The United States Navy is responsible for the naval warfare services that support the armed forces of the country. It is the largest and most capable navy in the world today, with its estimates in active tonnage for its battle fleet being larger than the next 13 largest navies combined. There are currently 11 aircraft carriers in service, with two additional vessels currently under construction. There are over 330,000 active-duty personnel serving right now, with over 100,000 more in the Ready Reserve.
There are a total of 290 deployable combat vessels in the Navy, along with 3,700 operational aircraft. That means this branch of the U.S. Armed Services as the third-largest fleet of aircraft in the world today.
When you compare the Navy to the Air Force, then the decision becomes more of one where you want to serve in the air instead of on the sea. It was established as a separate branch of the military in 1947, but the Air Force is also the largest and most technologically advanced force of its type in the world today.
The Air Force provides air support with more than 5,300 military aircraft, 170 military satellites, and over 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Over 321,000 active-duty personnel serve in this military branch, along with 69,200 in reserves and over 100,00 in the Air National Guard. There are over 141,000 civilians who work with the Air Force as well.
If you’re trying to decide which branch of the military to join, then there are several Navy vs Air Force pros and cons to consider.
List of the Pros of the Navy vs the Air Force
1. The Navy gives you more opportunities to travel.
There are only a few ratings in the Navy that don’t require a significant amount of travel. That means if you love to travel and explore different areas of the planet, then you’ll satisfy your wanderlust by joining this branch of the military. It can be a disadvantage to some if they have a family since that means everyone must pick up and go, but there are some ways to manage those circumstances as well – such as the Exceptional Family Member Program that lets you manage the care for someone in your family with a specific disability.
There are currently over 40 naval bases spread along the eastern and western coasts of the United States. You might also find yourself stationed in Europe or the Pacific theater based on what your specific skill set happens to be.
2. You can expect a significant amount of time each year at sea.
During any given year, about 40% of the personnel who are serving in the Navy are assigned to a ship or submarine. A little less than half of those vessels are deployed to sea at any given time. That means it is not unusual to find yourself on active duty away from home even if you are not in an active combat theater. Some people find themselves being stationed overseas in ratings that might not seem like they would be necessary outside of the U.S., such as photojournalism, dentistry, and administrative positions.
3. It offers more structure than the Air Force, but less than the Army or Marines.
If you feel like you’re going to need some structure with your military career, then the Navy is a better choice when comparing it to the Air Force. You’ll still have fewer rigid rules to follow than what you’ll find in the Army or the Marines, but there are several deeply set traditions and customs that must be followed to have a successful career. Many people who typically struggle with the idea of taking orders from an authority figure can adapt to this lifestyle because you’re following history more than the whims of a commanding officer in many daily life situations.
4. There are fewer educational requirements to get into the Navy.
The Air Force has rigid guidelines that you must meet educationally if you want to join that branch of the service. Although you can enlist with a high school diploma or a GED, you must obtain 15 or more semester hours of qualifying college credit to gain eligibility in this situation with the GED. You must also obtain a score of 65 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). GED holders must wait for applicant slots to become available as well, which means waiting for more than 12 months in some situations.
If you want to join the Air Force as an officer, you must already have a four-year undergraduate degree or be within one year of obtaining it when you apply. The Navy has some similar requirements for its officers, but there are fewer restrictions in place to complete the enlistment process.
5. The Navy offers several special operations forces that may be possible to join.
Although the Navy tends to occupy the sea when managing an active combat zone, there are several different special operations divisions that you can try to join to pursue the career you want. There are the SAR Swimmers, the Navy EOD, SWCC, and the Navy SEALs. Some of these units, such as SEAL Team 6, have become famous in their own right because of the successful completion of their missions.
There are some special operations in the Air Force as well. You could join Combat Control, Pararescue, Special Reconnaissance, or Tactical Air Control Party. Most of these positions involve remote tactics and surveillance instead of direct confrontation in a battlespace.
