A nation’s Air Force is its branch of the military in charge of maintaining and defending its airspace as well as a specialized armed force in charge of aerial combat.
The air force military uses fighter jets, helicopters, rockets, and other airborne equipment and armament.
The strongest and most technologically advanced Air Forces are found in advanced nations like the United States, Great Britain, Japan, China, and Russia; this is due to these nations’ annual budgets for security and commitment to shielding their citizens from threats via the air.
The Air Force is indeed crucial to a nation’s defence and security. They perform tasks like reconnaissance, border patrol, intelligence gathering, surveillance, and air defence—including air-to-air combat—military transport, search and rescue, disaster relief, and more. Ground troops who may have been outwitted by a cunning enemy may also need air support.
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The majority of African nations have air forces, but the burning question is which nations on the continent have the most effective air forces.
Only a few African nations have seen major improvements in their security services, including their Air Force.
While the vast majority of African nations do not deploy fighter units with any more than a few outdated jets, if any at all, certain African countries do deploy modernised forces with top-of-the-line equipment and highly skilled training.
Recently, African countries have decided to invest in combat aircraft for a variety of reasons, with the Russian Su-27, the Su-30 Flanker and MiG-29 Fulcrum designs being particularly popular and being used by nearly all top air forces on the continent. These aircraft were either built up as a defence against aggression, as in the cases of Algeria and Libya, or due to the critical demands of war on their borders, as with Angola, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
The Best Airforce in Africa in 2023
We’ll be sharing with you the top air forces in Africa in this article. The top 10 African countries with the most advanced and powerful aerial combat capabilities are evaluated, along with their most notable assets, below.
1. Algerian Air Force (AAF)
- Engagements: Algerian War, FFS Rebellion, Western Sahara War, Algerian Civil War, Sand War, October War, Insurgency in the Maghreb
- Total Aircraft: About 502 units
- Fighter/Attack jets (187 units): MiG-29
- Sukhoi Su-24, Su-30, Yak-130, Mikoyan MiG-25
- Helicopters (257 units):
- Mil Mi-24 Hind, Bell 412, PZL Mi-2, Eurocopter AS355, Agusta Westland AS355, Mil Mi-8, Mil Mi-26, Mi-28 Havoc, Kamov Ka-27, AW139
- Transport Aircraft: 266 units
- Trainer Aircraft: 68 units
- Personnel: Approximately 14,000
- Defence Budget (as of 2012): $9,104,000,000 (4.5% GDP).
The Algerian Air Force, which has one of the strongest fleets in Africa, combines a huge arsenal of weaponry with modern technology and a high standard of personnel training in a way that no other military on the continent does.
The backbone of the Algerian air fleet comprises about Su-30MKA heavyweight fighters, a sophisticated “4+ generation” derivative of the Su-30 Flanker design with advanced sensors, remarkable flight performance, and the capacity to engage a wide range of targets with a broad collection of ammunition.
There are about 45 of these Su-30 fighters in total. Four compact tactical squadrons of MiG-29S fighters with a medium weight are available to assist the Su-30. The Su-30s are also capable of launching Kh-31 Mach 3 cruise missiles. The aircraft are all outfitted with cutting-edge weapons, such as R-27ER and R-77 long-range air-to-air missiles.
With 36 Su-24M planes in service, Algeria also operates the largest fleet of specialized strike fighters in Africa. In addition, a squadron of 15 MiG-25PDS Foxbat interceptors — the most technologically advanced third-generation system with sophisticated fourth-generation sensors, electronic warfare systems, and avionics — is deployed for a special air superiority role.
The MiG-25 is the fastest combat aircraft on the planet and the heaviest on the continent. It can fly at speeds of Mach 3.2 and extremely high altitudes. Except for some countries like South Africa, Uganda, and Sudan, Algeria is the only formidable Air Force on the continent to operate a fleet fully made up of fourth-generation combat aircraft due to its persistent practice of retiring previous generations of aircraft much quicker than any other African fleet.
