attack submarines. The PLAN is manned by 133,000 personnel, including the Chinese Marine Corps, which consists of two brigades of 6,000 marines each.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force provides fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for China’s new aircraft carrier, helicopters for surface ships, and shore-based fighter, attack and patrol aircraft. The PLANAF has 650 aircraft, including J-15 carrier-based fighters, J-10 multirole fighters, Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft [6], and Z-9 antisubmarine warfare aircraft.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning [7], deserves special attention. It was commissioned into service in 2012. Originally built for the Soviet Navy, after the end of the Cold War, Liaoning’s unfinished hull languished in a Ukrainian shipyard. Purchased by a PLA front company, the ship was towed back to China where it spent nearly a decade being refitted. Liaoning is expected to function as a training carrier as China grows accustomed to the complex world of carrier operations.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is well into the process of modernizing its amphibious capability, having commissioned three Type 071 amphibious platform dock ships [8]. Each Type 071 LPD can carry from 500 to 800 Chinese marines and 15 to 18 vehicles, and can get troops ashore via hovercraft patterned on the American LCAC and Z-8 medium transport helicopters. China is also reportedly planning on building amphibious assault ships with full-length flight decks along the lines of the American Wasp-class. A total of six Type 071s and six of the new amphibious assault ships are rumored to be planned.

China’s submarine force is a decidedly mixed bag, with up to 60 submarines of varying quality. The core of the force consists of three Shang-class nuclear attack submarines, nine Yuan, 14 Song and 10 Improved Kilo submarines imported from Russia. China’s ballistic-missile submarine fleet is made up of three Jin [9]-class missile submarines[9] with a fourth (and possibly fifth) under construction. It is thought the South China Sea will eventually be used as a bastion for China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent.

The PLAN continues to grow and learn. At least two more aircraft carriers are planned, and China’s carriers could eventually number up to five. In addition to carrier operations, the PLAN is also learning how to conduct extended voyages through its contribution to the international antipiracy effort off the Horn of Africa. China has sent 17 naval task forces [10] to the region, rotating in ships and crews to learn long-distance ship-handling skills.


Third on our list is the Russian Navy. Although traditionally a land power, Russia inherited the bulk of the Soviet Navy at the end of the Cold War. This aging force is at the core of the current Russian Navy, with more ships and fleet-wide improvements slowly being introduced. The Russian Navy has proven useful to show the flag and shore up flagging Russian power worldwide.

The Russian Navy has 79 ships of frigate size and larger, including one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 13 destroyers, and 52 submarines. With the exception of a handful of attack and cruise missile submarines, virtually all of the Russian Navy’s combatants were built during the Cold War. Underfunded for decades, the Russian Navy faces chronic readiness problems. Large Russian ships such as the carrier Admiral Kuznetzov and the Pacific Fleet flagship  [11]Varyag [11] are frequently accompanied by tugboats on extended voyages. It is unknown how many of the aging ships are actually seaworthy, and of those, how many are combat effective.

Russia also acquired the bulk of the Soviet Union’s amphibious capability. The fleet, a mixture of nearly two dozen Alligator [12] and Ropucha landing ships, was constructed as far back as the 1960s, and is obsolete by modern standards. The purchase of two Mistral [13]-class landing helicopter dock ships [13] from France was meant to address that shortcoming, but the deal could be in peril due to Russia’s intervention in Crimea. However, at the present time, Paris seems to be holding to its commitment on the sale, a contract worth $1.6 Billion [14].

Like the Soviet Union before it, Russia’s naval strength is in its submarine force. Russia theoretically has 15 nuclear attack submarines, 16 conventionally powered attack submarines, six cruise missile submarines, and nine ballistic missile subs. Although some have been overhauled, nearly all of the submarines are of Cold War vintage and are of unknown readiness. The nine ballistic missile submarines represent Russia’s valuable second-strike nuclear capability and are probably at the highest readiness of any ships in the fleet.

Russia has big plans for its naval forces, but for the most part they remain just that—plans. Russia plans to acquire at least one more aircraft carrier, a new, unnamed class of guided missile destroyers, the Borey II  [15]ballistic missile submarines [15]Yasen II nuclear attack submarines, and the Improved Kilo and Lada conventional attack submarines. While the submarines are under construction, the aircraft carrier and destroyers are unfunded and exist only as blueprints.

The United Kingdom: 

This list catches the Royal Navy at a historic ebb in firepower. Like much of the British Armed Forces, the Royal Navy has seen successive waves of equipment and personnel cuts. The recent retirement of two Invincible-class aircraft carriers and the Sea Harriers of the Fleet Air Arm have greatly reduced the Royal Navy’s abilities. Nuclear firepower, as well as future aircraft-carrier plans earn it fourth place on the list.

