U.S. air power in perspective

Certain bloggers and pundits are frequently quite alarmist about a decline of U.S. air power.

It's true that the inventory of aircraft is shrinking, in part (not only) because of rising costs of combat aircraft. The F-22 didn't even come close to early expectations for 750 fighters (187 for real). The F-35 is unlikely to exceed a 2,000 production run unless a major conventional war pushes unexpected funds into the program. The annual planned production of 80 F-35 for the USAF seems to be fiscally out of reach by at least a third (more like a half), for example.

An absolute decline / downsizing / shrinking / reduction isn't necessarily a reason for complaints, though. The waste of taxpayer money in an inefficient program - well, that's a good reason for critique. The anticipated production figures in themselves? Not necessarily.

Let's compare the expected U.S. air power of the late 2010's:
187 F-22
552 F/A-18 E/F
88 F/A-18G
??? F-35
(20 B-2)
(??? F-15 and F-16 multi-role models)
(all of them minus a few losses from accidents)

The overall sum of modern combat aircraft would be about 900-1,200 in the late 2010's (it depends on the F-35 program).

For comparison (again ignoring accidents):


140-180 Typhoon
dozens of old Tornado (mostly a SEAD version, 70's airframe)

United Kingdom:

160-232 Typhoon
150 F-35B
(serious cuts & foreign sales of in-service aircraft are possible)


180-224 Rafale
20 or more Mirage 2000-5F (70's airframe upgraded with 90's avionics)

96 Typhoon
few Tornado (SEAD version) or F-35 instead

87 Typhoon
(+possibly dozens early-model F/A-18 near their end of life)


130 F-2
(+ old F-15J/DJ)

South Korea:

(132 KF-16C/D Block 52)
(60 F-15K)
(90's technology in 70's airframes)

PR China (plans are not really known):

200 or more J-10A/B
96 Su-30 (90's technology in a 70's airframe)
120 or more J-11 (A: obsolete copy of Su-27, B: same airframe, indigenous components)
??? J-15 (copy of a Su-27, -30 or -33 model ?)

270 Su-30 (90's technology in a 70's airframe)
hoping for a few dozen of a total of 250 PAK-FA (Suchoi T-50)
45 MiG-29K
126 "MRCA" (gen 4.5 strike fighter competition)
(+ 46 Mirage 2000-5; 90's technology in 70's airframe)

hoping for a few dozen of a total of 250 PAK-FA (Suchoi T-50)
28 Su-30 (90's technology in a 70's airframe)
36 Su-33
48 Su-34
48 Su-35S/BM
24 MiG-29K (90's technology in 70's airframe)
(up to 445 70's technology Su-27's)
(possibly still up to 245 Su-25 ground attack aircraft)
(286-386 MiG-31 strategic interceptors; no true front fighters)
(Russian air power in general; it's mostly a paper tiger air power
because of 12+ years of minimal training and funds)

It seems as if the U.S. air power was quite oversized - unless you compare it with Sweden, Israel, Bahrein, Katar or the UAE, small nations with disproportionately strong air forces based on either clever procurement, subsidies or crude oil wealth.

- - - - -

Keep in mind that the U.S. would in no reasonable scenario need to go to (air) war against a well-equipped air power without allies; the reasonable combinations are:

Conflicts in East Asia:
+ South Korea or
+ Japan or
+ both

Defensive wars in Europe and its periphery:
+ Germany, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy & smaller allies

The PAK-FA, J-10B and J-11B are the most interesting unknown variables for they could incorporate hidden innovations to counter the concepts of the F-22 and Super Hornet (both known since the 90's). Even such innovations wouldn't de-value their adversaries completely, though. It would more likely lead to a more even playing field or restrictions on mission profiles.

It's unlikely that the Russian and Chinese air forces will to be brothers in arms soon; the "Western" air superiority seems to be ensured (in the conventional understanding of air power).
The F-35 program can be allowed to shrink without classic air superiority (and even air supremacy) at risk, it seems.

- - - - -

I think that the political problem here isn't so much the comparison with potential adversaries, especially not with inclusion of possible allies.
The problem is the comparison of the future, present and past air force. The problem is that humans get used to things/conditions and bureaucracies resist against reductions.

The problem is that people are irrational and think of "air power! air power! air power!" instead of "air power as part of the efficient answer to actual national needs".
Costs are not seen as the counterpart to value in US. air power debates, but as a mere limiting factor for overall might.

Today's U.S. Navy is a greater air power than all foreign air forces. The same holds true for the USAF. Most other powerful air forces are either allied, friendly or neutral.
What exactly is so scary about a "smaller" air force? The lesser annual costs and the smaller urge to attack foreign countries?