The sole significant shortcoming in the nation’s ability to conduct aerial combat is a dearth of airborne early warning aircraft, which might be fixed by purchasing the KJ-500 or another contemporary technology. In all, Algeria’s Air Force is unrivalled on the African continent thanks to a powerful helicopter fleet and the densest and most advanced air defence system on the continent.
2. Egyptian Air Force (EAF)
- Engagements:1948 Arab-Israeli War, Second Libyan Civil War, Suez Crises
- War of Attrition, Yom Kippur War, Shaba I, North Yemen Civil War, Six-Day War, Nigerian Civil War, Libyan-Egyptian War, Sinai Insurgency, Yemen War
- Total Aircraft: 1,200 units
- Fighter/Attack jets (about 764 units):
- Lockheed Martins F-16, Mirage 2000, Mirage 5, Chengdu F-7, Dassault Rafale, Alpha Jet, Aero L-39, Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21, F-4 Phantom, Aero L-59, CAIG Wing Loong UCAV, CH-4B
- Electronic Warfare & AEW&C: E-2HE2K, Beechcraft 1900, C-130, Commando MK.2E, Mil Mi-8, CAIG Wing Loong, CH-4B
- Helicopters (about 257 units): AH-64 Apache, AW139, Aerospatial Gazelle SA-342, Kamov Ka-50, Mil Mi-28 Havoc, Boeing CH-47 Chinook, Sikorsky UH-60, SH-2G Super SeaSprite, Westland SeaKing, AgustaWestland AW109
- Transport Aircraft: Approximately 266 units
- Trainer Aircraft: Approximately 384 units
- Personnel: Approximately 50,000 (30,000 Active Servicemen, 20,000 Reserve)
- Defence Budget (2014): Approximately $4.4 billion (3% GDP) plus $1.2 Billion in US defence assistance
Egypt, which has by far one of the largest air forces in Africa, has made significant investments in modernizing its armed forces since a new military government came to power in 2013. However, it is noteworthy to mention that it still falls behind some of its rivals in terms of quality.
There are now 18 fighter squadrons in the Egyptian Air Force, but only one of them is armed with contemporary beyond-the-line-of-sight air-to-air missiles, and that is a single unit of freshly ordered MiG-29M aircraft. The F-16 Fighting Falcons from the earlier A and C models are split into nine squadrons, but what is arguably most noticeable about these is their lack of any sort of contemporary armament.
The F-16s rely on the outdated AIM-7 Sparrow, which appears to lack active radar guidance and has a very short range by contemporary standards, because of political constraints that the United States has imposed. These aircraft are therefore ill-equipped for air-to-ground or even anti-shipping roles.
Seven additional squadrons are made up of MiG-21 and J-7 fighters, which feature early third-generation avionics but are still essentially out of date today. These fighters are substantially older types than the most recent MiG-21BiS or J-7G variants.
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The most effective fighters Egypt uses, outside the MiG-29M, are 17 Mirage 2000 and 24 Rafale aircraft. Despite having strong sensors, the Rafale lacks current Meteor or SCALP missiles, which severely limits its capability in all tasks.
Conversely, Egypt relies on Mirage 5 attack planes from the 1960s for air-to-ground operations, and the rest of its fleet is undeniably antiquated. With the F-16 trying to be scrapped out of service since 2018 and the F-4E the year before, Egypt’s prowess is anticipated to substantially improve over the next decade. Both aircraft are anticipated to be replaced by contemporary light or mid-weight jets like the MiG-35 or JF-17 Block 3.
Egypt has also ordered a single squadron of Su-35 heavyweight fighters, which, once they are delivered, will give it access to the most powerful aircraft on the continent. Regarding capabilities apart from just fighters, Egypt operates a formidable air defence system centred on the S-300V4 system and one of the best assault helicopter fleets in the world, combining both the AH-64 Apache and the Ka-52 Alligator.
Egypt is the only African country with an airborne early warning system that is currently operational, and it uses the E-2 Hawkeye to achieve this.
