Topgun in the Mid-1980s: Building on the Legacy

Have you ever wondered how the Navy’s Topgun program became a world-renowned center of excellence in the serious business of air combat? Or how it remains effective? Here are my thoughts, focusing on the program’s evolution during its second decade.

1. The Need for Topgun

More than forty years ago, the US Navy did something unusual for a large organization that revered its traditions. The Navy admitted that it had a serious problem and took dramatic action to remedy the situation. The actions quickly proved to be effective and formed the basis for a program that has lasted decades – yet with clear lineage to a program set up in the time of Apollo space missions and Elvis Presley's first comeback tour. That program is known as Topgun. I was a Topgun instructor from 1984 to 1987, and will present my opinions on how decisions made during my tenure built on Topgun's legacy and strengthened the organization for the future.

The need for Topgun had become clear in the early years of the Vietnam War. One measure of the combat performance of fighter aircraft is kill ratio. In World War II the U.S. Navy’s kill ratio was 14:1, meaning we destroyed fourteen enemy planes for each Navy aircraft we lost. In the Korean War, American jets had a 12:1 kill ratio over enemy fighters. Some inaccuracy is understandable, caused by the stress and confusion of combat, yet the ratio provides a rough indicator of effectiveness. During the first few years of aerial combat in Vietnam, from the Navy's first MiG kills in 1965 until the bombing halt of 1968, the Navy's kill ratio was around 2.5:1. This was doubly disappointing when it is remembered that the Navy was flying the modern F-4 Phantom II and F-8 Crusader, while the North Vietnamese air force was comprised mostly of obsolescent Soviet MiG-17s, with the MiG-21 introduced in late 1965.

The Navy ordered a comprehensive study of tactical aircraft, radars, and missiles, as well as the training and tactics of Navy aircrews. The resultant study was officially titled the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review. But it has become known as the "Ault Report," named for the leader of the study team, Captain Frank Ault, a World War II veteran Navy pilot and aircraft carrier commanding officer. The report found that poor missile performance was a major factor in the low kill ratio. Almost 600 air-to-air missiles were fired by the Navy and Air Force in about 360 engagements between June 1965 and September 1968, and the probability of a kill worked out to be about one kill for every ten missiles fired.

Reasons included flaws in the missiles themselves, but the Ault Report also addressed several shortcomings in aircrew training. These included:

• Aircrews did not recognize when they were "in the envelope" for launching missiles;

• There was no instrumented range to support accurate debrief of close-in maneuvering "dogfight" training;

• The Navy needed a core of instructors to consolidate, coordinate, and promulgate doctrine and tactics for fighter employment.

Some of these needs could be addressed by modifying the program of instruction at the training squadrons where fighter pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs, the second crewmen in a two-seat fighter) became qualified on the jet they would fly in combat, known as the replacement air group or RAG. But to properly address many of the issues would require a dedicated weapons school.

The Navy had operated a similar organization before, called the Fleet Air Gunnery Unit, but it was disbanded in 1960. In re-establishing a dedicated fighter weapons school, the Navy started modestly. The task was assigned to the F-4 RAG at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar in San Diego, which was Fighter Squadron 121 (VF-121). With virtually no funding or official support, nine pilot and RIO instructors commandeered a trailer to use as an office and classroom, and went to work. Using the Ault Report as their mandate, they mustered their tenacity and ingenuity, gathered intelligence on enemy aircraft, and explored the limits of the Phantom. They studied engineering information and flew dogfights on training ranges, challenging other Navy and Marine Corps fighters, some Air Force, and even some actual MiGs operated by the US from a super-secret base in the remote Nevada desert.

When they were ready, these intrepid instructors prepared lesson plans, practiced their lectures, and opened the door for the first class in March 1969. In a grainy old photograph, you can read the crude sign above that trailer: "TOPGUN." 


