An action-packed 2011 saw air power put to the test across its full spectrum of activities, from all-out conflict and clandestine cross-border raids to flying humanitarian relief missions in the wake of natural disasters.
For once, the main defence headlines of the year were not driven by coalition action in Afghanistan or Iraq, but the result of the "Arab Spring" movement that swept through Middle Eastern and North African nations, bringing unrest and political upheaval.
While regime change was brought about in Egypt without the major involvement of the local military in support of then-president Hosni Mubarak, the national movement to oust Col Muammar Gaddafi from more than four decades of power in Libya was a longer and more bloody experience. Initially led by the US armed forces from mid-March under the banner "Odyssey Dawn", the United Nations-backed campaign to protect Libyan civilians from persecution also benefitted from the involvement of several members of the Arab League. NATO took full command of the activity from 31 March, with its "Unified Protector" mission eventually lasting for seven months and totalling more than 26,300 sorties.
Libya provided an unusual test for participating nations. While the assembled force of fighters from players such as Canada, France, Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the UK allocated to enforce a no-fly zone over the country provided sufficient threat to keep any pro-Gaddafi aircraft on the ground, the long distances involved in operating from bases throughout the Mediterranean delivered a logistical challenge. Command and control, targeting and communication issues also arose for some participants, such as the UAE's Lockheed Martin F-16E/Fs. And with no acknowledged coalition forces on the ground, the task of identifying rebel forces from regime troops was also testing.
While the USA stepped back from playing the lead role over Libya following its provision of early and intense strikes against Gaddafi's forces and infrastructure, it did continue to deliver key support via the allocation of tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft: both of which are still in short supply among its allies.
Washington's main focus remained in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and also in targeting its senior leadership in neighbouring Pakistan, and also further afield in nations such as Yemen. On 2 May, its decade-long action to locate Osama bin Laden was finally ended when he was killed during a special forces raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A tantalising glimpse of the USA's advances into the world of stealthy rotorcraft was provided after one of its helicopters crashed during the troop insertion.
While the bulk of the aircraft - believed to have been a heavily modified Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk - was destroyed, its tail structure survived intact.
Meanwhile, in addition to supporting the fight over Libya and in Afghanistan, several nations also found the capacity to fly in supplies in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of Japan in March. US Air Force Boeing C-17s flew into Sendai, for example, to help assist with the recovery efforts.
Elsewhere this year, major earthquakes also hit New Zealand and Turkey, and floods affected parts of Pakistan, all drawing support from air arms which are typically being asked to do more with reduced resources or personnel as most nations contend with severe budgetary limitations.
Our new World Air Forces directory lists over 52,000 aircraft as being in active use with 160 nations around the globe: a drop of approximately 2,000 airframes since last year. More than one-third of this reduction can be attributed to improved data, which has allowed a combined 850 obsolete Harbin H-5 and Nanchang Q-5 combat aircraft to be deleted from the inventories of the Chinese air force and navy.
Another significant contributor has been the coalition and rebel action which destroyed or disabled a large amount of the former Libyan Arab Air Force's fleet.
With no information available yet about which of the Gaddafi regime's aircraft survived the conflict, our new entry for the nation has been restricted to showing only the little more than a dozen transport aircraft and helicopters that have been seen in use since the end of hostilities. This contrasts with last year's data for the nation, which listed almost 380 aircraft as operational.
Another significant reduction is also marked in the entry for Ukraine, which is reported to now have around 300 fewer RSK MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-24 strike aircraft in use than previously listed.
Southern Sudan appears as a first-time entrant, with a small fleet of 11 Mil Mi-17 transport helicopters. As with previous directories, more than 900 military aircraft dedicated for use as VIP transports around the world are not included.
As before, the USA tops our league tables in every directory category for the number of aircraft in active use, with its air force, army, Marine Corps and navy together accounting for 25% of the total equipment listed this year. Russia is a distant second, followed by China, Japan and India, although these four nations combined account for only three-quarters of Washington's total assets.
While a severe budget crunch is now being faced by Department of Defense planners, this dominance shows no sign of being diminished for many years to come. This is borne out by our data about confirmed orders, where the USA accounts for almost 1,700 of the 5,400 aircraft recorded. This roughly 30% stake increases to more than half of the pending future purchases detailed in the directory, with the US military to potentially acquire over 3,900 of the 6,700 aircraft identified.
In line with the overall decrease recorded in the directory, global fleets have shrunk in three of our equipment categories: combat aircraft; transports/tankers; and training aircraft/helicopters. But reflecting the current needs of operating in Afghanistan, numbers for combat helicopters and special mission aircraft have both seen slight increases.
As ever, potential business in the fighter market resulted in many stories during 2011, but few new sales by early December. The Swiss Federal Council in late November announced its intention to buy 22 Gripen NGs from Saab, with funding to be sought next year. If confirmed, the win will be of great significance to the Swedish manufacturer, which is looking to kick-start the new generation version of itsfighter after making previous deliveries to the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand.
Iraq's acquisition of 18 F-16C/Ds is also progressing, with the sale to extend Lockheed's production of the type through 2018.
