Despite deep budget cuts in recent years, the U.S. armed forces still possess nearly twice as many jet fighters and bombers as Russia and twice as many as China. To match Washington’s aerial firepower, Moscow and Beijing would have to pool their front-line combat aircraft.
The current air-power balance is a useful reminder of the United States’ huge—and likely enduring—numerical weapons advantage over any potential adversary.
The Pentagon just released its annual 10-year projection of its aerial arsenal. The slim document tallies 3,361 jet fighters in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plus 158 Air Force heavy bombers, as of this year.
By contrast, Flight Global’s annual world air power inventory for 2014 counts 1,237 Russian jet fighters and 177 medium and heavy bombers. The same census assigns China 1,319 fighters and 134 bombers.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ huge air wings help explain the imbalance. The U.S. Air Force possesses 1,959 fighters and all of America’s bombers. Alone, the American flying branch’s warplanes outnumber China’s and Russia’s—but only by a few hundred airframes.
But the U.S. Navy and Marines together maintain 1,402 fighters, while China’s navy fields fewer than 200 fighters—and the Russian navy fewer than 100.
America’s two-to-one advantage is not waning—this despite the roughly 10-percent spending reduction mandated by the federal “sequestration” law. The Pentagon projects a slight decline in fighters, bottoming out at around 2,900 airframes by 2020 as controversial new F-35s replace slightly larger numbers of A-10s, F-16s, F/A-18s and AV-8Bs.
Russia, meanwhile, could reduce its fighter fleet to just 800 new and rebuilt planes by 2020, according to a 2010 analysis. China’s air arms still operate nearly 600 fighters modeled on the 1960s-vintage Soviet MiG-21. These planes are of limited use in modern warfare and could retire soon, potentially halving Beijing’s overall aerial arsenal.
Bomber numbers could remain pretty much the same in all three countries through 2020.
Of course, raw numbers aren’t everything. Geography, strategy, doctrine, tactics and pilot training also matter in warfare—arguably more than mere hardware holdings. Equally, support systems play a vital role. Satellites, drones and radar planes help spot targets for the fighters and bombers. Tanker planes keep the warplanes flying over long distances.
Considering these factors, America’s air-power advantage arguably increases, as the U.S. possesses far more—and far better—support systems than China and Russia do. And American aviators are better-trained and better-paid.