6. You’ll have access to the Commissary when you serve in the Navy.
If you decide to join the Navy, then you’ll have access to the Navy Exchange. It’s a shopping option that offers the equivalency of a mall without the requirement to pay taxes. You’ll have a Commissary as well, which is a grocery store that lets you enjoy the same benefit. They’re only available to members of the military, which means you don’t need to jostle with civilians at the local shops to get what you need. You’ll find that there are several special discounts that are frequently run to help you manage your budget more effectively.
If your orders place you in an area where there is a high cost-of-living expense to manage, then the Commissary receives subsidizing funds from the government to help you manage your budget better as well. This advantage is available overseas so that you can enjoy a taste of home too.
7. There are several opportunities for promotion in the Navy.
Whether you decide to enlist or become an officer in the Navy, you’ll find that there are more opportunities to advance through the ranks when compared to the Air Force for most people. There are advancement exams for each job specialty offered on a regular basis, along with advanced training options and annual performance evaluations that can lead you toward a promotion when it is time to move up. Even some of the awards you earn can help you to gain a competitive edge in this area.
There are opportunities for advancement in the Air Force as well, but they are not typically offered to the same extent that you’ll find in the Navy.
8. You will find a massive support group waiting for you.
You’ll find that you can’t walk more than a block in the significant Navy towns across the United States without running into someone with a connection to the military. This advantage applies whether you serve in San Diego, Norfolk, or Whidbey Island. Many of your neighbors are going to be fellow service people who are all in a similar situation as you. That makes it a lot easier to form relationships, create lifelong friendships, and have a support network in place when your family needs to manage your deployment.
The Air Force has this advantage as well to a certain extent, although you’ll find this option tends to be more concentrated around Colorado Springs and joint bases instead.
9. There are fewer times when you lose connection with the people you meet.
Because the Navy has a limited number of bases and joint-base stations to manage, you’re never really saying goodbye to the people you meet over the course of your service. It is not unusual to run into people you know at each duty station because of the social nature of this branch of the military. It is up to you to determine how much you can take advantage of the unique nature of this benefit, but most families find that it is easier to manage the rigors of life because of this structure.
10. You may receive more allowances in the Navy than the Air Force.
When you join any branch of the military, then there are allowances you’ll receive in addition to your base pay for your specific needs. If you join the Air Force, then living off-base can be a struggle because you may have access to base-pay only. There’s more cash available to Navy personnel for renting or purchasing a home outside of what you receive with your rating. Once you reach the E6 level with ten years of service, you’ll be eligible for SRB bonuses and a salary of more than $60,000 per year. You’ll also see a bigger push for tax-free status with the Navy, even outside of those who have family members who are in a combat theater.
List of the Cons of the Navy vs the Air Force
1. The Air Force makes military service feel like a regular job.
There are typically fewer quality of life issues that you’ll find in the Air Force when comparing this branch of the military to the Navy or the other options available to you. The base housing units, dormitories, and other services that you need to support your career are usually much further head so that you can manage life comfortably. That’s why one of the advantages of joining the Air Force is that it is about as close as you can have at having a “regular” job when serving your country as possible.
You can even find some Air Force bases with golf courses. You’ll be primarily stationed on land, whereas in the Navy, you’re going to be on the water. Both branches of the military have stations that dot the coastlines.
2. You are more likely to be assigned a battlespace in the Air Force.
Depending on your AFSC and duty assignment in the Air Force, you might find yourself spending seven months out of each year deployed in areas where the risks of conflict are quite high. That includes being stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Kosovo. When you join the Navy, you get the option to travel while being in a self-contained area or a dedicated base in places like Japan or Hawaii more often.
Because you are serving in the military, there will always be a risk that you’ll receive orders to go into an active combat situation. That means there must be a willingness to put your life on the line.
3. You can retire young from the Air Force with full benefits.
When you decide to join the Air Force, then you become eligible for retirement after serving your country for 20 years. You will begin receiving your benefits on the day that you make that decision. You’ll then have access to a generous plan that doesn’t require payroll deductions in the future. That means you can potentially put in your time to retire before the age of 40 if you join right out of high school and then enjoy every benefit of your retirement status.
