Flight International's inaugural Military Aircraft Census reveals the make-up, breadth and scale of the world's airborne fighting fleets

Stewart Penney/LONDON

Flight International's first military aircraft census shows that the world's air arms operate nearly 90,000 aircraft. This figure includes VIP aircraft, essentially unmodified airliners or corporate jets which are not included in the tables. It does, however, give a feel for the size of the world's military aircraft fleet.

Leaving aside the Mikoyan MiG-19 and its Chinese copy, the Shenyang J/F-6, the Lockheed Martin F-16 is the world's most popular fighter with well over 4,000 aircraft delivered or on order. The MiG-19/J-6 is in service in massive numbers with the Chinese air force with many believed to be unserviceable. As this skews the numbers, the fighter is omitted from consideration as the world's most popular fighter. The F-16 total includes every variant from early A/Bs to the Block 60 ordered by the United Arab Emirates last year. Lockheed Martin hopes the latter, along with Block 50-Plus sales, will keep its F-16 factory busy ahead of the Joint Strike Fighter's introduction, assuming the company is the winning bidder. Increasing numbers of companies are beginning to investigate upgrades for the F-16; Israel Air Industries (IAI) and Singapore Technologies Aerospace to name two. IAI is developing its Avionics Capabilities Enhancement upgrade as a modular system that it can be offered to users of F-16C/Ds and earlier (Block 30) C/Ds.

The F-16's popularity over the last 20 years has led to the retirement of many second and third generation fighters, such as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, McDonnell DouglasF-4 Phantom and Northrop F-5, although the latter two types still serve in significant numbers. Many companies also offer upgrades for the two fighters, although major F-4 users Germany, Greece, Japan and Turkey have sourced upgrades - which reduces the market's apparent size. Numerous operators of the more than 1,200 F-5s in service have yet to select a manufacturer - or even decide whether they will upgrade. Although some operators will elect to replace the F-5 with newer aircraft, others have acquired the aircraft secondhand.

Second only to the F-16 in sheer numbers is the venerable MiG-21 Fishbed, with well over 2,000 in service. Like its western contemporaries, the MiG-21 continues to be the focus of a number of upgrades offered by Eastern and Western companies. This market has not been as vibrant as was once forecast, probably because many operators are countries with limited resources to spend on defence. China's MiG-21-based Chengdu F-7 is also one of the world's most popular fighters, a status achieved by its role as the Chinese air force's mainstay.

The RSK MiG-29 Fulcrum has also become the focus for a number of companies' upgrade programmes. The fighter is one of few military aircraft to appear in all of the eight regions Flight International uses for this census.

Popular trainers

Aero Vodochody's range of advanced trainer/ light attack aircraft is by far the trainer line in most widespread use. The mainstay of Warsaw Pact training, the L-39 was also exported to many other countries. Although the basic design has evolved through the L-59 and L-139 to the L-159 (all are included under the L-39 figure), the basic model is still being delivered, albeit at the rate of one a year, to Bangladesh.

Potentially the training aircraft market is set to expand with a host of countries worldwide declaring a need for such aircraft. Such needs, however, often slip to the bottom of the pile and BAE Systems, for instance, announced earlier this year that lower than expected orders for the Hawk could lead to further job cuts. Asia Pacific, North Africa and the Middle East and Eastern Europe were expected to be fertile markets but all have been depressed. The former suffered a major downturn in the late 1990s, depressed oil prices have limited spending power within the Gulf and Eastern Europe continues to struggle with developing economies, despite more than 10 years having passed since the Berlin Wall fell.

A glance at the tanker/transport table neatly highlights why aerospace companies are so keen on winning the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin C-130X Avionics Modernisation Programme (AMP)and why such high interest is being generated by the USAF's ultimate plan to replace its Boeing KC-135 fleet. Until now most Hercules modernisations have been limited to one or two countries each. The C-130X AMP is expected to be selected by many other Hercules operators, some of which have already allocated funding for the upgrade.

The KC-135 tanker fleet could continue in operational service until 2040, although some are already 40 years old. A replacement is not expected to enter operational service until the mid years of the next decade - but the rewards for a company winning a contract to replace even half this tanker fleet would be substantial.