Topgun was not an overnight sensation. There were dozens of F-4 and F-8 squadrons in the Navy and Marine Corps at bases around the country. With routine training and preparations for combat deployments to Vietnam, it was a lot to ask them to send their best pilot (and RIO for the F-4) to Miramar for four weeks. The promise was that these already-skilled aircrew would return to their squadrons even better aviators, with tools to pass along their new knowledge to their squadronmates. After the first few classes, however, the value of Topgun training was becoming apparent – demonstrated in training dogfights and discussed over cold beers in officers clubs. When aerial combat resumed over North Vietnam in 1972, Topgun graduates scored the majority of the Navy's MiG kills. The new training program was here to stay. It was commissioned as a stand-alone squadron in July 1972: the Navy Fighter Weapons School (NFWS). But the name Topgun stuck.

2. Topgun's Early Years: the Foundation

When considering why Topgun flourished, much credit must go to the enduring culture established by the earliest instructors and handed down to their successors. They met the essential requirements for a "school": obtain accurate intelligence and develop effective tactics. The following items, on the other hand, were matters of choice that became part of the standards that defined Topgun.

* Instructors had to be skilled aviators. Topgun instructors taught tactics, and then went out and flew as challenging opponents in aircraft that were in many ways inferior to those flown by the students. This emphasized Topgun's philosophy that aircrew skill and training can overcome deficiencies in aircraft and weapons. In the early years, Topgun used the A-4 Skyhawk and T-38 Talon to simulate the MiG-17 and MiG-21, respectively. The T-38 was replaced by the more capable F-5E and F-5F Tiger II. Through careful maneuvering by instructor pilots, the A-4 and F-5 could be used to simulate many types of aircraft in many scenarios, except for extremes of performance.

* Aerial engagements were debriefed objectively. Fighter pilots and RIOs arrived at Topgun confident of their skills, imagining themselves to be the best who ever strapped on a jet fighter. So when a young crew in an F-4J Phantom was "shot" by an instructor in a TA-4 Skyhawk, the event would have to be debriefed thoughtfully to prevent alienating the students. In addition to the maneuvers, instructors debriefed the physics, tactics, environment, and other factors that affected engagements, emphasizing learning points rather than keeping score. This greatly reduced the "ego factor." Instructors were also responsible for reconstructing flights accurately and in detail, a task that was aided by instrumented ranges developed as recommended in the Ault report.

* Instructors had exceptional technical knowledge. In addition to stick-and-rudder prowess, each instructor also had to become an expert on at least one assigned subject. One was the expert on infrared-guided missiles, another would have division tactics (flights involving four friendly fighters), and so on. They lectured before groups of aviators who asked challenging questions, and helped define the combat tactics for Navy and Marine Corps fighters. To meet their responsibilities, instructors focused on the most detailed intelligence available and sometimes attended specialized training.

* Lectures adhered to high presentation standards. Instead of the flight suits usually worn around the squadron, instructors wore uniforms when presenting lectures. When writing on the board, handwriting and diagrams had to be neat. If using a pointer (pre-laser-pointer), the instructor held it with both hands for accuracy and control. These and dozens of other guidelines were explicitly stated and were checked in the challenging "murder board" lecture vetting process. These standards resulted in disciplined, professional lectures so students could focus on the material.

* The objective was to produce eminently qualified squadron training officers. Any aircrew would improve following weeks of intense flying, but the point of Topgun from the beginning was to develop pilots and RIOs who could return to their squadrons and pass along their knowledge to others. Besides fighter tactics and weapons – for both American and threat systems – Topgun presented lectures on "teaching and learning" and "briefing and debriefing" to give students the tools they needed to be good training officers.

* Adversary instructor program. After a few years of Topgun, the Navy decided that more would be better. It established adversary squadrons at bases around the country to support all tactical air squadrons. Topgun was the lead for adversary standardization, helping to ensure uniform high quality throughout the fleet.

These aspects of Topgun helped ensure that it survived as an organization while the Navy changed. It started on a shoestring and continued to run that way for several years – for example, lack of personnel was a huge issue that wasn't truly rectified until the squadron performed a Navy manpower study and went from a complement of 70 enlisted personnel to 130, and also doubled the number of officers. The final MiG kills of the Vietnam War occurred roughly three years after the first Topgun class.