The Royal Navy is the smallest on this list, with only 33,400 personnel on active duty and 2,600 in the reserves. The Royal Navy currently fields three large amphibious assault ships, 19 frigates and destroyers, seven nuclear attack submarines, and four nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. The Royal Navy’s aviation force, the Fleet Air Arm, fields 149 aircraft, primarily helicopters.

The core of the Royal Navy’s surface force is its six Type 45 guided missile destroyers [16]. Each destroyer of the Daring class is equipped with an advanced SAMPSON air tracking radar, similar to the SPY-1D radar of the U.S. Navy’s radar Aegis system. Paired with up to 48 Aster surface-to-air missiles, the destroyers can handle a wide spectrum of aerial threats, including ballistic missiles.

The Royal Navy’s submarine force has dwindled to less than a dozen submarines. The force of seven nuclear attack submarines is being upgraded by the introduction of the HMS  [17]Astute [17] class. Astute and her sister ships carry Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk land attack missiles, and are among the most advanced submarines in the world. Four Vanguard [18]-class ballistic-missile submarines [18] constitute the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent. Each Vanguard weighs up to 15,900 tons submerged and is equipped with 16 Trident D II long-range ballistic missiles.

The Royal Navy will soon receive a quantum leap in capability with the construction of two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The two carriers, each weighing up to 70,000 tons fully loaded, will be the largest ships ever to sail in the Royal Navy. The carriers will each be capable of embarking up to 36 F-35B fighter-bombers and a number of helicopters.


The fifth navy on this list is unusual, because technically, it is not really a navy. Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) is not a military force; its personnel are civil servants, not sailors. Largely under the radar, Japan has built up one of the largest, most-advanced and professionally manned naval forces in the world.

The MSDF has a total of 114 ships and 45,800 personnel. The core of the force is its large fleet of destroyers, designed to keep the sea-lanes to and from Japan from being cut as they were in the Second World War. This fleet of 46 destroyers—more than the British and French navies combined—has been expanded in recent years to accommodate new missions. Since the mid-2000s, the MSDF’s force of Aegis destroyers has been tasked with providing a defense umbrella against North Korean ballistic missiles.

Even more recently, Japan has constructed three so-called “helicopter destroyers [19]”, each twice as large as the average destroyer with a strong external (and internal) resemblance to aircraft carriers. Indeed, these helicopter destroyers are carriers in all but name, designed to embark helicopters and—possibly in the future—F-35B fighter-bombers.

Japan has a modest, but growing amphibious capability. It has three tank landing ships [20] of 9,000 tons that can move 300 troops and a dozen vehicles off-ship via helicopter and hovercraft. The helicopter destroyers can embark up to a battalion’s worth of marines from the new marine brigade to be based at Nagasaki, transport helicopters to carry them, and transport Apache attack helicopters to give them air support.

Japan’s submarine force is—ship-for-ship—one of the best in the world. There are 16 submarines in the JMSDF, the latest of the Soryu [21]-class. Featuring an advanced air independent propulsion system, the Soryu submarines can remain submerged longer than other conventional submarines. The Japanese submarine fleet is young, with submarines retired at the average age of eighteen to twenty years. Japan has recently announced that the fleet would be increased to 22 submarines in response to the growing might of the PLAN.


Prioritizing the five most powerful armies on Earth is not an easy task. Each country has its own unique security situation that shapes its military in general and land power in particular, accordingly.

Geographic, political, diplomatic and fiscal issues all determine army size. Does it exist in a bad neighborhood like India, Afghanistan or Jordan, or a nice neighborhood like the United States, Luxembourg or Canada? Is it internally focused, externally focused or both? How much in military spending can the government afford?

The end of the Cold War marked shift of hard military power eastward. The British Army is projected to drop from 120,000 in 1990 to just 82,000 [22] in 2020. The French Army has been cut from 236,000 in 1996 to just 119,000 personnel. The most striking cuts have appeared in Germany, where the army has declined from 360,000 in 1990 to 62,000 today.

At the same time, several Asian armies are well north of half a million troops: India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea and China. Honorable mention goes to Myanmar, Iran and Vietnam, all of which have armies at least five times larger than Germany’s.

Manpower isn’t everything: North Korea has an estimated army size of 950,000, but is antiquated and unable to project land power beyond the Korean peninsula. Neither is technology, for that matter.

Could the German Army of 62,000 beat the Indian Army of 1.1 million? That’s probably not the right way to look at it. Switch armies between the two countries and both would be poorly served. With all of that in mind, here are five suggestions for the most powerful armies on Earth.

The United States:

The undisputed land power on the planet is the United States Army. The Army has 535,000 soldiers [23], many of which are combat veterans, backed up by modern, cutting-edge equipment and a robust logistical system. The result is the only land power capable of multidivisional combat operations outside of its hemisphere.

