• search-icon

The 10 Worst Air Forces in the World in 2018

These air forces are more Airplane than Top Gun.

When it comes to things like air superiority, if you don't have to think about it, you're probably winning. The ground pounders in the Armed Forces of the United States have it pretty good in that regard. They can be reasonably sure that if they're going into a combat situation, death will likely not be coming from above.

The Army and Marine Corps know they can count on airmen to have the best food and the worst PT tests, but as long as those airmen can lift bombs and bullets onto aircraft and get the stuff to the fight, everyone is blessed from on high. Everyone allied with the United States, that is.

But what happens to ground troops who can't depend on US airpower to ensure "death from above" isn't the last thing they hear? There are countries whose armed forces have to deal with things like that. Some countries go to war and send in ground forces without really thinking about an air force. If air power isn't a priority, going to war in the 21st century is a terrible idea.

We're not here to make fun of countries who don't have an air force, especially if they aren't going around rattling sabers all the time. You never hear about Costa Rica wanting to invade Belize for their strategic scuba gear caches. No, Costa Rica is too busy getting rich from Americans on yoga trips to worry about things like war. Meanwhile, Iran is constantly talking smack to Israel while rolling around in F-14 Tomcats that Israel can see from the runways where their F-35s take off.

But just because something is a little old doesn't mean it doesn't have its uses. If it works and the country can maintain its effectiveness, then why get rid of it? If a country has antiquated equipment but is still rocking it after all these years, we won't take points off. Some things are just timeless.

The reason a country's air force makes the list is because they're patched together with bubble gum and wishes and expected to fight a war with awful training, no funding, and little regard from the government for the lives of the people expected to keep their terrible air forces flying.

10. Canada

WATM
  • A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet gives a shrug as it parks on the flight line at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

  • Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Chase Cannon

It's still hard to see such a stalwart U.S. ally make the list, but here we are. In our last rundown of the world's airborne worst, Canada was the least worst of those listed. Last time, we specifically mentioned how terrible the state of Canada's Ch-124 Sea King fleet was. Just to get them airborne required something like 100 hours apiece.

Replacing them was just as laborious; it took more than 20 years of political wrangling to get to a point where they could first fly its replacement, the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone. But the helicopter fun doesn't stop there. The bulk of the Royal Canadian Air Force's helicopter fleet is flying the Bell CH-146 Griffon, a bird known to cause constant, debilitating neck pain in most of the pilots who fly it.

Canada never learned from its own cautionary tale – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed the F/A-18 Super Hornet for Canada's next-gen Strike Fighter to replace the aging CF-18s ordered by his father in the 1970s while the rest of its Western Allies are upgrading to the F-35.

9. China

WATM
  • Can you see this stealth fighter? So can everyone else's radar.

  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

Yeah, I know most of you are calling bullsh*t immediately, but hear me out. For all its talk, China isn't currently capable of global reach, and isn't expected to be until 2030. It has a relatively small number of early-warning aircraft and aerial tankers. Most of its aerial fleet are licenses or rip-offs of other, better fighting systems. And the vaunted Chinese Chengdu J-20 fighter was rushed into production with a less-than-adequate engine, which negates any stealth capabilities it has and weakens its performance as a fifth-gen fighter.

That's a pretty embarrassing misstep for an air force that wants to strike fear in the hearts of the world's second-largest air force: the U.S. Navy.

More than that, when was the last time China did anything with its air force other than attempt to intimidate weaker neighbors in the South China Sea? Historically, the People's Liberation Army Air Force has a tendency to get in way over its head. It wasn't a real factor in the Chinese wars with India and Vietnam (though you'd think an air force in the 20th century would be), but where it was a factor – the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait Crises, and the U.S.-Vietnam War – a lack of any air combat doctrine and investment in air power led to heavy losses and big lessons for the PLAAF.

It wasn't until after the Gulf War of 1991 that Chinese leaders decided to really give air power another shot, both in terms of technology and investment. China still has a long way to go.

8. Greece

WATM
  • Greece, full of historical artifacts – like its air force.

  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

There are a lot of training accidents in the Hellenic Air Force. After a Greek Mirage 2000 crashed into the Aegean Sea April 2018, a look back at the incidents reported to Greek officials found 125 people died in 81 crashes between 1990 and 2018. Two of those were Greek fighter pilots trying to intercept Turkish jets.

Since the Greek government debt crisis, the Greek military has to be incredibly cautious with the money it spends. Every time a Greek fighter has to scramble to intercept a Turkish fighter in their airspace, it bleeds Greece of Euros better spent elsewhere. That might be why Turkey does it more than a thousand times every year – and there's nothing the Greeks can do about it except go up and meet them with antiquated equipment due to the steep budget cuts demanded by Greece's creditors.