One line of thought asserts that a certain mass advantage discourages potential challengers. A huge, huge USN or a huge, huge USAF would prevent that a another power would challenge them, ever.
Well, the proponents of this idea should probably have a look at the naval army race of 1898-1916 and the Dreadnought revolution. I also fail to see how NATO was prohibited from accepting an arms race with the militarised Soviet Union of the early Cold War with its sick artillery and tank inventories.

In any case, it's difficult to make the point that the USAF needs to keep its numerical strength of the 90's with "5th generation" aircraft for strategic defence. Such a reasoning is even questionable if the purpose is strategic offence.

I as a German have greater confidence in allies if they focus on curing economic and fiscal woes to stabilise their pillars than it they continue a military procurement orgy on brittle pillars (and in part on foreign loans).
It's also quite important that the U.S. sticks to its obligation of the North Atlantic Treaty and doesn't launch wars of aggression, for these pin down military power and endanger allies. A "shrinking" USAF on the other hand is of no concern to me.


edit 2010-08-20: I excluded deliberately many 1980's or low performance aircraft such as most Tornado IDS; non-upgraded Mirage 2000, the AMX, Japanese F-4s and obsolete Chinese models. These will either be cut till the end of the decade or be simply without relevance in regard to relative air power.
The old Su-27's could be ignored as well, for many of them are simply outdated (lacking competitive missiles and avionics for modern air combat, yet being useless for air/ground missions).

edit 2018-01: An overview over Russian air power inventories is here. Their expectation for 2027 is 1,100-1,200 combat aircraft.


  1. For Russia, you've left out the MiG-29Ks their Navy will have and the MiG-29/35s they will have in service. Plus the 48 Su-35 they have on order. And however many Su-34 they might have built by then.

  2. Good post. I agree with the majority of what you've written.

    You don't specifically say so, but you certainly hint at the truth behind a lot of the sensationalism that surrounds air combat arms - they are a very prominent, 'sexy' military arm that the public (especially the pundit types) pay a lot of attention to. In traditional Clausewitzian sense air combat forces are subject to the 'irrational' effects of the populace. Reduce an air combat force and people will 'feel' that the collective nation is weakened and increasingly impotent, regardless of what reality indicates.

    I'm sure you could see evidence of this in most popular comments on the likes of the reduced F-22 purchases in the US, but another classic example was the public screaming when NZ scrapped an obsolete, unused A-4 squadron. One of the key arguments (post Sept-11) was that 'terrorists' could find a cross-dressing aircraft and drop WMDs over our cities. There are so many things wrong/ comical with that argument.

    Anyway, my point is that air combat forces are vulnerable to irrational and uneducated public opinion, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

  3. Yes, The US has a large airforce, but theres a reason for that.

    In the event of a war breaking out, aircraft based in the US could be deployed in a day, munitions and crew aswell.
    With forward based fuel, several hundred aircraft could begin fighting 36 hours after war breaks out.

    You could reasonably expect to deploy jet fighters faster and in greater numbers than main battle tanks, and with much greater effect.

    The US (like the UK) faces no threat of land invasion, even a South American Union could be held at a choke point in Central America.
    Like the UK, it can make a choice, cut military spending, or build an expeditionary capacity.

    Comparing the US to Germany is a very bad comparison.

    On a per capita basis, its airforce is double those with land borders, which puts in line with the UK.

  4. Thanks Mongo. I added much to the Russian list. The overall picture didn't change much, though.
    European airpower is able to neutralise Russian air power by itself - even if Russia ramped up its training and avionics/munitions modernisation.

  5. @DominicJ:
    You forget the tail.

    Air defence batteries, aircraft maintenance personnel and equipment, CSS.
    This is going to last much longer than day or two for hundreds of combat aircraft.

    Look at TF Hawk for an example how badly things can spin out of control - or look at deploymens to exercises.
    A substantial portion of aircraft are at all times in need of repair, which makes transoceanic flights a questionable idea for them.

    There are also competing expectations for airlift from the navy and army - and the evacuation of civilians can require detours.

  6. First I have to admit that I highly admire reading your articles as they are well thought and show serious professionalism in military affairs. But sometimes I have the feeling of greenness in your writing when it comes to political and geo-strategic issues. Nevertheless please let me give you some further inspiration on that one.

    In General

    Neither the US nor Russia ever developed a true 4th gen fighter. This niche is filled only by the Eurocanards. While Russia, in face of considerable budget constraints, decided to start huge modernisation programs of its fighter fleet the US on the other hand opted for the 5th gen Raptors and JSF's. And the more obstacles those 5th gen programs hit the more it became clear that there will be a fighter gap in the near future! As a result the US started the Super Hornet and the Silent Eagle programs while Russia kept pace with MiG-29SMT, MiG-35, Su-27SM, Su-30MK(I,A,M,??) and Su-35. (By the way, it would be interesting to compare those 3rd gen airframes with built-in 4th and 5th gen systems with the Eurocanards.)