3. National Air Force of Angola
- Engagements: Angolan Civil War, Congo Crises
- Total Aircraft: Within the range of 285-348 units:
- Fighter/Attack jets: about 138 units comprising Su-22, Sukhoi Su-30k, MiG-21, Su-27, Mikoyan MiG-23,
- Helicopters: approximately 118 units, comprising Agusta Westland AW 139, Mil Mi-24 Hind, Mi-8, AW 109, Bell 212, Aloutte III, Aerospatiale Gazelle
- Transport Aircraft: 128 units
- Trainer Aircraft: 48 units
- Personnel: Unknown
- Defence Budget (2012): approximately $3,827,000,000 (3.5% GDP)
The Angolan Air Force, which has long been regarded as the best in sub-Saharan Africa, was developed as a potent force in the 1980s with assistance from Cuba, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and East Germany to combat the South African apartheid state, which was strongly backed by Israel and aligned with the United States.
Originally, the MiG-23 swept wing fighters, which were flown by Cuban volunteers, made up the majority of the Angolan air fleet. The MiG-23 performed possibly at its best against South African air units. Three units of updated third-generation aircraft are still available from one MiG-23 squadron, which has about 28 fighters, along with one MiG-21BiS and one Su-22 squadron.
Twelve Su-30 fighter jets, which were recently refurbished in Belarus to a “4+ generation” grade, are used by the Angolan Air Force’s elite squadrons. These are supported by about six heavyweight Su-27 air power fighters. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, it’s believed that Angola has fitted its Su-30 and probably Su-27 fighters with R-77 active radar-guided missiles.
The fleet has more firepower than any other in southern Africa thanks to the deployment of an unspecified number of stronger Su-24 strike planes, one squadron of Su-25 attack jets, and 2 squadrons of Mi-24/Mi-35 attack helicopters.
4. Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF)
- Engagements: Gugsa Wale’s Rebellion, Ethiopian Civil War, Second Italo-Abyssinian War, Ethiopian-Somali War, Ethiopian-Eritrean War
- Aircraft: 80 aircraft
- Fighter/Attack Aircraft: 48 units, comprising Su-25 FrogFoot, MiG-23, MiG-21, Su-27
- Helicopters: 33 units, comprising Mil Mi-8,
- Mil Mi-24 Hind, Mil-Mi-6
- Transport Aircraft: 34 units
- Trainer aircraft: 14 units
- Personnel: Approximately 3,000
- Defence Budget (2012): $340,000,000 (0.8% GDP)
The Ethiopian Air Force, like the Angolan Air Force, was swiftly enlarged during a period of conflict, this time with Eritrea in the 1990s, to conduct airstrikes, undertake reconnaissance, and, if necessary, engage enemy fighters.
Similar to Angola, foreign contractors from the old Soviet Union initially piloted Ethiopian aircraft; however, they have since been replaced in favour of indigenous pilots. Ethiopia’s fleet historically consisted primarily of Soviet MiG-23 aircraft, and the country currently has one squadron with about eight fighters. Today, the MiG-23 is mostly used in air-to-ground duty and is teamed with an unspecified number of Su-25 attack aircraft.
The majority of Ethiopia’s fleet is made up of Su-27 heavyweight air supremacy fighters, of which about 12–16 are reported to be in operation. When initially purchased to confront Eritrea’s MiG-29s, the fighter jets were unquestionably the most capable on the continent. During the conflict between the two nations, they shot down 4 MiGs with no casualties.
As a result, the Su-27 is only utilized by the Ethiopian Air Force for air-to-air combat. According to certain Ethiopian sources, the nation’s Su-27 fleet has recently undergone upgrades that include new electronic warfare equipment and R-27ER missiles for an extended engagement range. Ethiopia also operates 18 Mi-24/35 assault helicopters, and it has continued to upgrade its air defences with the latest Russian weapons.