At the core of the U.S. Army are ten combat divisions, backed up by a handful of separate combat brigades. Each division consists of three armor, mechanized infantry, light infantry, Stryker, airborne, and air assault brigades, complemented by one aviation and artillery brigade each. Manpower is from roughly 18,000 to 14,000 each, depending on the particular unit.

The U.S. Army is still reliant on the so-called “Big 5” weapons systems introduced during the Carter-Reagan era. The M1 Abrams main battle tank, M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System and Patriot Missile systems are all soldiering on thirty years after their introduction. Significant upgrades have maintained the lethality and relevance of these systems on the modern battlefield.

A significant portion of the U.S. Army is devoted to special forces and commando-type troops. U.S. Army special operations forces include three battalions of Rangers, seven Special Forces Groups, the brigade-sized 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Delta Force. Total manpower for Army Special Operations Command alone is 28,500.

The People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (China):

China’s Army—officially the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF)— is the largest army in Asia. Numbering 1.6 million active duty troops, the PLAGF is charged with securing China’s borders, providing a capability to project land power in China’s neighborhood and increasingly, on a global scale.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War [24], in which the United States and its coalition allies made short work of a larger Iraqi Army shocked the PLAGF leadership. The Chinese Army’s traditional reliance on manpower had clearly been negated by advances in technology.

As a result, the Chinese Army has undergone significant changes in the past two decades. Active manpower has been slashed by several million troops. The number of field armies and combat divisions has been dramatically cut. At the same time, China’s rapid economic growth has allowed it to rapidly increase defense spending, funding high-tech upgrades.

Although the PLAGF lags behind China’s naval and air forces in priority, it has introduced a number of modern weapons systems. The Type 99 series of tanks has undergone several major revisions in the past decade, as the Chinese Army seeks to deploy a tank on par with the American M1 Abrams. The WZ-10, China’s first real attack helicopter, has begun to enter service. Despite the influx of new equipment, the PLAGF still counts vast amounts of obsolete equipment, such as Type 59 tanks in its active-duty inventories. Full modernization will take at least another decade, and possibly two, as the Chinese economy slows [25].

Rapid deployment forces are a key part of the PLAGF. PLAGF units could be called upon to operate on the border with India in the Himalayas, in the East and South China Seas or to invade Taiwan [26]. In addition to armor and mechanized and infantry units earmarked for rapid response, the PLAGF has three airborne divisions, two amphibious divisions and three amphibious brigades. In addition, the divisions of the Shenyang Military Region may be called upon to secure the border with North Korea on short notice, or even intervene internally.

Indian Army:

At 1.12 million troops, the Indian Army is the second largest army in Asia. India, sandwiched between traditional rivals Pakistan and China, requires an army capable of defending long territorial boundaries. Native insurgencies and the requirement to conduct operations with the country of 1.2 billion people also pushes the country to a large, infantry-heavy force.

The Army’s best divisions are split among their four “Strike Corps”, with three such corps facing Pakistan and one facing China. India has two amphibious brigades, the 91st and 340 Infantry Brigade Groups [27], and also operates three airborne and eight special-forces battalions.

India’s Army has undertaken a considerable modernization effort over the last decade, primarily to improve its ability to operate conventionally against Pakistan. The so-called “Cold Start” doctrine, in which the Indian Army’s Strike Corps can execute a short-notice attack on Pakistan, requires a highly mobile army along Western lines. Indian-made Arjun and Russian-made T-90 tanks, alongside American-made AH-64 Apache helicopters will be expected to defeat the Pakistani Army before nuclear weapons could be employed.

The rise of China and what India has considered territorial violations along the Himalayan border between the two countries has prompted India [28] to deploy an additional 80,000 troops—as many as the British Army in 2020—to its border with China.

Russian Ground Forces:

The Russian Ground Forces were formed from remnants of the Soviet Army. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many units were simply transferred to the Russian Army. Underfunded for decades, much of the Russian Ground Forces are still equipped with Soviet-era weapons. The Ground Forces are receiving, and projected to receive, an influx of new, modern equipment.

The Russian Ground Forces number 285,000, or roughly half of the U.S. Army. The Ground Forces are fairly well equipped and fully mechanized. Despite this, the sheer size of Russia (one soldier per 23 square miles of territory) means the Ground Forces are spread thin.

Despite their relative paucity, the Ground Forces have had considerable combat experience since the end of the Cold War, from ill-fated operations in Chechnya in the early 1990s to the current situation in eastern Ukraine [29].