  7. 1. Numbers

    For Russia you miss some 530 MiG-31 going through an upgrade program with improved avionics, weaponry and engines. In combination with an advanced IADS even for US military experts central Russia is being considered impenetrable for Raptor, Batwing and JSF. (Think of long-wave AESA Nebo-M and Nebo SVU acquiring the Raptor at 350 km head on and guiding a 48N6E2 round into a kill box at 200 km! Not to forget the 280km range R-37M2!) Then you miss at least 48 Su-35 ordered last year. Consider this number to grow in the near future. One has to keep in mind that the Su-35 airframe is NOT retained from the 70’s technology but deeply reengineered to provide super cruise capability while retaining a superior sustained turn rate and an improved instantaneous turn rate by 3 dimensional TVC.
    As one can see the nature of those obstacles for US 5th gen fighters is manifold but two of them are prominent: 1st economic, 2nd technological!
    The debate about combat value of the 5th gen reminds me a little bit of the pre-Corean War situation when the western world laughed at Soviet military technology. This quickly stopped when Mig-15’s kicked asses around. The point is that sometimes quantity becomes a quality in itself especially when your technological superiority is not as great as you might think. The US is a geo-strategic power in decline and the coming decline of available airframes in combination with the global proliferation of modern Russian anti-access weapon systems only exacerbates the problems for the US.
    Sure you can argue that a major conflict between any of the big players is hardly imaginable. But the ability of force projection is one of the main drivers behind international diplomatic battles.

  8. 2. There is a bigger issue!!!

    I don’t like to destroy your belief in Santa Clause, but NATO never ever was a military alliance of equal partners. NATO always was and will be the instrument of US foreign policy to protect and to boost its own national interests in the world and secondly to keep its own allies under geo-strategic control! The question is not what NATO should be in our European eyes but what it really is.
    The JSF was never meant to fight or survive in a modern threat environment without the cover of the all-aspect stealthy Raptor. Raptor and Batwing were supposed to kick the door in and destroy enemies anti air assets while the JSF was supposed to clean the room afterwards! Isn’t it interesting that the Raptor is banned for export and its technology kept in secrecy while the JSF has the most important US allies as partners in development and at the same time are its main customers? The decision for the JSF makes all those nations in their foreign policy dependent on the will of the US as they will never be able to project air power against an adversary without US allowance. Those entire JSF Partner nations will become the biggest losers in military history. And worse, with only 187 Raptors built the US will never be able to field 60% to 65% of them at any given time leaving its own allies without an air force to count with.
    The fact is that the “Western air superiority” seems no longer to be ensured (in the conventional understanding of air power)! Why? Because the US is putting all their eggs in one stealth basket that became quickly rendered ineffective against a rapidly advanced and fielded radar technology.

    3. Our “Western” Society

    It’s always funny to listen to people with healthy minds when they talk about what politicians should or should not do. As if it were the question of politicians will. But behind the scene there is something going on called lobbyism. The decisions for the Raptor and the JSF were made to fill the pockets of the military-industrial complex! The question is not how much bang you get for the buck but - vice versa - how much buck Lockheed gets for as little bang as possible. No money, no honey! And with a financial crisis further spreading to Main Street the US is going to loose even more of its geo-strategic positions.

    And last but not least:
    not to mention Russia’s next generation AAM’s combining agility of R-74 with range of R-27E, or their new NCADE element for air combat (the US uses it for ABM purposes), or their new AESA radars, or their new OLS-50 (totally lacking in the Raptor), or their new S-400, or their new Vityas-System and on and on and on!

  9. Would all anonymous commenters please find the time to decide on a nickname and stick to it please?

    You should know that "anonymous" as well as certain derogatory nicknames are really the privilege of a certain moronic troll who haunts this place (and doesn't get any of his posts through the filter any more).

    About NATO and U.S. interests; NATO serves US power and interests as much as the European governments allow it. The German government is a good example of a government which isn't really interested in big moves at all.
    Our politicians would probably panic if they were tasked to forge and sabotage alliances as it was usual before WWI.

    About Russia's inventory; Su-35 is included, MiG-31 is added, but only deserves to be in () for it's really an interceptor, not a front aircraft.
    It's generally difficult to take the old Su-27 and MiG-31 of the Russian air force seriously because they're really paper tigers. The Russians atrophied the training of air and ground crews and their many old aircraft will be very old by the end of the decade.

  10. About the F-22 export ban:

    That one is less about some strategic vision or grand strategy than about a few influential senators being pissed off by especially Israel's export of U.S. mil high tech to the PRC in addition to the fact that it would take decades to develop a F-22 successor.

