But which fighter jets are proving to be the most popular choice for the world’s air forces in 2023? AeroTime investigates.
Of course, several caveats must be included as we collect the data. We may never know exact numbers for sure. Some of the aircraft may be non-operational, lost in combat or used for spare parts. However, these figures are the closest we can get to the truth.
While data from the Flight International 2023 World Air Forces Index has been used to compile this list, AeroTime has also incorporated additional information from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Military Balance 2022 and other sources such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
10. Northrop F-5: over 400
One of the oldest jets on this list, the F-5 was developed back in the 1950s and has seen numerous conflicts since then. From the more than 2,600 that were manufactured, just over 400 are still considered operational, most of which are serving with the Brazilian, Iranian, South Korean, Taiwanese air forces among others.
There is a high chance that the actual number of operational F-5s is a great deal lower, as most of these aircraft are exceedingly old.
9. Eurofighter Typhoon: over 570
Created as a joint European fighter jet, the Eurofighter Typhoon is not only operated by European air forces (Spanish, German, Italian, Austrian and the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force), but by many Middle Eastern countries as well. It has been exported to Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Furthermore, the jet is still in production, and countries are continuing to place orders for it. So, its numbers are likely to rise for years to come.
8. Chengdu J-10: over 580
A fourth-generation jet designed by China in the 1990s, the J-10 quickly became one the most popular types of aircraft in China’s People’s Liberation Army. While very few J-10s have ever been exported (Pakistan is the only other country to receive them), quite a large number have been manufactured.
Due to China’s secrecy, we can’t really tell how many of these aircraft have been made. Estimates range from 200 to nearly 600, although the higher numbers are more likely to be true as the aircraft’s production has been in full swing during recent years.
7. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II: over 750
The only fifth-generation fighter jet on this list, the F-35 was intended to replace earlier jets like the F-16, the F/A-18 and the Harrier in various branches of the US military. Many other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Germany and others, have also ordered the jet, and it has been a huge export success.
Although groundbreaking in many ways, initially the F-35 had a number of problems, and its development grossly exceeded its budget. However, with problems now ironed out, Lockheed Martin has continued to ramp up production of the aircraft, so, the numbers are likely to rise at a continuous pace.
6. MiG-29 family: over 800
The Soviet answer to the F-16, the MiG-29 Fulcrum was a comparatively light and cheap fighter jet intended to supplement the heavier Su-27. It was exported across the globe and remains operational in many countries with past ties to the USSR.
In the 2000s Russia developed an upgraded version of the jet, the MiG-35. However, it wasn’t successful, and just over a dozen were made. Meanwhile, the worldwide fleet of old MiG-29s continues to decline, as many Fulcrums are being retired, while others are being destroyed during international conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
5. McDonnel Douglas F/A-18 Hornet: over 820
Developed as a light carrier-borne fighter and attack jet for the United State Navy (USN), the F/A-18, also known simply as the F-18, was also exported to Australia, Canada, Spain and other countries to be used as a regular fighter jet.
In the 1990s a heavily upgraded version, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, was developed, and is still in production. Meanwhile, the USN had begun to retire the old A, B, C and D versions, replacing them with the new variants as those came in. So, although more than 2,000 Hornets were produced, less than half remain operational.
4. McDonnel Douglas F-15 Eagle: over 960
Not just one of the most popular, the F-15 is considered the most successful fighter jet ever built. It scored more than 100 victories in air combat while never actually being shot down by other aircraft.
Besides the US, large numbers of F-15s are operated by Israel, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. The jet is still being produced as the Boeing F-15EX in relatively small numbers.
3. MiG-21 family: over 1,100
It is hard to believe that the MiG-21 is not only one of the oldest fighter jets still in service, but also, one of the most popular. On paper, more than 330 original MiG-21s are still operated across the globe, as well as more than 440 of its Chinese copies, designated as the Chengdu J-7, and a similar number of the Chengdu F-7, export versions of the J-7.
However, it is important to keep in mind that these numbers are very likely to be wrong. Many of the aircraft are extremely old and likely not in good shape, so the MiG-21 should probably rank a few places lower. But there is no possibility of knowing this for sure because militaries don’t tend to be open about their real capabilities.
2. Sukhoi Su-27 family: over 1,200
The Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, developed in the Soviet Union as an answer to the F-15, was extremely popular and successful. It spawned a huge family, with Sukhoi continuing to produce upgraded versions such as the Su-30, the Su-34 and the Su-35, while China developed several home-grown copies such as the Shenyang J-11 and the J-16.
Only around 400 original Su-27s remain operational today and this number is dwindling. However, the Flanker’s derivatives keep being produced at large numbers and exported all over the world. As a result, it’s likely that this jet will remain in the skies for decades to come.
1. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon: over 2,100
Initially developed as a cheaper and lighter counterpart to the F-15, the F-16 grew to become one of the most popular and the most recognizable fighter jets in the world, with more than 4,500 produced to date. The type remains in production to this day.
As the old F-16s continue to be retired, new and upgraded versions enter production. Additionally, more and more countries keep ordering the aircraft. According to its current manufacturer Lockheed Martin, F-16 production lines are overstrained, the company can’t keep up with the orders, and have been forced to delay some long-awaited deliveries.
Used by more than 20 countries and continuing to sell like hot cakes, the F-16 is certainly the most widely operated fighter jet in the world and will most likely remain in this position for the foreseeable future.
What about the others such as the JF-17, the Su-25 and the F-4?
There are lists that include other types of jet as the most widely operated.
The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is included in some of these compilations, but that is very likely to be wrong and outdated. While more than 5000 F-4s have been built, making it the most-produced Western supersonic fighter jet, almost all have already been retired and around 150 remain in operation.
The Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot is not a fighter jet, it is a dedicated ground attack aircraft and therefore does not have a place on this list. Furthermore, with only around 400 Su-25s operational worldwide, there is even doubt that the jet could make it onto a list such as this – there might be more F-5s than Su-25s in the world.
Some sources have recently claimed that the CAC/PAC JF-17 Thunder, a joint Chinese-Pakistani fighter jet, is on its way to becoming the most widely operated in the world. However, only around 150 JF-17s have been made so far. The jet is currently in operation with just three countries, although several other nations are considering ordering it in the future.
If compared with any aircraft on this list, the JF-17 is certainly not very widely operated. And since there is absolutely no evidence that China and Pakistan will suddenly start to manufacture the JF-17s in its thousands, the prospect that Thunder will top this list is not very bright.