Companies are also awaiting the outcome of several other key battles. India's initially 126-unit medium multi-role combat aircraft contest could potentially be concluded before year-end, with the decision to provide a massive boost for either the Dassault-led Rafale International team or the Eurofighter consortium. But India's Hindustan Aeronautics will be a perhaps bigger beneficiary of the selection, as just 18 of the winning type are to undergo final assembly in Europe before work and vital know-how is progressively transferred to the customer nation.
Japan also could be poised to announce the winner of its F-X contest to replace air force-operated McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms. Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon are in contention, along with Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
© French air force
The Rafale and Typhoon are also now going toe-to-toe in a process to meet the future needs of the UAE, with earlier exclusive negotiations conducted with the French team having failed to progress to a contract. Although the Rafale performed well both from land bases and the deck of the French navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during the course of the Libya campaign, the rebuke from the Gulf has come at a bad time for Dassault, which is still seeking the first international buyer for its "omnirole" strike aircraft. Brazil could also potentially reach a decision in its delayed fighter competition in 2012, although the nation is facing financial pressures linked to it hosting the Football World Cup in 2014. The Rafale was identified as the preferred choice of the previous government, but faces stiff competition from the Gripen NG and Super Hornet. Boeing delivered its last of 24 F/A-18Fs aircraft to the Royal Australian Air Force recently under its first export sale of the type.
But many future fighter orders remain likely to go to the F-35, despite the programme's mixed fortunes over the last 12 months. Compared against 2010, Lockheed had a good year, exceeding its planned number of test flights - with 917 flown by 6 December - and also performing well during the first deck-based operations using two short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35Bs aboard the US Marine Corps' amphibious carrier the USS Wasp. The first aircraft destined for an international customer was also recently rolled off the assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, with the UK to take delivery of the STOVL platform during 2012.
But the discovery of cracks in a lift fan-related component provided the latest example of the challenges facing Lockheed and its industry partners in having to develop, test and produce the F-35 concurrently. Such concerns have prompted some Congressmen to seek a reduction in planned orders while teething problems can be addressed.
A six-year battle between the General Electric/Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team and the US Department of Defense over the alternate F136 engine has finally come to an end though, with the industry team having pulled the plug on its proposed self-funding of remaining development work. This leaves Pratt & Whitney as the exclusive engine supplier for the JSF, with its F135.
Elsewhere in the US fighter sector, Lockheed will during 2012 deliver its last F-22A Raptor air superiority fighter to the US Air Force. The service has had most of its current examples grounded over recent months while it continues investigations into the cause of several incidents where pilots encountered hypoxia-like symptoms.
Safety also remains in the spotlight in the UK, where the Royal Air Force's BAE Systems Hawk T1/1As were still out of action in early December following the death of a Red Arrows display team pilot in a ground incident involving the aircraft's Martin-Baker Mk 10 ejection seat. This also represented the team's second fatality during 2011.
Meanwhile, Sukhoi has continued development work on its PAK-FA/T-50. A third development aircraft entered flight test in November, by which point its predecessors had logged more than a combined 100 sorties. United Aircraft president Mikhail Pogosyan in August forecast that up to 600 production aircraft could be built, including 200 each for the Russian and Indian air forces. Although sales of Russian combat aircraft have fallen markedly since the end of the Cold War, a projection of just 200 more for export customers could be on the modest side.
China's march towards fielding a fifth-generation fighter also appears to be progressing well, with Chengdu having flown its J-20 demonstrator on numerous occasions since its surprise debut last January. Beijing's CATIC export body is also now marketing the JF-17 jointly developed by Chendgu and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex to potential customers, with the design offering a lower-cost alternative to its Western rivals.
Further nations also have aspirations to develop their own fighters, with early work under way in Japan, South Korea and Turkey, and with Brazil having also shown a long-term desire to gain an indigenous capability.
More modestly, 2011 also saw a first move from the South African defence industry to re-establish a presence in the combat aircraft sector, with the Paramount Group and Aerosud having unveiled the advanced high-performance reconnaissance light aircraft, or AHRLAC. Unveiled in September, the two-seat design is expected to make its first flight in the second quarter of 2012. But while some nations may be interested in acquiring such low-cost aircraft for tasks such as counter-insurgency missions, the USAF appears likely to step back from the niche role. In late November, Hawker Beechcraft was told its AT-6 would not be considered for a light air support deal for the Afghan air force, and funding for a proposed follow-on deal for the US service has been deleted. An Embraer/Sierra Nevada team is waiting to hear by the end of the year whether it could secure the 15-aircraft sale to Kabul with the EMB-314 Super Tucano.
In other developments, Airbus Military saw delays to the introduction of its A330 multi-role tanker/transport overcome, with three now having been handed over to launch user the Royal Australian Air Force. The company's first of at least 176 A400Ms has also entered final assembly, ahead of its planned delivery to France in late 2012 or early 2013.
Alenia Aermacchi experienced highs and lows with its M-346 "Master", handing over its first production example of the advanced jet trainer to the Italian air force in mid-November, but crashing its first prototype barely one week later as the company left the Dubai air show still without the closure of a long-planned contract with the UAE.
Equipped with aircraft new and old, air arms around the world must be prepared to perform familiar tasks in 2012, but also stand ready to respond to the unexpected.