The U.S. Air Force stands at the forefront of global military power, wielding an unparalleled arsenal of cutting-edge aircraft. The U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory forms the backbone of its capabilities, enabling the Air Force to defend national and international interests and ensure air superiority in any conflict.
In this article, we’ll discuss the United States Air Force aircraft inventory in detail. Specifically, we’ll look at:
- The major aircraft categories of the U.S. Air Force
- The current inventory of U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber aircraft
- The various cargo and transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory
- The U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory of ISR aircraft
- The total USAF aircraft inventory
- The U.S. Air Force aircraft sustainment and Greenwood Aerospace
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What Are the Major Aircraft Categories of the U.S. Air Force?
The U.S. Air Force encompasses a wide array of aircraft, each designed to fulfill specific roles and contribute to the Air Force's mission. These aircraft can be categorized into several major categories:
- Fighter aircraft
- Bomber aircraft
- Cargo and transport aircraft
- Reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft
- Trainer aircraft
Let's explore each category, their roles, and some notable examples of aircraft within them.
Fighter aircraft form the sharp edge of the U.S. Air Force's combat capabilities. These agile and highly maneuverable planes are designed to engage enemy aircraft and establish air superiority. The main roles of fighter aircraft within the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory are:
- Engaging and neutralizing enemy air threats
- Conducting air-to-air combat missions
- Providing close air support (CAS)
The most common fighter aircraft in the United States military aircraft inventory is the F-16 Fighting Falcon, with around 775 of these aircraft currently in service with the USAF.
Unlike fighter aircraft, which are small, agile, and maneuverable, bomber aircraft feature larger airframes, longer wingspans, and strategic stealth capabilities. Bombers can carry a substantial amount of ordnance and are equipped with high-tech navigation systems and sophisticated targeting sensors. Primarily, bomber aircraft:
- Conduct long-range, precision strikes on enemy targets
- Deploy air-launched cruise missiles
- Drop air-to-ground weaponry behind enemy lines
- Launch torpedoes
Bombers were used heavily throughout the First World War and Second World War by all major air forces, but strategic heavy bombers today are only really operated by the USAF, Russia, and China. Many other countries have transitioned away from traditional bombers to instead favor multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) for their versatility.
The most prevalent bomber in the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory today is the iconic B-52 Stratofortress, designed and built by Boeing, and first introduced to the USAF aircraft inventory in the 1950s.
Cargo and Transport Aircraft
Cargo and transport aircraft, or strategic airlifters, are the workhorses of the U.S. military aircraft inventory, responsible for priority air transport missions, including rapid mobility, resupply, and deployment of personnel, equipment, and supplies. The main roles of cargo and transport aircraft include:
- Enabling airlift operations
- Facilitating humanitarian missions
- Troop transport
- Aerial refueling
One example of a strategic airlifter is the C-17 Globemaster III, which was added to the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory in the 1990s. This craft has exceptional cargo capacity, capable of performing both intercontinental and tactical airlift missions.
Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Aircraft
An intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft is just about any aircraft retrofitted to carry a suite of electronics suited for its particular mission. These include monitoring and intercepting communications, jamming communications, and even acting as a relay or gateway for allied communications.
An ISR aircraft may:
- Gather and analyze visual, electronic, and signals intelligence
- Conduct surveillance
- Monitor enemy activities
- Provide critical situational awareness
The USAF total aircraft inventory contains several different manned fixed-wing ISR aircraft, including the U-2 Dragon Lady, A high-altitude, all-weather reconnaissance aircraft famous for its intelligence-gathering capabilities, especially in denied-access environments.
Trainer aircraft play a crucial role in the U.S. Air Force by preparing pilots for the challenges they will face in operational aircraft. These specialized planes are designed with unique features to facilitate a training environment, which may include:
- Tandem flight controls
- Forgiving flight characteristics
- A simplified cockpit arrangement
One example of a USAF trainer aircraft is the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, which replaced the Cessna T-37B Tweet in the early 2000s. The T-6 Texan II, a tandem-seat turboprop aircraft, is the primary trainer aircraft used by the U.S. Air Force for initial flight screening and basic flight training.
U.S. Air Force Inventory: Fighter Aircraft
Fighter aircraft possess a range of performance features that extend beyond their firepower, encompassing elements such as exceptional speed and maneuverability. As well as their primary focus on air-to-air combat, many contemporary fighter aircraft have acquired secondary capabilities, such as engaging ground targets.
Some specific variants, such as fighter-bombers, are purposefully designed to excel in dual roles from their inception. Moreover, certain fighter designs exhibit remarkable specialization while still fulfilling the crucial air superiority role. Examples of such specialized configurations include interceptors, heavy fighters, and night fighters.
The most common fighter aircraft in the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory are:
- F-16 Fighting Falcon
- F-15 Eagle
- F-35 Lightning II
Other USAF fighter aircraft include the F-22 Raptor, A-10C Thunderbolt II, and the AC-130W Stinger II.
