The Battle of Britain is acknowledged by historians to be one of the most important battles in military history.
It marked not only a turning point in the fight against the Nazi war machine and the reinvigoration of a hitherto-beleaguered and demoralized British people, but it was also the dawn of a brand-new era in modern warfare: the age of the combat plane.
That fateful conflict that spanned from the summer of 1940 to the fall of the same year established the primacy of aerial supremacy in modern war.
The Luftwaffe roundly demonstrated in their defeat the truth of the new martial paradigm: he who controls the sky controls the war.
Some 80 years later, this still holds true. Aerial supremacy is of paramount importance in any war, and it’s because of this inescapable fact that every modern nation serious about maintaining a military presence worth mentioning has a fleet of aircraft on standby.
In this article, we will explore the 7 largest air forces in the world. To whom do they belong? How many fighter jets do they maintain? How many bombers and other supporting aircraft do they have?
Now, let’s take to the skies and get an aerial view of the 7 largest air forces in the world.
South Korea Has One of the Largest Air Forces In The World
Though a small nation, South Korea has one of the most fraught borders in the world – the DPRK-RoK border.
Though hostilities between the two Koreas ceased in 1953, the fact is that the two are still officially at war (they signed an armistice – not a peace treaty) and that the danger of an attack from their zealous northern neighbors is always a threat.
Because of this, South Korea maintains a large fleet of military aircraft in readiness for aggression from the North.
The number of aircraft currently in the Republic of Korea Air Force is estimated at between 720 and 898 combat-ready planes.
The North Korean Air Force
If South Korea is ready for a war with its northern neighbor, then North Korea is, if not doubly ready, certainly getting there.
With a fleet of aircraft that some sources put at 946 and others estimate at 1,381, the Hermit Kingdom is very much ready and waiting should those alarm klaxons sound along the DMZ.
The Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF) saw most of its action during the 1950-53 Korean War, where they were completely wiped out by the superior US air forces.
Their only foreign operation came during the Vietnam War, where they supported Ho Chi Minh’s forces.
The Egyptian Air Force
Egypt is a country the War Advisor team has visited before when we delved into the country’s domestic Maadi variant of the Kalashnikov rifle.
Egypt has maintained a large air force since 1932. It saw almost no combat in WWII but has been involved in numerous other conflicts – most notably, four separate clashes with its eastern neighbor of Israel.
The conflicts with Israel aside, the Egyptian Air Force has been involved in several operations in Yemen (most notably the North Yemen Civil War and the Intervention in Yemen), has twice seen action in Libya (during the Libyan-Egyptian War of 1977 and the Second Libyan Civil War) and once on home soil, during the Sinai Insurgency.
The Egyptian Air Force maintains a large fleet of 1,069 aircraft, with 30,000 active personnel at any given time.
Indian Air Force
The Indian Air Force began life as the Royal Indian Air Force under the British Raj and was an auxiliary air force of the British Royal Air Force.
As the RIA, they were hugely important in the counter-offensive against Imperial Japan in Southeast Asia, with RIA air strikes in Burma and Thailand halting the Japanese advance.
Following India’s independence from the UK, the Royal Indian Air Force was reformed into the Indian Air Force.
It has primarily been used in military actions against neighboring Pakistan; these include the Indo-Pakistani Air War of 1965, the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the Kargil War of 1999, and various minor skirmishes in the following years.
At present, the IAF maintains a fleet of an estimated 1,926 aircraft.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is, by number of aircraft, the world’s third-largest.
It maintains a fleet of approximately 3,510 aircraft (as of 2023) and, though it remains largely untested in battle, is a force to be reckoned with due to sheer numbers alone.
Though a Chinese air force has existed since 1924, it did not actually have aircraft or airfields until around 1946.
By 1949, the PRC had managed to acquire around 500 aircraft, which were a mixture of American and British fighter planes.
As mentioned, the PLAAF remains mostly untested in battle. Outside of air support in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it has yet to have its nose bloodied in a major conflict.
The Russian Air Force
The Russian Federation maintains the world’s second-largest air force, with around 3,800 aircraft as of 2023.
Due to the ongoing war with Ukraine, however, it is difficult to be 100% certain of these numbers.
The Russian Air Force (known as the VVS in Russia itself) has a long and storied history and has undergone several rebrandings and reformations during its time.
”Russia has lost 86 fixed-wing aircraft and 90 helicopters during the last 16 months of combat in Ukraine, but its national air force still poses a major threat.”– Air Chief Marshal Rich Knighton, July 13th, 2023.
Its lineage stretches all the way back to the short-lived Imperial Russian Air Service (1912-1917) and through the years of the USSR, where it was known as the Soviet Air Forces, which persisted until 1991.
The Russian Air Force has, of course, been included in countless conflicts over the years. Some of the more notable ones include the South Ossetian War, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the 2022 Ukraine conflict.
The USA has the Largest Air Force in the World
The title of the world’s largest air force goes, somewhat inevitably, to the USA. The United States Air Force (USAF) maintains a fleet of a staggering 5,369 aircraft, with almost 329,000 active personnel at any given moment.
The WarAdvisor team recently got up close and personal with some of the most iconic USAF aircraft at the SOFEX convention in Jordan.
The USAF has, of course, been involved in a great many conflicts since its inception in 1907. Until 1947 it was a de facto independent service from the US Army; in 1947, it was formally made an independent branch and operates completely autonomously.
The USAF’s size and sheer firepower mean that it is impossible for virtually any other nation to combat directly.
It is often used to support allies in their own conflicts, such as in the 2013 French campaign in Mali to oust Islamic militants.
Some of the most iconic aircraft amongst the USAF includes the notorious Super A10 Warthog, the F16 and the F18, the latter two aircraft we recently compared in a popular article that you can read here.
The USAF’s Position With the Largest Air Force on Earth is Unlikely to be Challenged Anytime Soon
As we have seen, it’s impossible for any other nation to match the aerial superiority of the USAF, which, with over 5,000 aircraft, has a larger air force than India, Egypt, and the two Koreas combined.
As we continue through the 21st century, only time will tell if any other nation is able to approach the size of the world’s mightiest air fleet. For now, however, that seems unlikely.