Turkey will soon be flying F-35s like most NATO allies, while Greece (also a NATO ally, but Turkey doesn't care) will be "intercepting" them with F-16s at best, and maybe an F-4 Phantom at worst.

7. Iran

WATM
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not sitting in a museum piece, but an actual Iranian Air Force F5F fighter, first build in the 60s and still used in Iran.

  • Photo Credit: FARS News Agency

The F-14s flown by Iran these days were first introduced under President Richard Nixon. Don't get me wrong, Iran's air force should be given props (see what I did there?) for keeping the aging fleet airborne. Iran's F-14s were purchased by the Shah or Iran and, when he was overthrown, the U.S. wasn't exactly keen on providing spare parts to the Islamic Republic. They were able to kick ass against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi air force in the Iran-Iraq War, but that was then and this is now.

Those things are held together with duct tape and wishes by now, with only seven operational Iranian Air Force F-14s. The Islamic Republic now has to use homegrown technology to replace certain avionics systems and weapons on its aging aircraft, even going to far as to claim an old American F-5F was an Iranian-built fourth-gen fighter in 2018 because it had a lot of Iranian-built components.

In fact, Iran is just using F-5s as a blueprint to Frankenstein "new" fighters from its old garbage – most of which is leftover from the Shah or was captured from the Iraqis. Even the IRIAF's ejection seats can't save its pilots.

6. Ukraine

WATM
  • This Ukrainian Su-25 isn't landing... at least, not on purpose.

  • Photo Credit: The Aviationist

Ukraine has a definite Russia problem. Not content to simply let his divorce with Ukraine happen, Russia's Vladimir Putin is out to give Ukraine headaches wherever possible and Ukraine can do little about it. Russia-backed separatists operate with near-impunity in Ukraine's eastern Donbass region and, when the Ukrainian Air Force is able to act, they often either kill civilians or get shot down on the way.

Its aircraft go down without enemy help, as seen in the 2018 Su-27 crash in Western Ukraine that killed Lt. Col. Seth 'Jethro' Nehring of the California Air National Guard. The Flanker went down as the pilot was familiarizing the American with its capabilities. In fact, other Su-27s have crashed, including one at an air show that killed 83 people. The National Interest said these crashes are either a result of poor maintenance, poor training, and/or daredevil flying. The truth is probably a combination of the three.

To top it all off, Ukraine's air force is so old it was mostly handed down from the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism in the east. The old airframes are no match for the advanced surface-to-air missile being fired at them from the separatists. When Russia captured 45 planes from Ukraine's Su-29 fleet in annexing Crimea, they probably did Ukraine a huge favor.

5. Pakistan

WATM
  • PAF: Caveat emptor.

  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

On any global list of sh*t-talkers, Pakistan has historically rated very high, especially toward its longtime arch-nemesis, India (although new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan seems more conciliatory). The Pakistanis see India as an existential threat, and are not likely to stop anytime soon.

So, after fighting four pitched wars against India and losing all of them, prioritizing air power would seem to be the way forward if Pakistan was still going to rattle the saber every so often. RAND Corporation studies still declare that the Indian Air Force would have air supremacy in any war against Pakistan. Only very recently has Pakistan decided it would be best to upgrade their fighter aircraft. So, in a joint venture with China, they created a bargain-basement version of the F-16, the JF-17 Thunder, which now makes up the bulk of the PAF.

To give you an idea of how (in)effective the Thunder is, China doesn't fly it. Neither does anyone else. Immediately dubbed the "Junk Fighter-17 Blunder," the aircraft is dangerous to fly at lower speeds, it can't fly as fast as older Pakistani airframes (and certainly not as fast as India's fighters), and it can't use similar avionics and munitions as its other fighters, which was one of the missions in creating the fighter in the first place. If all they wanted to do was replace their old fleet, then mission accomplished. If they wanted to beat India in an air war, well, it doesn't look good, but it remains to be tested.

Aside from the JF-17, the PAF lags behind India in terms of both numbers of combat aircraft and the actual serviceable aircraft fielded at any given moment. It also lags behind its rival in terms of training and ability. Even when facing superior Pakistani firepower, skilled Indian pilots still manage to best the Pakistanis.

It's a good thing the two countries face a nuclear detente.

4. Mexico

WATM
  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

Mexico has been fighting a war against the cartels for over a decade now, and all it got them was an increase in violence that made them the "Syria of North America." In all that time, not only did the Mexican government decide not to invest in its air forces, it actively allowed all of its fighter aircraft to retire. Mexico has zero fighters.