5. Tunisian Air Force
- Engagements: Sand War, Western Sahara War, Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, Anti-ISIS war, War in Yemen
- Total Aircraft: 278 units
- Fighter/Attack Jets: 96 units, comprising
- Lockheed Martins F-16, Dassault Alpha Jet, Dassault Mirage F-1, F-5 Tiger
- Electronic Warfare: Dassault Falcon 20
- Helicopters: 128 units, comprising
- Aerospatial SA 342 Gazelle, Bell AB 205, Aerospatial SA 330 Puma, Boeing CH-47 Chinook
- Transport Aircraft: 158 units
- Trainer Aircraft: 80 units
- Personnel: 13,500
- Defence Budget (2012): $3,582,000,000 (3.5% GDP)
The inventory of the Moroccan Air Force is principally based on the demands of the current conflict in Western Sahara and the obligation to offer minimal defence against the significantly more powerful forces of nearby Algeria. The nucleus of Morocco’s fighter fleet is made up of about 23 F-16C Fighting Falcon light jets armed with AIM-120C7 air-to-air missiles, making it the only African nation with access to contemporary American air-launched weapons.
The Moroccan F-16s are significantly more competent than their Egyptian counterparts due to differences in weaponry and subsystems, and aside from Egypt’s newly purchased Rafale jets, the Moroccan Fighting Falcons are the most advanced Western fighters in Africa.
However, Algeria’s R-77 and R-27ER, which can fly farther and can carry greater payloads, still have superior capabilities over the AIM-120C7. The AGM-88B HARM standoff air-to-ground missiles, which are very effective against air defence and radar stations, are another notable capability of the F-16s.
The remaining third-generation aircraft in the Moroccan fleet are outdated models like the 26 Mirage F1 aircraft and the 22 F-5E Tiger II aircraft that are now in service.
Morocco’s Mirages, which are among the most powerful in the world, have been upgraded to carry MICA missiles, giving them a confined air-to-air capability beyond visual range. Despite this, they are still far more effective than Egypt’s F-16s or any MiG-23 editions on the continent.
Even though Morocco has considered purchasing S-400 air defence systems from Russia, Western political interference is likely to block such a transaction. Ground-based air defence and close air support continue to be major weaknesses for Moroccan troops.
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6. South African Air Force (SAAF)
- Total Aircraft: The SAAF has approximately 229 aircraft, comprising 47 units of fighter and attack jets. Aircraft include BAE Hawk, Agusta A109, JAS 39 Gripen, Rooivalk, C-47TP, and C-47TP Elint.
- Engagements: World War I, World War II, Korean War, Rhodesian Bush War, Mozambican Civil War, South African Border War, Operation Boleas, Battle of Bangui, M23 Rebellion, ADF Insurgency
- Electronic Warfare: Oryx EW, C-47TP ELINT
- Helicopters: 95 units, comprising
- Rooivalk, Agusta A109, Oryx, Lynx 300
- Transport Aircraft: 109 units
- Trainer Aircraft: 88 units
- Personnel: approximately 11,000 Active Servicemen and 1,000 Reserve
- Defence Budget (2012): approximately $4,785,000,000 (1.1% GDP)
Given that it was established in 1920, the South African Air Force is one of the continent’s oldest air forces. The aviation industry in South Africa is among the strongest on the continent. This nation’s air force is a major player on the continent with 213 aircraft and a projected $4.96 billion military budget.
If we look back at historical events, we can see that South Africa once had six nuclear weapons before ratifying the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991, which led to the decommissioning of nuclear weapons.
7. Nigerian Air force
- Engagements: Nigerian Civil War, Niger Delta conflict, Liberian Civil War, Sierra Leone Civil War, Invasion of the Gambia, Northern Mali War, Boko Haram War
- Total Aircraft: 110 aircraft
- Fighter/Attack Jets: 31 units, comprising Dassault Alpha Jet, CH-3 UCAV, Aero L-39, Chengdu F-7
- Helicopters: 39 units, comprising Mil Mi-24/35 Hind, Agusta Westland AS 332, Mil Mi-17sh, AW 101, AW 139, AW 109
- Transport Aircraft: 53 units
- Trainer aircraft: 40 units
- Personnel: approximately 25,000
- Defence Budget (2012): $2,100,000,000 (1% GDP)
You might be wondering if Nigeria has the strongest air force in the continent. Nigeria is one of the most prosperous nations in the region and has the largest population on the continent. As could be expected, its military is among the strongest on the continent, including its air force. Its air force is no doubt strong. Generally, the nation’s armed forces have established themselves as peacekeepers on the continent.