The F-4 and F-8 gave way to the F-14 Tomcat starting in the mid-1970s. The F/A-18 entered Fleet service in 1983. Despite these profound changes, Topgun stayed true to its original mission and culture, and its reputation grew.

3. Critical Decisions and Events of the Mid-1980s

I was an F-14 RIO who joined my first Fleet fighter squadron in 1981. In 1982 I attended the Topgun class as a student (by then it was five weeks), and in 1984 I was selected to return as an instructor. The following events and decisions occurred during my time as an instructor and contributed to Topgun's evolution and continued validity.

* Introduction of forward-quarter capable threat. For years, students going through Topgun took simulated shots before the merge with the AIM-7 Sparrow missile, employing weapons where MiG-17s and MiG-21s could not. By the 1980s, however, the MiG-23 Flogger was becoming more numerous in Soviet and other air forces. In addition to its high speed, the Flogger brought a credible forward-quarter capable missile, the AA-7 Apex, which created an entirely new threat and necessitated new tactics. Other aircraft and missile combinations also posed forward-quarter capable threats. The offensive and defensive considerations of forward-quarter missiles resulted in significantly more complex tactics. Topgun increased their presentation of this threat, still using F-5s and A-4s, while reducing simulation of older threats.

* Greater emphasis on division tactics. The Navy and Marine Corps use the term "division" to identify a flight of four aircraft. Two-plane operations (a "section" of fighters) had been the norm for the Navy for decades. Against the prospect of large formations of enemy fighters observed in Soviet exercises, and the challenge of a forward-quarter threat, however, Topgun realized that four aircraft provided a substantial increase in tactical flexibility and firepower, and began to increase division flights in the syllabus.

* Shift away from Soviet aircraft to include other threats. The Cold War loomed over the 1980s, with the very real prospect of a US-USSR confrontation. Yet other conflicts proved that combat could erupt almost anywhere: Falkland Islands, Middle East, India-Pakistan, Iran-Iraq, and other locations. The fighters involved came increasingly from outside the US and USSR, so Topgun A-4s and F-5s represented an increasing array of threats.

* Air Force exchange instructor. It may have seemed like an obvious idea, but it wasn't until 1984 that an Air Force officer arrived at NFWS as an instructor on an exchange tour. An F-15C Eagle pilot, he provided a valuable new perspective on fighter tactics, including radar intercepts run by pilots (instead of RIOs). Topgun also began a series of week-long training visits with the Air Force Fighter Weapons School (FWS) F-15 Division, located at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. These interactions helped Topgun better train pilots of the new single-seat F/A-18 Hornet. (An Air Force fighter pilot told me that their FWS also benefitted from the exchange, adding more all-aspect weapons in training for close-in maneuvering and new emphasis on comparing energy maneuverability in 1v1 engagements.)

* First night flight. Navy pilots on aircraft carrier deployments in the 1980s flew roughly half of their missions at night. These night training flights usually consisted of practice radar intercepts, which was useful training for the fighter mission up to a point. In contrast, most Topgun training culminated in a close-in maneuvering dogfight, which could not be conducted at night. As threat weapons and tactics advanced, however, Topgun realized that some opponents would surely launch interceptors even at night, and that its graduate-level training for US fighters crews should include night ops. So in 1986 Topgun conducted its first night syllabus training mission. It was a carefully controlled event with limited objectives, but it was a first step toward realistic air-to-air combat training at night.

* Knowledge inventory. In addition to improved flying skills, Topgun graduates gained a significant amount of "book knowledge" during the class. To quantify this increase, Topgun took a knowledge inventory on the first day of class, asking students to answer fifty questions about weapons and tactics. We graded the tests and held the results. Five weeks later, near the end of class, students were given the same test and the results were compared. The purpose at the time was to demonstrate to the students themselves how much they had learned. Although a direct link can't be established, this seems like an initial step toward formalizing aircrew qualifications, which the Navy instituted in the 1990s with the Strike Fighter Weapons and Tactics (SFWT) qualification program.

