World events do not tend to follow such ­established military plans, however, and the end of the conflict with the Taliban has ­instead overlapped with a resurgence of ­violence and renewed coalition involvement in the Middle East.

Led by the USA, a large number of nations are now involved in a campaign intended to degrade the fighting capacity and also target the leadership of the Islamic State militant movement. Launched by Washington in late September, the ongoing action in Iraq has been ­expanded to include air strikes by ­combat aircraft from Australia, Belgium, ­Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the UK, while Iranian McDonnell ­Douglas F-4 Phantoms are reported to have been separately involved.

In Syria, the USA has been supported by its Gulf allies in conducting strikes on Islamic State targets, with aircraft from Bahrain, ­Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates having been involved to date.

This widespread coalition – which also ­involves other nations not participating in ­direct combat – is a continuation of the ­alliance formed by many involved in the ­Afghanistan mission, plus others that had supported the NATO-directed campaign to protect Libyan civilians in 2011.

In hardware terms, the allied intervention has provided an opportunity for the US Air Force to perform its first offensive acts using the Lockheed Martin F-22, with Raptors ­involved as the activity intensified against threats inside Syria. Having already been involved in performing air drops of humanitarian ­supplies in northern Iraq, the Royal ­Australian Air Force sent a detachment of Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets to conduct strikes from Al Minhad air base in the UAE. Support is provided by lone examples of the service’s Airbus A330/KC-30A tanker and Boeing 737-based E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, with both making their operational debuts.

Australia’s involvement capitalises on its recent training experience during a Pitch Black-series exercise, in which it hosted multiple aircraft from Singapore, Thailand, the UAE and the USA. It also illustrates a ­commitment to deploy its forces over a strategic range – a capability that looks set to be strengthened through its planned addition of between two and four more Boeing C-17 transports to its existing six-aircraft fleet.

Russia Tu-95

Russia’s activities with its Tu-95 bombers have tested the response of NATO allies

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For the UK, the battle with the Islamic State movement has provided a new operating arena for some of the Royal Air Force’s ­remotely-piloted General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reapers, and also prompted a rethink on the planned run-down of its versatile Panavia Tornado GR4 strike and r­econnaissance fleet.

Beyond the situation inside Iraq and Syria, 2014 saw another bloody conflict erupt in the same region, with Israel engaging Hamas militants inside Gaza from the air, and also later with ground forces. Starting in early July, the Protective Edge operation was mounted in response to rockets being fired into Israel and resulted in hundreds of missions being flown. Heightened border tensions also saw Israel shoot down a Syrian unmanned air vehicle and one of its Sukhoi Su-24 strike aircraft, which it says had entered its airspace.

The high financial cost of Israel’s latest engagement in Gaza has put pressure on its national budget, and drawn internal opposition to major planned aircraft acquisitions. A proposed follow-on deal that was to increase its future fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35As from 19 to 44 aircraft has been reduced by 11 ­aircraft, while its air force’s aspiration to introduce six Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotors has been blocked entirely so far.

In Europe, fears of a new Cold War situation took hold, after first rhetoric and then sanctions followed Moscow’s support for pro-Russian militants in Ukraine and then over its annexation of the nation’s Crimea region. The conflict has taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian forces, with multiple aircraft having been shot down or destroyed on the ground. Our records show that its military inventory has been slashed from 400 active aircraft to just 222 within the 12 month directory period.

The unrest in Ukraine also gained global exposure in July, when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down over the east of the country. Investigations continue, but the use of a surface-to-air missile operated by pro-Russian separatists is suspected to have caused the Boeing 777-200ER to disintegrate while flying at 33,000ft, killing 298 people.

Russia’s muscle-flexing also has involved an increased frequency of long-range flights with assets including Tupolev Tu-95 and ­Tu-160 bombers, which continue to test the response of NATO allies. Increased numbers of coalition aircraft have been positioned at Siauliai air base in Lithuania to sustain the long-running Baltic Air Policing mission, with others located at Amari air base in ­Estonia. An increased presence has also been made in Poland and Romania.

Listing the military equipment inventories of 160 nations, this year’s World Air Forces directory includes information on almost 52,000 aircraft recorded as being in active ­service. This represents a reduction of 459 ­aircraft – or roughly 0.9% – from the total reported in our 2014 directory. The bulk of the change can be attributed to improved data on Russian-produced aircraft, and the attrition encountered in Ukraine.