F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, originally developed by General Dynamics for the United States Air Force, stands as an iconic American single-engine supersonic multirole fighter aircraft. Initially conceived as an air superiority day fighter, it swiftly transformed into a highly successful all-weather multirole platform. Since receiving production approval in 1976, over 4,600 F-16s have been manufactured.
While the U.S. Air Force no longer acquires new units, enhanced versions continue to be constructed for USAF foreign sales to international customers. The F-16 has been procured by the air forces of 25 other nations and by 2015, it held the distinction of being the world's most prevalent fixed-wing military aircraft in service.
Initially, the F-16 was slated to remain in active service with the U.S. Air Force until 2025, with the F-35A being the planned replacement. However, due to delays in the F-35 program, all U.S. Air Force F-16s are undergoing service life extension upgrades. In 2022, it was announced that the U.S. Air Force plans to continue operating the F-16 for an additional two decades.
The U.S. Air Force operates both the F-15 Eagle and the F-15E Strike Eagle. F-15 Eagle is primarily an air superiority fighter, focusing on aerial combat capabilities, while the F-15 Strike Eagle is a multirole aircraft, combining air-to-air superiority with significant ground attack capabilities. The Strike Eagle's enhanced avionics, sensors, and versatile weapon loadout make it a potent force in both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat scenarios.
First introduced into the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory in the 1970s, the USAF intended to replace its F-15 fleet with the F-22 in the 2010s. However, due to significant reductions in F-22 procurement, the USAF had to extend the service life of the F-15s, continuing their operation into the 2020s. As for the F-15E Strike Eagle, it is expected to remain in service with the USAF through the 2030s.
F-35 Lightning II
This newer single-engine, all-weather, multirole combat aircraft first joined the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory in 2016. As part of a long-term procurement strategy, the U.S. plans to acquire almost 2,500 F-35s by 2044. This extensive fleet will constitute a significant portion of the crewed tactical aviation assets for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps over the coming decades.
The F-35 program anticipates a continuous cycle of upgrades throughout its operational lifespan. One such initiative, known as Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2), commenced in 2019 and is scheduled to continue until 2024. Aviation logistics and priorities of the C2D2 framework include:
- The integration of additional weaponry
- Refreshing and updating the avionics
- Enhancing electronic support measures (ESM) capabilities
- Incorporating support for the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER)
Additionally, the F-35 Adaptive Engine Replacement (FAER) program was initiated in 2022, with the objective of integrating replacement engine parts and adaptive cycle engines into the aircraft by 2028.
U.S. Air Force Aircraft Inventory: Bomber Aircraft
Unlike the U.S. Army’s aviation unit, Bomber aircraft form a critical component of the U.S. Air Force's strategic capabilities, delivering devastating firepower and projecting power across vast distances. Three prominent bomber aircraft within the U.S. Air Force inventory include:
- B-1B Lancer
- B-2 Spirit
- B-52 Stratofortress.
These aircraft are designed to conduct precision strikes on ground targets, provide strategic deterrence, and support a range of missions.
The Rockwell B-1B Lancer is a supersonic variable-sweep wing bomber, renowned for its long-range capabilities and versatility. The inception of the B-1 can be traced back to the 1960s when the concept emerged to create an aircraft that would integrate the high speed of the B-58 Hustler with the exceptional range and payload capacity of the B-52. Rockwell International (now a part of Boeing) emerged as the victor in the design competition, leading to the development of what would become the B-1A.
The B-1B has played a significant role in supporting U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, plans are in motion for the B-1B to be gradually replaced by the upcoming Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider starting in 2025. The retirement of all B-1 aircraft is projected to be completed by 2036.
Produced throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the B-2 Spirit is a stealth bomber designed for penetrating advanced enemy air defenses and conducting precision strikes on high-value targets. It possesses long-range capabilities and the ability to carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.
Despite an initial order for 132 stealth bombers, only 21 B-2 Spirit aircraft were ever built, with development difficulties causing delays and increasing the cost of production. Each aircraft cost a staggering $2.13 billion for development, military aircraft parts, engineering, testing, production, and procurement. The USAF plans to operate the remaining B-2 Spirits until they are replaced by the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider in 2032.
The B-52 Stratofortress, an enduring symbol of American military aviation, is a long-range, heavy bomber with a remarkable service history. Designed and built by Boeing, the B-52 has been part of the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory since the 1950s. It can hold up to 70,000 pounds of weapons and has an average combat range of around 8,800 miles without aerial refueling. After undergoing aircraft part upgrades from 2013 to 2015, the last B-52s are expected to serve into the 2050s.
Air Force Aircraft Inventory: Cargo and Transport Aircraft
Cargo and transport aircraft enable the rapid movement of personnel, equipment, and supplies around the world. Three common cargo and transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory include:
- C-130 Hercules
- C-17 Globemaster III
- C-5M Super Galaxy
These versatile aircraft provide crucial airlift capabilities, supporting a wide range of military operations.
The C-130 Hercules serves as a tactical transport aircraft, capable of delivering cargo and personnel to remote locations. It can also perform a variety of mission types, including:
- Aerial refueling
- Search and rescue
- Airborne firefighting
- Scientific research support
- Weather reconnaissance
The C-130 now acts as the primarily tactical airlifter for many military forces across the world.