The Russian Army inherited the Soviet Union’s airborne and marine forces, which by the mid-2000s, had been reduced from six to four divisions. At 6,000 troops, each division is light on manpower but highly mobile, equipped with BMD airborne infantry fighting vehicles. There are also roughly 9,000 naval infantry spread among Russia’s major fleets, although these are technically part of the Russian Navy.

The Russian Ground Forces are set to receive the Armata Universal Combat Platform in a few years’ time [30]. A break from a present dominated by legacy T-72/80/90 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles and BTR armored personnel carriers, Armata will be a whole new family of vehicles dedicated to the tank, infantry fighting vehicle, artillery and recovery vehicle missions.

The British Army

Although fairly small by global standards, the British Army is probably the most capable land force in Europe. Well rounded with a mixture of light infantry, airborne, tank, mechanized and aviation units, the British Army is capable of a broad spectrum of operations.

The British Army currently numbers 102,000 troops. The army is currently facing a reorganization by 2020 that will cut active duty manpower to 82,000 [31] while increasing the role of army reservists. By 2020, the British Army’s deployable land forces will amount to seven brigades: one air assault, three armored/mechanized infantry and three infantry brigades.

Like the U.S. Army, the British Army relies on a legacy force of upgraded Cold War equipment. Challenger II main battle tanks and Warrior infantry fighting vehicles equip the mechanized forces. Although proven and reliable, these are getting on in age and will have to be eventually replaced at considerable cost.

The British Army’s special-purpose and special-operations forces are small, but among the best in the world. The British Army has three parachute battalions under 16th Air Assault Brigade plus the world-famous 22nd Special Air Service Regiment. An additional 8,000 Royal Marines, an infantry-centric force, operate under Royal Navy control and can deploy 3 Commando Brigade.


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 [32] and nuclear weapons [33]. 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.

United States:

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 [34], coming in just behind the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and yet it operates more planes than the PLAAF.

The USAF was the first air force worldwide to fly stealth combat aircraft, the first to fly fifth-generation fighters, and the first to commit to an all-stealth combat aircraft force. The USAF plans on preserving its edge by purchasing 1,763 [35] F-35s and up to 100 optionally manned Long-Range Strike Bombers. Unmanned aerial vehicles, increasingly with stealthy profiles and attack capabilities, will gradually represent a larger proportion of the overall aircraft fleet.

The USAF also manages two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, including 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the strategic bomber force.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps

Worthy of separate mention due to their size and capabilities, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are combined the world’s second-largest air force, with a total of over  [36]3,700 aircraft of all types [36]. This includes 1,159 fighters, 133 attack aircraft, 172 patrol aircraft, 247 transports and 1,231 helicopters.

The aircraft of the U.S. Navy are responsible for protecting the U.S. fleet and conducting air missions from and often over the world’s oceans and seas. Most of the aircraft of the Navy and Marine Corps operate from ships at sea, a difficult and dangerous job that requires a high level of training and proficiency.

The most visible aspect of U.S. naval aviation are the carrier air wings that fly off eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Each wing typically consists of around sixty aircraft divided into three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, one E-2C Hawkeye airborne early-warning squadron, one EA-18G Growler electronic warfare squadron, and one helicopter squadron.

Other aspects of naval aviation include the helicopters that fly off U.S. Navy cruisers, destroyers and other surface ships, P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon maritime control aircraft, and variants of the P-3 that conduct electronic surveillance missions. US navy aviation also contributes to the U.S. strategic nuclear force, flying TACAMO (Take Charge And Move Out [37]) aircraft whose mission is to provide command and control in the event of a nuclear war.

U.S. Marine Corps aircraft are counted under the Navy total and serve on Navy ships, but are oriented towards Marine combined air-ground operations, with an emphasis on supporting marine ground forces.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union left the bulk of Soviet air power in the hands of the new Russian state, and Russia has coasted on this prodigious inheritance for decades.

Altogether, Russia has 1,500 combat aircraft and 400 military helicopters. The bulk of these aircraft, however, are old and have neither been substantially upgraded, nor consistently serviced. MiG-29, Su-27 and MiG-31 fighters that predate the end of the Cold War predominate.

Although the Russian Air Force does not control the country’s ICBM force, it does control strategic nuclear bombers, including aging Tu-95 “Bear”, Tu-22 “Backfire” and Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers.

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 [38], 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 [39], which promises to be Russia’s first fifth-generation fighter. Russia is also reportedly working on a new strategic bomber [40], PAK-DA.

The Russian Air Force has recently adopted a high-profile role as President Vladimir Putin’s rattling sabre, flying extensive missions [41] near NATO, Swedish and Japanese airspace. These missions are primarily designed as demonstrations of Russian power.


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 [42], 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 [43].

One growth area for Chinese air forces is naval aviation. China’s first carrier, the Liaoning [44], 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.


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 [45] 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.

----This Story Originally Published in The National Interest----

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