Ongoing fleet renewals also led to some notable retirements, including that of the French air force’s final Dassault Mirage F1s. The act leaves just 32 combat examples and four trainers as operational in Gabon, Iran, Libya and Morocco. Oman also during 2014 ceased operations with the Sepecat Jaguar, leaving India as the lone user. The Greek air force and UK Royal Air Force respectively bid ­farewell to the last Vought A-7 Corsair fighters and Lockheed TriStar tanker/transports in military service.

As well as detailing in-service fleets, our directory also includes information on a ­further 5,200-plus aircraft on firm order and another roughly 7,500 that are the subject of pending deals or letters of intent.

The directory shows that the US armed ­services account for 27% of the global active fleet, with some 13,900 aircraft in use. They also top each of our six listed equipment ­categories, with an overall 19% stake in the global combat aircraft category rising to 30% for combat helicopters and 78% of the ­operational tanker fleet.

But despite its numerical dominance – the USA has four times as many aircraft as ­second-ranked Russia, and more than the second- to eighth-ranked nations combined – ageing aircraft issues have led to some of its air force’s Lockheed F-16D trainers being temporarily grounded pending structural ­repairs. The threat of further budget cuts via sequestration will also force difficult fleet ­decisions. The USAF still plans to retire its Fairchild Republic A-10 ground-attack aircraft, while the US Army is advancing plans to halt operations with its single-engined helicopter fleet and instead start using its Boeing AH-64D/E Apaches in the armed scout role.

Despite lingering flight envelope restrictions imposed following an engine fire which badly damaged an A-model aircraft on the ground earlier in the year, the F-35 programme received a subsequent boost, with the confirmation of a $4.7 billion, eighth low-rate initial production deal to produce 43 of the aircraft; with a related engine package yet to be finalised. The USA succeeded in getting orders from three of its partner nations – Italy, Norway and the UK – as part of the contract, plus from export customers Israel and Japan.

The US Marine Corps was unable to make a planned debut transatlantic deployment with the F-35B to attend a pair of air shows in the UK in July, but did successfully embark the type on the amphibious assault ship the USS Wasp for a second series of trials, as it ­advances towards planned initial operational capability in late 2015.

The US Navy, meanwhile, made a historic first carrier deployment to the USS Nimitz with a pair of F-35Cs.

Overall, the North American region saw a 2% decline in active fleet size over the year.

In Latin America, this was magnified to a reverse of 5%, or almost 180 aircraft. In a boost, Embraer received a launch production order from the Brazilian air force for 28 ­KC-390 transport and tanker aircraft, the first prototype example of which was rolled out in late October. The same nation also has ­confirmed plans to buy an initial 36 Saab Gripen E/Fs. Under the service’s plans, its total future order could be for 108 of the Swedish-designed aircraft.

The total active fleet in Europe has ­declined by 5%, or 400 aircraft in our listing, largely due to the removal of obsolete fighter types and revised data. Saab’s Brazilian success followed disappointment in Switzerland, where a tight public referendum during May saw 52% of respondents vote against the procurement of 22 Gripen Es.

The UK provided a glimpse of its future maritime revival, by naming the first of two future Royal Navy aircraft carriers the HMS Queen Elizabeth, and committing itself to buying the first 14 F-35Bs which will operate from its deck and land bases.

Russia and the Commonwealth of ­Independent States moved the other way, with a 6% increase, to almost 4,300 aircraft. The annual increase is largely the result of ­updated rotorcraft data within Flightglobal’s Ascend Fleets and MiliCAS databases.

African militaries have encountered an overall 1% reduction in fleet size, but South Africa’s Paramount Group has raised hopes of future sales by showcasing its low-cost AHRLAC design.

In the Middle East, an intense contest ­between the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon led to a victory for neither, as the UAE instead opted to request an additional batch of F-16Es from Washington, in an ­enhanced Block 61 configuration. Other anticipated fighter deals in Bahrain and Qatar have so far yet to advance to a selection stage, but the overall trend – up 1% this time – is of continued growth in the region.

The Asia Pacific region saw an annual 1% climb, to more than a combined 13,600 combat, special mission, tanker, transport aircraft, combat helicopters and trainers; barely 250 behind the USA. One of the highlights of 2014 was the debut appearance at November’s Airshow China event in Zhuhai of the Shenyang J-31: a claimed stealth fighter which bears a strong visual resemblance to the F-35.

Additional data from Ascend not listed in this directory includes information on more than 650 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters which are recorded as being used for VIP transport tasks, plus others which are flown by air force affiliates as civilian transports.

Other aircraft, including some employed as airborne calibration, research and development and target towing assets are also excluded, as are those airframes involved in modernisation programmes or placed in storage.

Source: Flight International