While fighter aircraft aren't necessary as a deterrent for aggressive neighbors, the cartels the country is actively fighting regularly uses aircraft to violate Mexican airspace and move illegal substances that fund the ongoing fight against the Mexican government and rival cartels. The aircraft the FAM does fly cannot fly high or fast enough to intercept aircraft used by drug smugglers and their leadership.

The Mexican Air Force has gone full Afghanistan with its fleet, focusing on drones, light attack aircraft, and troop transports. This is particularly bothersome to its northern neighbors, especially the United States, who considers the defense of the hemisphere a multilateral issue. Without Mexican air power, the U.S. may have a soft underbelly. Moreover, the Mexican Air Force is not a separate entity from the Army and the Air Force commander is tucked away in some headquarters building somewhere, giving air power guidance to no one.

As far as external threats go, an Army War College study says that the Mexican Armed Forces, including the Air Force, are incapable of defending Mexico from an external threat.

3. Saudi Arabia

WATM
  • The Royal Saudi Air Force: Missing more targets before 9am than most air forces do all day.

  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

Despite being at war in Afghanistan for over 17 years, the one thing the United States can be sure of is the superiority of its Air Force. In a prolonged conflict, a good Air Force positions its resources so that it has positive control over that battlespace. When Saudi Arabia fights a prolonged war, not so much. Welcome to 2019, where the Saudi-lead coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen is about ready to begin another year of abject failure.

Not only has the Saudi coalition turned Yemen into an ongoing humanitarian crisis, no amount of foreign training is making the situation any better. Moreover, it's just making the United States look bad. The U.S. Congress may soon vote over whether or not American participation in the conflict can continue after the Saudis used an American-made bomb to hit a school bus of civilian children in Yemen, killing 40.

That's not even the first incident of indiscriminate killing of civilians. In October, 2016, Saudi warplanes hit a civilian funeral in an attack that killed 155 Yemenis. The problem with the Royal Saudi Air Force isn't that their planes are antiquated, the problem is their choice of "military" targets.

Get your sh*t together, Saudi Arabia.

2. North Korea

WATM
  • North Korean MiG, complete with glorious people's revolutionary crocheted ejection seat cover.

  • Photo Credit: KCNA

Of course North Korea is going to be near the top of the list. The only reason the DPRK is not at the very top is because it's not actively trying to fight a war right now. Usually Kim Jong-Un is talking some kind of smack about invading the South or nuking America, but, in 2018, he mostly just got praise for not doing all that stuff.

But Kim still holds on to power with use of the North Korean military. While the Korean People's Army isn't exactly considered a formidable fighting force, the tactic of holding hundreds of artillery guns to South Korea's head works for him. Of all the things Kim Jong-Un has done to the South, using his Air Force is not one of them.

The reason for this is probably because his air force is still relatively similar to the ones used by his grandfather Kim Il-Sung and the Chinese People's Liberation Army against UN forces in the last full-scale war fought on the Korean Peninsula – the 1950-1953 Korean War. As a result, the North Korean air force is widely acknowledged as the least threatening arm of the North Korean military.

I imagine that the purpose of the North Korean Air Force is to take the brunt of any initial counterattack from U.S. and allied air forces in the event of a war. Sure, it's a large air force, but it won't last long in a war.

1. Syria

WATM
  • Syrian MiGs doing what they do best.

  • Photo Credit: We Are The Mighty

It's a really good thing the Syrians are being backed up in the air by Russians because, if they didn't, the Syrian Civil War would last a lot longer than it already has. Almost every other power present in the region violates Syrian sovereignty on a near-daily basis. Israel, Turkey, and even Denmark have entered Syrian airspace, with Israel and Turkey both scoring air-to-air kills against Syrian Sukhoi fighters old enough to have fought against the U.S. in Vietnam.

It's also not great to be an airman in the Syrian Air Force. Besides getting shot down by everyone (including a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet), Syrian fighter pilots face advanced surface-to-air missiles their airframes are not prepared to evade, they accidentally veer into neighboring countries (even getting shot down in Israeli airspace), and were the first target of President Trump's retaliatory strike for the Syrian military's use of chemical weapons.

Within 16 months of the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, a Syrian Air Force pilot flew his MiG-21 to Jordan, where he defected. The only surprise is that there aren't more SAF defectors – as of 2015, Syrian pilots have spent as many as 100 days behind the sticks of their aircraft. At one point, security in Syria's air force was so bad, they had to move their fighters within Iran's borders so they wouldn't be targets for other, better air forces.

Published on 06 Feb 2019

scroll up