Since its introduction to the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory in 1956, the Hercules has played a pivotal role in a multitude of military, civilian, and humanitarian aid missions. With over 60 years of production, the C-130 holds the distinction of being the longest continuously manufactured military aircraft. The Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, an updated variant, has recently come into production, ensuring the continued evolution of this enduring and versatile transport aircraft.
C-17 Globemaster III
The C-17 Globemaster III is a strategic and tactical airlift aircraft designed to deliver heavy cargo over long distances. It’s capable of the rapid deployment of troops, equipment, and humanitarian aid across the globe and possesses impressive payload capacity, allowing for the transport of large military vehicles, helicopters, and supplies.
The C-17 joined the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory in 1995 and was produced until 2015. At this stage, the future of the C-17 appears unclear. Production of the Globemaster III has ceased, but there don’t appear to be any immediate plans to find a replacement.
C-5M Super Galaxy
The C-5M Super Galaxy is a strategic airlift aircraft designed for transporting oversized and heavy cargo, like military vehicles, helicopters, and equipment. The C-5 has been in operation with the USAF since 1969, and has not only been instrumental in military operations but has also been actively involved in distributing humanitarian aid, providing disaster relief alongside FEMA, and supporting the U.S. space program.
The development of the C-5 Galaxy was not without its challenges. The program encountered significant cost overruns, leading Lockheed to face substantial financial difficulties. Shortly after its introduction, the fleet experienced wing cracks, leading to operational restrictions until necessary corrective measures were implemented.
Despite these initial setbacks, the C-5M Super Galaxy emerged as an upgraded version with new engines and modernized avionics. These enhancements were designed to extend the aircraft's service life to 2040 and beyond, ensuring its continued operational effectiveness.
U.S. Air Force Aircraft Inventory: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Aircraft
ISR aircraft are vital assets in the U.S. Air Force's intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities. While ISR is not exclusive to the USAF—such as, for example, the large ISR inventory for the U.S. Army—a number of craft in the U.S. Air Force aircraft inventory are involved in surveillance and reconnaissance, including:
- RQ-4 Global Hawk
- U-2 Dragon Lady
- RC-135 Rivet Joint
- Bombardier Global 6000 BACN
These specialized aircraft play a critical role in gathering valuable information, conducting surveillance missions, and providing situational awareness to support military operations.
RQ-4 Global Hawk
The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for ISR missions. The advanced surveillance capabilities of the RQ-4 allow for more precise weapons targeting and better protection of friendly forces. Due to cost overruns, the USAF didn’t end up with as many RQ-4s as initially planned, and the entire fleet is set to be retired in 2027.
U-2 Dragon Lady
The U-2 Dragon Lady serves as a manned, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, capable of flying at extremely high altitudes to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance over large areas. The aircraft's unique design incorporates a high-aspect-ratio glider-like wing, enabling it to operate at altitudes above 70,000 feet. It carries a range of sensors, including optical and radar systems, to collect imagery, signals intelligence, and electronic intelligence.
The U-2 is among an elite group of aircraft that’s been serving the USAF for more than 50 years. The newest models (TR-1, U-2R, U-2S) have been active since the 1980s, with the most recent of those, the U-2S, undergoing a technical upgrade in 2012.
RC-135 Rivet Joint
The Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint is a specialized reconnaissance aircraft primarily focused on signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic warfare (EW) missions. It can collect and exploit electronic signals, providing valuable intelligence on enemy communications and electronic warfare activities.
In 2005, the RC-135 fleet underwent a comprehensive set of enhancements, including airframe and navigation upgrades. These modifications included a transition from the TF33 engines to the CFM International CFM-56 (F108) engines, which are also utilized on the KC-135R and T Stratotanker aircraft. The flight deck instrumentation and navigation systems were also upgraded to meet the AMP (Avionics Modernization Program) standard.
Bombardier Global 6000
Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, has become instrumental in the communications between disparate aircraft during wartime. While the Gulfstream C-37 and the NASA WB-37 were in consideration for the bulk of BACN missions for the USAF, Bombardier Global 6000s proved to be the most effective, thanks to its high flight ceiling of 51,000 feet and 12-hour loiter time.
Another derivative of the Bombardier Global 6000, the E-11A, has also been equipped with BACN mission functionality. Still, while the E-11A has been more than capable, the Bombardier Global 6000 provides more bang for Defense budget buck when it comes to BACN.
What Is the USAF Total Aircraft Inventory Today?
Today, the USAF total aircraft inventory is approximately 5,000, with around 4,000 craft in active service. There are almost 800 F-16 aircraft alone, and over 1,000 trainer aircraft, including the T-38 Talon, T-6A Texan II, and T-1A Jayhawk.
In terms of the USAF aircraft inventory by year, there haven’t been too many additions recently. However, the USAF plans to retire more than 300 older aircraft in 2024 and purchase new F-35s and F-15 Eagle IIs in an effort to upgrade its aging fleet of fighter jets. Whether or not this spending is approved by Congress remains to be seen.
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