An F-35 stealth fighter in testing. Lockheed Martin photo

In Case You Forgot, America’s Got a Ton of Warplanes

Way more than Russia and China put together

David Axe
David Axe
Jun 27, 2013 · 4 min read

The U.S. military possesses 14,776 warplanes. That’s nearly triple what Russia and China have, combined.

The latest figures for America’s aerial arsenal come from the Pentagon’s annual aviation plan, submitted to Congress each year in order to justify long-term spending plans.

The latest air power plan, obtained early by Colin Clark from the Website Breaking Defense, shows the air fleets of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army holding steady for the next decade, dropping only slightly to 14,645 in 2023.

The cost to buy, maintain and upgrade these thousands of aircraft is expected to increase to more than $100 billion annually by the mid-2020s.

In contrast to America’s vast air fleet, in 2012 the Russian armed forces had 2,855 warplanes and the Chinese military 2,731, according to the latest annual count (.pdf) by Flight, an aviation trade magazine. The world’s other leading aerial powers — including Japan, India, South Korea, Turkey, the U.K. and France — each maintained slightly more than 1,000 military aircraft, Flight revealed.

Overall, the U.S. owns 27 percent of all the world’s warplanes. And that share might actually increase in coming years despite ongoing cuts to the Pentagon budget, although to be fair the current air power plan does not take into account automatic spending reductions required by the so-called “sequestration” law.

That’s because almost all other countries in the world are cutting their aerial arsenals while also modernizing them, swapping large numbers of outdated planes for smaller numbers of new ones. Russia expects to replace its current 2,900 aircraft with no more than 1,700 new ones over the next decade.

A Navy Hornet fighter launches from an aircraft carrier. Navy photo

Only the U.S. is definitely buying enough new jet fighters, cargo planes and helicopters — several hundred annually — to fully replace older models. The other exception to the smaller-but-better air power trend could be China, but that’s far from certain, as Beijing releases very little reliable information about its weapons holdings.

According to Flight, two years ago it appears China retired as many as 800 outmoded jet fighters, dropping its overall air arsenal from 3,400 to 2,600 planes. But steady production of new fighters apparently boosted Beijing’s holdings to 2,700 warplanes last year — still less than a fifth of the U.S. stock.

To be fair, there’s limited use in directly comparing raw air power inventories. A country’s exact mix of planes and helicopters, its strategy, doctrine and alliances, crew training and maintenance standards and geography are all important factors in the overall capability of a particular air arm. Just because China possesses more warplanes than, say, Japan does not mean Beijing would definitely win a war with Tokyo.

Still, even a nuanced comparison favors America’s air arsenal over any potential rival. The latest Russian and Chinese fighters based on the classic Sukhoi Su-27 design are more powerful on average than the Lockheed Martin F-16, America’s main jet fighter. But U.S. fighters are supported by the world’s largest fleet of range-extending aerial tankers — 536 in all, according to the Pentagon air power plan — plus around 600 reconnaissance, surveillance, radar-jamming and early warning planes … hundreds more than Russia or China can muster.

Most U.S. warplanes aren’t even designed to do battle with other planes. The Pentagon’s 4,457 cargo aircraft — including Army and Navy helicopters and Air Force transport planes — represent by far the most numerous category of flying machine in the American arsenal. Those aircraft are meant to support ground forces.

The huge number of U.S. cargo aircraft, outnumbering the entire warplane holdings of every other nation, is testimony to the Pentagon’s “joint” vision of warfare, where air, sea, ground and even space forces all work together. Other countries also integrate their military services, but none as closely as the U.S. does.

America’s 14,776 military aircraft also include plane types that no other country can match. The U.S. Air Force’s approximately 180 Lockheed-made F-22 stealth fighters and 20 Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bombers are the world’s only operational, radar-evading , manned warplanes. Russia and China are both testing stealth prototypes but these are years away from front-line use.

The Air Force, Navy and Army also possess hundreds of large, long-range, sometimes armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that can loiter for hours or days at a time searching for targets. These drones include the recently unveiled RQ-170 stealth UAV built by Lockheed plus, if the rumors are true, another secret stealth drone designed by Northrop Grumman.

China and Russia are still developing their own drones, to say nothing of stealth drones. For the foreseeable future America’s aerial arsenal will not only be much, much bigger than any other country’s — it will also be better.

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    David Axe

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    I write about war and make horror movies

    War Is Boring

    From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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