When one takes the United States Air Force (as well as the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps) out of consideration, who is the best air force out there? There are a number of potential contenders for this honor.
In Europe, one major competitor is the Royal Air Force. This is a highly modern force that will eventually boast a total of 242 Eurofighters, 142 Tornado GR.4, and 150 F-35 (which will be shared with the Royal Navy). The Royal Air Force will also have a mix of support aircraft, including the C-130 and C-17 transport planes, the VC-10 tanker, the Nimrod MRA.4 maritime reconnaissance plane, and the Sentry AEW.1. The Royal Air Force has operated along side the United States in Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and over the former Yugoslavia.
Another potent air force is Russias. The Russian air force has numbers on its side: 250 Backfire bombers, 350 Su-24 Fencers, 350 Su-27 Flankers, 370 MiG-31 Foxhounds, 255 MiG-29 Fulcrums, and 200 Su-25 Frogfoot are among the aircraft on hand. This is leavened with a large number of older aircraft, including 400 MiG-23 Flogger, 190 Su-17 Fitter, and 100 MiG-27 Flogger. This air force has some combat experience in Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Israel has a small, but very powerful air force. The backbone of the Israeli Air Force is the F-16 (90 F-16A, 20 F-16B, 52 F-16C, and 75 F-16D to be joined by 102 F-16I), but it also has large numbers of F-15s (25 F-15I, 11 F-15D, 17 F-15C, 8 F-15B, and 27 F-15A), Kfirs (110 C7), and A-4 Skyhawks (110). The Israeli Air Force has had a great deal of combat experience, and was the victor in the most one-sided aerial combat since 1980 (the 1982 Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot 80 Syrian aircraft were shot down with no Israeli losses). Israel also operates airborne early warning aircraft (a 707 with the Phalcon radar system) and tankers (modified 707s).
The Peoples Republic of China has a large air force, centered on 380 J-11/Su-27/Su-30MKK Flankers, 500 J-7 Fishbeds (equivalent to the MiG-19), 350 J-6 Farmers (equivalent to the MiG-19), 200 J-8 Finbacks, and 300 Q-5 Fantans. Aside from the Flankers, though, the aircraft are inferior to anything that could be fielded by potential opponents (Taiwan and India readily come to mind).
Indias air force is mostly modern (the backbone consists of 50 Su-30, 68 Mirage 2000, 63 MiG-29, and 125 MiG-21-93 fighters). This air force has also been known to train very hard (its MiG-21s have, in fact, been worked almost past the breaking point). It has served in several wars with Pakistan, the latest being in 1971. India is working on some indigenous designs, the LCA (intended to replace the MiG-21 and MiG-23s currently in service in 2008), and the MCA (planned to replace the Mirage 2000 and Jaguar starting in 2010).
Of these five air forces, which would be the one that could finish second to the United States? In this case, the answer is a close tie between the Royal Air Force and the Israeli Air Force. Both are relatively modern, and both have had combat experience in which they have given credible performances. Both also have superbly trained pilots, which is arguably what gives them the biggest edge over numerically superior air forces, like Russias. While neither of these forces is quite up to the level of the United States Air Force, both are forces one does not want to face off against. Harold C. Hutchison