The Nigerian Airforce has participated in the Niger Delta Conflict, the Sierra Leone Civil War, the Liberian Civil War, and the Nigerian Civil War. They participated in the conflict with Northern Mali and are currently taking part in the conflict with Boko Haram.
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Finding out where Nigeria stands among Africa’s top air forces is always interesting. Nigeria is without a doubt the most powerful African nation in terms of its population growth and economic potential. The air force of Nigeria is one of the most powerful military forces in all of Africa. Nigeria’s government has been able to spend a sizable amount on the military despite the country’s high level of corruption.
8. Kenyan Air force
- Total Aircraft: KAF has a total number of 152 aircraft. Aircraft include Northrop F-5, Cessna 208, Bell AH-1, Scottish Aviation Bulldog, Short Tucano etc.
- Aircraft Source: KAF purchased aircraft from the United States, Netherlands, France, China, Canada, UK, Italy and Germany.
- Missions/Engagements: Kenyan Air Force participated in Operation Linda Nchi, AU Mission in Somalia etc.
The 8th best air force on the continent in 2022 is the Kenya Air Force. The troops of the Kenyan Air Force serve in peacekeeping operations all around the world.
9. Tunisian Air force
- Missions: Tunisian air force has had about 159 engagements, usually based on the war on terror
- Total Aircraft: Approximately 148 aircraft
- Fighter/Attack Jets: 30 units, comprising Aero L-59T Super Albatros, Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II
- Helicopters: 83 units, comprising SA-341 10, HH-3 10, Agusta-Bell AB-205A 15, AS-350B 6, AS-365 1, SA-313 6, SA-316 3, UH-1H 29, UH-1N 2, Agusta-Bell AB-412 4
- Transport Aircraft: 89 units
- Trainer aircraft: 40 units
- Personnel: Approximately 3,000
- Defence Budget (2012): $746,000,000 (3.% GDP)
With approximately 150 aircraft and 4 unmanned aircraft, Tunisia’s air force ranks 9th across all of Africa. This force has positive effects on the inside as well as the outside world.
Tunisia has one of the top air forces in North Africa and beyond. With the addition of a large number of UAVs and aircraft, the nation has significantly bolstered its air force. Moreover, the nation’s arsenal contains more advanced weapons. The air force of Tunisia is well known for its active operations designed to protect the nation’s internal and external borders.
10. Libyan Air Force
- Total Aircraft: Libyan air force has a total number of approximately 120 aircraft.
- Aircraft include: Su-22, Su-24, An-72, ll-76, C-130 Hercules, L-100 Hercules, MiG-21, Mil Mi-24/3c, MiG-25
- Personnel/Manpower: Libyan air force has a total number of 4,500 personnel.
- Aircraft Source: Libya purchased aircraft from the United States, Russia, Turkey, France, Poland, Italy, and the Soviet Union.
- Missions/Engagement: Libyan civil war, Libyan-Egyptian war, Uganda-Tanzania war, Chadian-Libyan conflict, etc.
Libya has the tenth-best aviation force on the continent. Many people might be surprised by this in light of the 2011 Libyan revolution. The country’s personnel, according to some sources, are greater in number than its available artillery and ammunition. It harbours 121 helicopters and roughly 600 aircraft for its air force. They have a defence budget of about $880 million.
In conclusion, certain African Air Forces, like Egypt, are equipped with their Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) defence, Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM), and Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA). These, however, are not taken into account when ranking since precise information on such assets is typically hard to come by.
The ranking in this article is based on the number of missions/engagements, personnel, and aircraft.
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