Armed helicopters

Although only nine types of combat helicopter are in service or have production orders, a large number of armed transport machines, such as the Mil Mi-8/17 Hip - and light rotorcraft, such as the Aerospatiale Gazelle - are in service. The world combat helicopter fleet is, however, dominated by the Mil Mi-24/25/35 Hind, a type which gained its reputation during the former Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, and in regional conflicts in Africa and Latin America. Some countries, mainly those with few resources and often insurgent elements, rely on the Mi-24 as their principal combat aircraft in place of fast jets. The Hind's ubiquity has led to the development of upgrade programmes with companies worldwide offering a range of improvements for the navigation system and often replacing the elderly Soviet era cannon with more modern equivalents. The largest programmes include IAI's upgrade of Indian air force Hinds, while South Africa's ATE is thought to be modifying Algerian Mi-24s.

Transport helicopter fleet numbers are dominated by the types that have been designed for the Cold War's two largest armies. The Soviet Union produced the Mi-8/17, which is still in production with over 3,200 in service with military operators, while the Bell 204/205/UH-1 and Sikorsky S-70/H-60 families were developed for the USA. Other significant types include the Aerospatiale Puma and the Eurocopter Super Puma/Cougar/EC725 family.

Commercial sale

The Bell machines and the Mi-8/17 have also benefited from large scale commercial sales, whereas the S-70, which was designed to a rigid military specification that included the need to be carried in transport aircraft with a minimum of disassembly, has not received commercial orders. The S-70, however, has provided the airframe for the successful SH-60 Seahawk family.

More aircraft are operated by NATO than the countries in any other of the eight regions used in this census. Importantly, however, the US armed services account for over half of NATO's aircraft. In the second largest region - Australasia, north & east Asia - again a single country, China, operates the vast majority of the aircraft. Unlike the USA, many Chinese aircraft are low quality being second and third generation warplanes with questionable serviceability levels, particularly for the Chengdu built versions of the MikoyanMiG-17 and MiG-19, the J-5 and J-6, respectively.

Widespread service

The F-16's position as the aircraft in most widespread service today is assured, its status unlikely to be surpassed in the foreseeable future. In May last year, the 4,000th F-16 was delivered, but this figure still lags behind two other aircraft in the top 10 combat aircraft fleets in terms of total aircraft built: the MiG-21 (10,000-plus) and the F-4 (5,000-plus). The continuation of these two types in service long after the production lines closed, suggests that even when the F-16 line closes towards the end of this decade, support work for the fighter will continue for some time. Replacing the F-16 and some of its contemporaries, such as the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet with the Joint Strike Fighter contract, is a prize for which it is worth fighting.


Lockheed Martin F-16


Mikoyan MiG-21 Fishbed/Mongol/Lancer


Boeing F/A-18 Hornet


RSK MiG-29 Fulcrum


Mikoyan MiG-23 Flogger


Northrop F-5A/B F-5E/F


Boeing F-15 Eagle


Sukhoi Su-27/30/33 Flanker


Chengdu J-7/F-7/Guizhou JJ-7/FT-7


McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom


*Around 3,360 Mikoyan MiG-19 Farmer/Shenyang J-6/F-6/JJ-6/FT-6/JZ-6s are in-service. The majority, 2,800, are in Chinese air force and navy service, although as with the rest of the world's MiG-19/J-6 fleet, serviceability is believed to be poor. Similarly, 1,730 Mikoyan MiG-17 Fresco/Shenyang J-5/F-5/JJ-5/FT-5 aircraft are not included in this list due to unconfirmed operational service.


Aero L-39/L-59 Albatros/L-159


Yakovlev Yak-11/Yak-18


Yakovlev Yak-52/Aerostar IAK-52


Pilatus PC-9/PC-9MkII/Raytheon T-6 Texan/Harvard




Northrop Grumman T-38 Talon


BAE Systems Hawk 50/60/100/200/Boeing T-45 Goshawk


Embraer EMB312 Tucano/Shorts Tucano/Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano


Beechcraft T-34A/B Mentor/T-34C Turbo Mentor


Aermacchi SF260/SF260TP/SF260W Warrior



Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules


Antonov An-2/Shiziazhuang Y-5 Colt


Boeing C/KC/EC/RC/WC/OC-135


Il-76/78 Candid/Beriev A-50 Mainstay


Antonov An-26/Xian Y-7H Curl


Airbus Military Company A400M


CASA C212 Aviocar/IPTN NC212


Let-410 Turbolet/L-610


Lockheed Martin C-141 Starlifter


Antonov An-32 Cline


*Includes gunships and special missions aircraft in USAF service **Around 550 are USAF tankers


Mil Mi-24/25/35 Hind


Boeing AH-64A/D Apache


Bell AH-1


Eurocopter Tiger


Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior/406 Combat Scout


Agusta A129 Mangusta


Kawasaki OH-1


Denel CSH-1 Roivalk


Kamov Ka-50/52 Hokum


Source: Flight International