Even after the end of the Cold War, many nations have large Air Forces. The United States has well over a hundred front line strategic bombers, capable of bringing destruction anywhere in the world within a matter of hours. And it is not just the big powers with nuclear weapons that have modern, supersonic fighters and strike aircraft. Due to good salesmanship and left-over cold war politics, many smaller countries still have relatively sophisticated aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom and the MiG-23 Flogger. But this is not about the power players: this is about the exact opposite. What country in the world has the smallest Air Force?
First, I have to define what I mean by "Air Force". By my definition, I am going to mean airplanes or helicopters that are capable of carrying weapons, or are capable of easy conversions into carrying weapons. The use of armaments is, after all, what differentiates an Air Force, as a military entity, from a nationalized airline. This is an important distinction, and I will return to it at the end.
Finding sources for the issue of the smallest air force was not easy. And because of this, I won't claim that the answers I came up with are definitive. The main sources I used were:
- The Stateman's Yearbook, which is kind of like the CIA World Fact Book. Since it is a general reference work on national statistics, it describes a country's basic military posture, but doesn't get into technicalities.
- http://www.xairforces.net/ is, so far, the only website I can find of its sort. It lists summaries of most country's air power, although it is not yet complete.
- Wikipedia was also a source, especially as a starting point, or to verify the above two sources. However, wikipedia, like any internet site, is fallible. For example, the listed url for the military of Belize, http://www.belizedefenceforce.net/, actually redirects to an English company that designs plastic windows for people's homes, and I am not making that up.
With the caveats in mind that there are major holes in the available information, lets look at some of the smallest Air Forces in the world:
- Belize, a Central American country to the southeast of Mexico, has a population of around 300,000 people, and an Air Wing that is, due to Belize's position on The Carribean, mostly concerned with maritime patrol. This includes one Britten-Norman BN-2 cargo airplane that is modified to carry weapons. It also includes some other patrol aircraft that may be able to carry weapons.
- Malta, a small country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and with a population of 405,000, also has a military that is focused on maritime patrol. Much like Belize, Malta has the Britten-Norman BN-2 modified cargo airplane, although they have a full two of them, making them twice as powerful as Belize. However, how meaningful this is will be discussed below.
- Lithuania, a former Soviet Republic and currently a member of NATO, maintains a small Air Force. Lithuania's overriding strategic concern is Russia, but almost all of the defense of Lithuania is due to NATO. Nevertheless, Lithuania has an air force, which currently has one to four combat aircraft. Lithuania's armed aircraft were the L-39, a jet trainer with some light attack capacity. Apparently, Lithuania used to have two of the L-39 trainer/attack planes, but one of them crashed, although since I don't read Lithuanian, I can't tell you details. This is also where my sources differ: according to Wikipedia, Lithuania has a single L-39ZA, with a built in gun, and while xairforces.net agrees with this, it also lists 3 L-39C aircraft, without guns, but with the ability to carry munitions on their wings. The official page of the Lithuanian Air Force, however, does not mention the L-39C's.
So far, those three countries are probably the countries with the smallest Air Forces, although there is a major caveat to counting out the exact numbers. The biggest problem is that many light military aircraft are multi-purpose, and are often slightly redesigned versions of civilian aircraft. Belize has one aircraft that is designed to handle weapons, but it has two other aircraft that are the civilian versions of military aircraft. It is probably a matter of debate about how quickly they could be modified to handle weapons. This is why I can't give a definitive answer to which of the three countries above has the smallest Air Force. Given the speed with which civilian aircraft can be bought and converted to light military uses, any list would be subject to change. Also, as mentioned in the case of Lithuania, aircraft can be lost quickly (or slowly, through lack of repairs). It could be that another country should be on this list.
It should also be pointed out that countries have a vested interest in either overreporting, or underreporting, their military strength. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union armed third world regimes liberally, sometimes with very sophisticated, expensive aircraft. Some of those countries still have those aircraft, although it is questionable how operational they can make them. A country that has two dozen Mig-23's or F-5's in storage might actually have less real airpower than Malta.
And having gotten this far, I should explain that while curiosity was the main impulse for the beginning of my research, and it is somewhat amusing to think of a country that has a single warplane, I did learn something important. While these countries represent an extreme case, most of the world's Air Forces, even those who do possess modern fighters, also possess large numbers of less glamorous aircraft. For most countries, an Air Force full of maritime patrol, transport, search and rescue and training aircraft is much more in line with a nation's strategic needs, as well as being much more within its budget.