By the mid-1980s, senior elements in the Navy leveraged the incredible resource they had in Topgun, designating it the "primary authority for tactical development and training (for) fighter employment in the power projection role," to quote a 1986 squadron brochure. Results of this designation included greater involvement in writing aircraft tactical manuals (along with the VX-4 and VX-5 operational test and evaluation squadrons), and working with tactics analysis teams that examined and reported on threat fighter operations around the world.

An event from my own experience that indicates how the school evolved was a day-long instructor meeting held in1986. One result of this marathon staffex was a list of forty to fifty activities Topgun supported. These were prioritized (the five-week class was priority one), which helped squadron leadership make decisions and also crystallized for every instructor how NFWS was growing. But while Topgun evolved tremendously in the mid-1980s, important changes were still ahead.

4. The Only Constant Is Change

All organizations either evolve or expire, and NFWS is no exception. In the years and decades after I left, Topgun underwent many changes – some necessitated by the increasing complexity of warfare, while others were simply ideas whose time had come. Here are just a few of the more significant events that have helped keep it effective into the 21st century.

* Fourth generation adversary aircraft. As mentioned, Topgun by the mid 1980s was addressing threat aircraft armed with forward-quarter capable missiles. Around the same time, highly maneuverable "4th generation" fighters were entering service with potentially hostile forces, principally the MiG-29 and Su-27. It was difficult to present a realistic simulation using the F-5 and A-4, so the Navy introduced the F-16N, a version of the impressive USAF fighter. As fourth generation fighters themselves, the F-16s provided a tremendous increase in capability when they taxied to the NFWS flight line in June 1987. Displaying a commendable commitment to the principles of the Ault Report published almost twenty years before, the Navy purchased enough F-16Ns to equip adversary squadrons at bases around the country, providing challenging opponents to F-14s and F/A-18s throughout the Fleet.

* Topgun as Blue Air. From the start, Topgun classes taught students about their own weapons and tactics as well as those used by potential threat forces. But in the air, Topgun instructors flew only as an opposing force, or Red Air. In the 1990s, however, Topgun itself began to operate the same F-14s and F/A-18s as the students flew, which gave instructors the ability to fly alongside the students during training flights. Known as Blue Air, this was how the USAF Fighter Weapons School operated and had been discussed at Topgun for years. Flying as Blue Air allowed instructors to get an better sense of student performance and more insight into problems that needed to be addressed.

* Purpose-built facility, followed by move to NAS Fallon. Within a few years of its launch, Topgun moved from the small borrowed trailer into hangar spaces at Miramar, converting spaces normally used by Fleet squadrons into classrooms and briefing rooms – always on a shoestring budget. Around 1990 the squadron moved into a purpose-built facility on NAS Miramar, with state-of-the-art auditoriums to enhance the learning experience, as well as better spaces for briefing and debriefing. Within a few years, however, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process resulted in Miramar becoming a Marine Corps Air Station, and the Navy Fighter Weapons School moved to NAS Fallon (Nevada) in 1996. The move to Fallon coincided with the establishment of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC). NFWS became one of the components of NSAWC, becoming more closely integrated with the Navy's strike warfare and carrier airborne early warning warfare programs, which are also NSAWC components. The integration of these previously separate training organizations greatly enhances training for all carrier-based aviators.

* Air-to-ground training. With the phasing out of the A-6 Intruder in the 1990s, the F-14 joined the FA/18 in the strike-fighter role, charged with both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. To support training requirements for both missions, NFWS added air-to-ground to the Topgun class syllabus, which had been strictly air-to-air. The class was lengthened to nine weeks to accommodate this and other additional training. This change ensures that Navy and Marine Corps fighter aircrews receive the best training available for all missions with which they are charged.

