The ability of air forces around the globe to react to the unexpected was highlighted afresh in 2013, with requirements having ranged from providing multinational support for France’s combat intervention in Mali, to flying humanitarian relief sorties to help in typhoon-devastated parts of the Philippines.

Just one full week of the year had passed when Paris took the decision to launch its Operation Serval campaign, responding to a request from the embattled government in Bamako. French aircraft already based in Africa were reinforced within four days by assets including several of its air force’s Dassault Rafales, some of which completed a more than 9h 30min strike mission in the process of deploying to the region.

Vital support came from allocations of tactical and strategic transport, tanker and airborne surveillance services from several European nations, and from the USA.

While the Islamist militants which had been threatening to take power in Mali were quickly tackled, the process of maintaining the security situation in the nation is continuing. French assets and personnel remain in place, while the task of handing responsibility to African and UN peacekeepers gathers pace.

The collaboration between France and its allies for the Serval activity is well practiced, with many of the same nations having worked together during the Libya campaign two years earlier, and also still involved in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

Despite an agreed timetable to end all combat involvement in that nation by the end of 2014, several major current contributors are likely to continue to offer services to support the Kabul government in the transition that will follow the end of their International Security Assistance Force duty.

Work to prepare the Afghan military to assume full control for security continues to make mixed progress, from the aviation perspective. A controversial light air support requirement for 20 armed turboprops is advancing, with a Sierra Nevada-Embraer team’s offer of the latter’s EMB-314 Super Tucano having won a US Air Force-led contest for the second time in February 2013. Equipment uncertainty has surrounded the Afghan air force’s tactical transport capabilities, however, with a recently-introduced fleet of Alenia North America-prepared C-27As having been parked, and some of their duties assumed by a pair of ex-US Air Force Lockheed Martin C-130Hs.

In the USA itself, Congressionally-mandated budget cuts imposed via sequestration continue to threaten long-term damage, with the air force having aired the possibility of retiring entire aircraft types as one means of making savings. One potential victim of such a step could be the service’s Fairchild-Republic A-10 ground-attack aircraft, as their utility could be judged as being of diminished value away from the Afghan operation.

Following on from its receipt of a last Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter in 2012, the USAF this year received its final examples of the Boeing C-17 strategic transport. Boeing, which also transferred its first five of 10 examples for new operator the Indian air force, will end production of the type at its Long Beach site in California in 2015.

Despite its self-imposed funding woes, Washington can still claim a sizeable numerical advantage over any potential adversary, as illustrated in the data section of our World Air Forces directory. Compiled using information contained within Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets and MiliCAS databases, the product details the active air inventories and procurement plans of 160 nations.

In all, the 2014 version includes listings for almost 63,000 individual military aircraft. This total includes more than 50,700 combat, special mission, tanker and transport aircraft, combat helicopters and training assets recorded as being in current active use. Nearly 5,300 are the subject of firm orders, while 6,800-plus airframes are contained within pending orders, or the subject of letters of intent from potential operators.

The North America region – of which the US armed forces takes more than a 97% share in our report – retains the largest share of the total in-service fleet, with almost 14,100 aircraft. As with previous versions, Washington’s military machine also comfortably tops the tables in terms of volume share in all six of our equipment categories. However, the Asia-Pacific nations are slowly closing the gap, with their combined fleets lagging the USA’s fleet total by only about 800 units.

While budget pressures continue to be felt by many nations, the global in-service fleet has remained steady over the last 12 months, with a net decrease of only around 75 airframes against the figure reported in our previous directory. However, as illustrated by our global fleet share graphic, regional strengths have fluctuated notably within the same timeframe. Overall growth has been seen in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and North America regions, as well as within the Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States grouping.

By contrast, slight reductions have occurred in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Retirements in Europe included the German air force’s McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom interceptors, Spain’s Dassault Mirage F1s and two of the UK’s air transport stalwarts: the Lockheed C-130K and Vickers VC10.

The effects of internal conflict have contributed significantly to the Middle East’s reported 7% contraction within the year, with Syria’s air force inventory estimated as having been reduced from 715 units to 473. Our data also records a net reduction in Egypt, which continued to experience instability in 2013, including the military ouster of its elected president Mohamed Morsi. Cairo’s drop can, however, be largely attributed to the recorded removal from use of its long-obsolete fleets of a combined 105 Chinese-built Shenyang F-6 and Chengdu F-7 fighters.

A related factor which could see the regional orders total pick up involves Israel, which has called various air force assets and unmanned air vehicles into action to monitor the movement of militants in Egypt’s Sinai region. The service has also intervened to strike suspected weapons transfer activity being conducted within Syria’s borders, while officials have expressed concern over improved relations between the US and Iranian governments. Already on contract to field a first batch of Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Israel could seek to obtain more of the type as a security measure against Tehran. With a first Lockheed C-130J tactical transport now supporting crew training in the USA, its air force also looks set to become the first international operator of the Bell Boeing V-22, with US defense secretary Chuck Hagel having pledged to “expedite” a deal for six of the tiltrotors.

Meanwhile, a 5% year-on-year increase in the Asia-Pacific fleet can be attributed in part to India’s major and ongoing armed forces investment. This has seen its air force start flying the C-17 and introduce an initial 20 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II basic trainers during the course of 2013, while the Indian navy has also introduced its first three Boeing 737-based P-8I maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Indonesia, meanwhile, introduced two new types, with the Grob Aircraft G120TP and Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 having been delivered during September. The latter company’s Surion utility helicopter has also entered service in South Korea.

China’s growing capabilities have also been shown, through the flight debut of its Xian Y-20 strategic transport, and by a broadened range of aircraft carrier-based flight trials with its Shenyang J-15 fighter from the Liaoning.

The world’s largest military aerospace project, the Lockheed-led F-35, has enjoyed largely positive headlines this year. The short take-off and vertical landing variant made a successful test return to the deck of the amphibious assault ship the USS Wasp, after a brief early-year grounding. First firings of air-launched weapons were also performed, while fresh order and selection commitments were made. However, South Korea’s November decision to buy between 40 and 60 A-model examples for its F-X III requirement must be balanced against a reduced pledge by the Netherlands, which slashed its expected requirement from around 85 jets to just 37.

Europe’s four-nation Eurofighter consortium started 2013 with a contract to produce 12 Typhoons for Oman, while partner company BAE Systems also resumed deliveries to Saudi Arabia, which now has 32 of its 72 on-order examples in use. The programme’s first Tranche 3 production aircraft was flown in early December, ahead of its near-term delivery to the UK Royal Air Force.

Deliveries of Airbus Military’s A400M have also begun, with two examples in the hands of the French air force and Turkey due to receive its lead aircraft before year-end. Germany and the UK will follow suit during 2014. However, budget worries have seen Spain indicate that it will only be able to support 14 of the 27 aircraft it has on order, meaning future discussions may have to seek an agreeable way of some delivery slots potentially being marketed to export customers.

Similar contractual difficulties have already been addressed by France and Germany in the rotorcraft sector, with the nations having reached an agreement with NH Industries and Eurocopter to reduce their planned total purchases of the NH90 and Tiger.

Additional available data from Ascend not listed in this directory includes more than 650 aircraft recorded as being used for VIP transport tasks, plus others flown by air force affiliates as civilian transports.

Other aircraft employed in roles such as airborne calibration, research and development and target towing are also excluded, along with airframes involved in modernisation programmes or placed in storage.

Download your copy of the 2014 World Air Forces special report here

Source: Flight International