    The USAF would have loved to see the F-22 exported to Japan, Israel and some other places in order to keep its production line running till there's a SecDef who's willing to order more F-22s for the USAF itself.

    The Americans may share some distinct views and ideas, but their government isn't capable of fully coordinating its actions. There are often senators going wild against the plans of other parts of the government.

  11. Russian success in Korea and Vietnam was bsed on US doctinal weakness, not Russian technological strength.

    US plots in aircraft designed from BVR interception were ordered to visualy identify enemy aircraft, surrendering every advantage they had in the process.
    The few times they were allowed to cut loose (when bombers were grounded) they ran riot

  12. U.S. equipment also showed considerable weaknesses in both Korean and Vietnamese air wars.

    - small calibre armament of Sabres
    - F-4 getting outmanoeuvered by obsolete MiG-17
    - early F-4 lacking a gun
    - AIM-7 firing procedure taking too much time
    - AIM-9 not good enough for dogfight (lock-on and launch at high G's and fast relative movements)

    Btw, who exactly wrote about Korea or Vietnam, whom did you respond to?
    - F-104C being outright useless as fighter
    - USAF and USN lacked the tools for SEAD initially
    - F-105 being excessively vulnerable against low-tech weapons at low altitude

  13. Sven
    I was replying to annonymous post on numbers.
    He mentioned th wonders of the MiG seventeen in Corea.
    I simply stated that the reasons for US failure, which you listed, were primarily caused by political interferance, dictating that fighters designed for BVR missile combat first visualy indentify targets, forcing them into dofights.

  14. MiG-15: Korea (vs. F-86)
    MiG-17: Vietnam (vs. F-4)

    The F-4 was designed to be an all-weather fleet interceptor; it was never a true fighter in the classical sense. Sparrow III (its first missile) wasn't a true BVR missile either - its range was similar to today's IR-guided missiles.

    Pure BVR combat was a losing tatcic in the age of semi-active radar guidance because no fighter could shoot at more than one enemy before they came too close (relative approach speed was 500-800 m/sec! - that left few seconds for the shot).

    There was no means of reliably coordinating fires to avoid multiple shots on one target and there was no technology to avoid that several fighters flying very close to each other fooled the radar.

    The F-4 was ill-prepared for close combat ("dogfight") - it was less effective than a Mirage IIIC (half the price) in it.

    The Soviets learned and corrected much in both conflicts as well, of course.

    I agree that the RoE were a problem (a problem that was not easy to avoid without substantial costs), but the problems uncovered in both wars went way beyond mere doctrine.

  15. Sven
    Good points, thanks

    Whoops, it looks like I forgot to comment on "the tail".

    Not all fast jets will be ready to deploy half way across the world, but if even 10% are, the US could Surge 100+ fast jets.

    If you prioritise the support crews for your airlift, I think it should be doable.

  16. Spanish AF (Ejército del Aire) has going to have 87 typhoon and 88 F-18

  17. I think Sven is right on the US air force currently buying the least bang for as much buck as possible and increasing the shareholder value of the two giant aircraft companies with factories in at least 50 voting US states who like secure jobs.
    Cutting the Raptor was a Hail Mary maneuver to avoid bankruptcy by robbery. The F-35 is OK for bombing some place in the Middle East, but the Tucano would be better for these demanding tasks. It's of course the usual subsidy game via military hardware. You must get to the core of the US mindset. Military Keynesianism (as poor Keynes is read today), science is for warfighting applications and you can't spend to much on security as long as it is related to weapons. Social security and Obamacare should use more guns to become popular or fight some kind of war on something. This mindset is safely away from any battlezone since the introduction of professionalism and is always fed the highest moral grounds for all acts.
    Not all Americans are like that, but often repeated truth makes it easier to follow the common tracks and not create unnecessary disturbances when the real problem ios jobs in the USA and not some petty warlords in Afghanistan and all these procurement programms of outstanding American products do create well paid jobs in the USA. The necessary money can probably be raised by the financial sector selling their outstanding products to foreigners and making a profit and by US intellectual property and cleverness with low paid Foxxcom production costs.

    What is this all about? There's no competition in the military marketplace. You could play Bill Clinton and downsize the military to European expenditure levels, make a budget surplus and reduce the Cold War debt. In return, each case of an apprentice you do not have sex (Bill: oral sex is no sex) with gets an expensive public investigation. Or you use a random event like Bush junior and declare war on something that won't vanish from earth with corresponding multiplaction of the military budget financed by a financial industry hype selling out America's hopes in a giant Ponzi sheme.

    Ask yourself about the timocracy retracting wealth from the populance to Latin American percentages in the US and you get more of an answer that the system is going broke. Sustainment can only be achieved by continuous wars as a glue and shady source of profit extraction that might turn as self-serving as Athens in the Delian League became.