This article has covered a partial listing of significant events in Topgun's more than forty years of training, based on the author's experience and opinions. Many more developments contributed to the school's continuing effectiveness. Yet no specific event can compare to the commitment of each individual Topgun instructor to the highest level of professionalism, both on the ground and in the air. This level of commitment was not dictated by the Ault Report, but is found within each instructor, and is both demanded and facilitated by his and her squadronmates.

Sources: Much of the material for this article came from the author's personal experience as a Topgun instructor. The Ault Report is available online and makes great reading. The author also referred to Adam Elder's article, "Top Gun: 40 Years of Higher Learning," from the October 2009 issue of San Diego Magazine.

The author would like to thank former Topgun instructors Captain John Monroe Smith, USN (Ret.) and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Straight, USAF (Ret.), who reviewed and commented on a draft. Assistance was also provided by Major Patrick Catt, USAF (Ret.), aviation historian and former USAF F-4 and T-38 pilot. This assistance is greatly appreciated. Any errors or omissions, however, are solely the responsibility of the author.

Supplemental Notes

Further Reading:

Donald E. Auten's Roger Ball! The Odyssey of John Monroe "Hawk" Smith, Navy Fighter Pilot, tells the story of an influential figure in Topgun and the Navy fighter community and provide additional information on topics covered in this article.

Robert K. Wilcox's Scream of Eagles is an exciting and detailed description of the Navy's fighter experience in Vietnam and the founding of Topgun.

The author's book Topgun Days provides details on F-14 Tomcat operations in the early 1980s, going through the Topgun class as a student, and returning as an instructor.

Dogfighting and Missiles: The Rocky Start and Evolution

By the mid-1960s, the dogfight was considered a dying art due to the advent of air-to-air missiles, and was not emphasized in training American fighter aircrews. In the real world, however, factors such as rules of engagement that required US aircrews to visually identify targets meant that American pilots often found themselves engaged in a tight-turning fight with maneuverable enemy MiGs.

In these dynamic engagements, early air-to-air missiles revealed flaws that had not been exposed in testing, such as poor performance against maneuvering targets. In addition, all air-to-air missiles have a maximum range and minimum range, and the cockpit displays were not accurate, especially at low altitude, where many dogfights took place. Pilots thus had to estimate when they were in a favorable missile launch position, but had not been well-trained to do so. These conditions caused many of the missile failures: they were launched when they had little chance of hitting the target. Improving missiles and improving training would both contribute to improving missile success rate.

Until the 1980s, most threat fighters used guns and/or the AA-2 Atoll missile, which was equipped with an IR-seeker that was limited to rear-hemisphere attacks. When the MiG-23 was introduced in 1970, it could launch its radar-guided AA-7 missiles in head-on attacks with the proper conditions, although the radar and missile had significant limitations. When the F-14 entered the Fleet in 1974 it brought the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, an aircraft/missile combination that had true forward quarter capability in addition to long range. At the time, however, it was not planned to use AIM-54s against tactical targets on power projection/strike escort missions, which is the framework for the Topgun class. They were instead reserved to defend the carrier from Soviet bomber raids. This mind-set changed by the late 1980s for a variety of reasons, including the performance of threat missiles such as the AA-10C Alamo, which in many scenarios could out-perform the AIM-7 Sparrow.

Fighter Generations

The "generation" system is an unofficial means of broadly categorizing jet fighters based on performance, maneuverability, avionics, and other considerations.

First generation includes the earliest types up to the 1950s, while second generation includes aircraft such as the F-8 Crusader, most of the USAF "Century Series," and most MiG-21 variants.

Third generation fighters include the F-4 Phantom II and MiG-23.

Fourth generation fighters include the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, as well as the MiG-29 and Su-27/Su-30/Su-35.

The F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning are fifth generation American fighters, while the Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20 also display the stealth and high maneuverability characteristic of Gen 5.

NFWS has operated a variety of aircraft since its inception, based on airframe availability and budgetary considerations. As of summer 2013, NFWS was flying F/A-18s and F-16s in the Topgun class. They are supplemented by Navy Reserve squadron VFC-13 flying F-5s.