You also have the option to take the skills you learned while serving in the Air Force into a civilian job after putting in your time. That option gives you the chance to earn a paycheck while you also get to enjoy the retirement benefits you earned by serving your country. If you put in the same amount of time in the Navy, then you’ll get healthcare and 50% of your monthly base pay – or a blended system that includes contribution matching to a 401(k)-style plan.
4. Air Force pilots aren’t learning how to land on an aircraft carrier.
The most significant difference between the pilot training that happens in the Navy compared to that in the USAF is that naval pilots must learn how to land on an aircraft carrier. This process is technical and time-consuming, which means there are some talented student naval aviators that flunk out of their training because they can’t master this one skill. If you were to join the Air Force, this issue wouldn’t be as significant.
5. You have more opportunities to fly drones in the Air Force.
The Air Force and the Navy try to create a balance between staff tours, educational requirements, and operational needs. World events will usually dictate much of how your career will go in either branch of the military, which means your individual aspirations need to have some flexibility to them. Most pilots receive two flying tours in the first decade of their careers. If you receive the honor of commanding a squadron, then you might receive even more time in the air.
The one difference here is that the Air Force is commissioning many more drone pilots each year when compared to fighter pilots. You’ll want to keep that structure in mind before you decide which recruiter to visit.
6. The Air Force requires specialized roles more than the Navy.
Under the current structure of the U.S. Armed Forces, the fighter pilots in the Air Force tend to receive more specialization than those in the Navy – with the exception of aircraft carrier landings. The USAF tends to focus on the air-to-air role of their combat theater, which means you’ll receive more work on interception, radar training, and dogfighting tactics. If a conflict arises where there is an adversary that poses a threat to the air space of the United States, then it would be the USAF assuming an offensive role in that situation.
Naval pilots tend to fly multi-mission aircraft. That means there are more missions that go beyond air-to-air situations.
7. There are different aircraft flown by the Navy and the Air Force.
Most Navy fighter pilots will fly the one-seat or two-seat version of the Super Hornet. Air Force pilots typically get to fly the F-15C Eagle or the F-22 Raptor. One of the more unique options that you’ll see in the Navy is the EA-18G Growler that Boeing builds for the military, which is an electronic warfare aircraft that’s a specialized version of the two-seat Super Hornet. Both services are going to have access to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. If you want to find your wings, then it might be helpful to choose the aircraft that you want to fly the most.
8. Air Force bases will give you more opportunities to explore.
The Navy might let you start traveling all over the world, but it will be on a vessel where you’ll get the same view every day with your assignment. If you decide to join the Air Force, then your station is more likely to be an area where you can do some exploring. Honolulu gives you the opportunity to enjoy the beach, take up surfing, and see active volcanoes. If you head to Anchorage, then you’ll have more nature to enjoy, snow sports, and the rustic beauty of the region. You can still have the West Coast thanks to the location of Travis AFB between Sacramento and San Francisco.
9. You don’t need to worry about becoming seasick in the Air Force.
If you join the Navy or Air Force with the goal of becoming a pilot, then you might need to manage the physical symptoms of becoming airsick during your first days on the job. When you join the Navy, then you’ll have the issue of getting used to the motion of the water as well. Some waves in the ocean can easily reach 30-40 feet in height during stormy weather, which means you’ll have lots of up-and-down motion. When you combine that problem with the fact that you could be staying in a small space with 5,000 or more people, then it can become a very uncomfortable experience.
Conclusion: Navy vs Air Force Pros and Cons
Joining the U.S. Armed Forces can be a life-changing event in positive and negative ways. Most people find themselves drawn to one specific branch of service because of what they like to do. If you’re drawn to the ocean and love the idea of serving on a vessel, then it makes sense to join the Navy. When you prefer to be a pilot that can serve your country while supplying air dominance, then the Air Force is a better choice.
There is a lot of overlap between the two military branches since there are naval pilots as well. Your decision will often boil down to the amount of time you want to spend on deployment and where you wish to travel. Although both will attempt to honor your requests for where you’re stationed, you might find that there is no choice in the matter either.
In the Navy vs. Air Force pros and cons, the final determination relies on your test scores, physical capabilities, and personal preferences. Speak with your recruiter about how you could contribute to see where you might be a good fit.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.