Review by Takis Diakoumis.
The Legends of Warfare series from Schiffer Publishing has continued to raise the bar on shorter form pictorial military histories through its Ground, Naval and Aviation studies. This latest one by Brad Elward covers the storied birth and evolution of the legendary US Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN.
The story of TOPGUN is a journey through the evolution of air combat over the past 100 years and that’s where Elward starts with a quick refresher on early encounters from World War I through to the Korean War and the early jets. Navy fighters in Korea did not see anywhere near the action of their Air Force brethren, as much due to the location of the carrier strike forces off the southern coast of the peninsula as it was due to the more inferior primary Navy fighter, the F9F Panther, when compared to the USAF’s F-86 Sabres and, of course, the enemy’s MiG-15s. Indeed, USAF Sabres ended the war with a 9:1 kill ratio, claiming 792 MiGs for 78 Sabres lost, while the Panthers claimed five MiG-15s for the loss of two.
What was especially striking for the time was that combat training in the early fifties was almost informal and more at the squadron level were section leads guided younger members. There was no real reflective or experiential learning where a pre- and post-brief might establish, and then reinforce, key lessons and tactics. Recognising this, the Navy established the FAGU – Fleet Air Gunnery Unit. Its specific goal was to train fleet pilots in ordnance delivery and operated in a very similar way to how TOPGUN eventually worked well into the nineties. Squadrons would send their best pilots and those attending returned to their units to pass on their lessons, elevating the whole through the immersion of a few.
Despite some success at improving fleet ability and readiness, FAGU was disestablished in 1960. The winds of technological change had well and truly established that the future was missiles launched at invading bomber formations from afar. The next main Navy fighter – the F-4 Phantom – was delivered without a gun and would instead rely on new radar technology and a combination of radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles. Tactics were developed around detecting and approaching bombers from a distance. Elward goes on to note that dogfighting was de-emphasised and even forbidden in some units.
It is with this critical foundation the Navy (and the USAF) found itself in the Vietnam War. Lessons of the past had to be re-learnt at enormous cost as the nimble MiGs over North Vietnam delivered a reckoning of sorts that forced the Navy to re-evaluate its training and reconsider how it deployed fighters. It was this honest reflection delivered in a report led by Captain Frank Ault, simply known famously since as ‘the Ault Report’, that would lead to the creation of a graduate-level program to teach advanced fighter tactics – TOPGUN.
Working out of an abandoned construction trailer at the edge of NAS Miramar’s main complex, the first instructors, led by Lieutenant Commander Dan Pederson, began their work on a training syllabus that would immerse students in new formations, new tactics and new weapons handling. By 1970, each Pacific Fleet squadron had at least one TOPGUN-trained crew with the first kill by a graduate team scored a few months later in March. During Operation Linebacker in 1972, the Navy achieved a kill ratio of 12.5:1 while USAF fighters maintained much the same ratio they had throughout the conflict (1.78:1) even with the albeit much broader Nellis-based USAF Fighter Weapons School established as far back as 1954.
By the end of the decade, the TOPGUN course had expanded, multiple adversary aircraft types were now introduced, including the A-4 and F-5, and the Navy was in the process of inducting its latest fleet fighter, the F-14 Tomcat. The 1980s would be the school’s heyday with continued expansion and enormous prestige that would even capture the imagination of Hollywood. New fighters, like the F/A-18 Hornet, as well as the latest adversary emulators, like the F-16N, allowed the Navy to simulate the latest threats from types such as the MiG-29 and Su-27.
Elward continues the story into the 1990s that would see the first shift in the school’s mission as it began to include air-to-ground training in its syllabus. The first Gulf War’s limited air-to-air threat suggested the future was more strike-oriented so, with the Navy’s stable now filled with mission-flexible strike-fighters like the Hornet, and even the Tomcat as a bomber, TOPGUN gradually shifted its focus onto a broader set of lessons. In 1996, TOPGUN moved from the famed and storied hangars and kill-marked stairways of NAS Miramar to NAS Fallon.
The past two decades, with conflict over Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, saw an even greater emphasis on air-to-ground instruction. The arrival of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the later retirement of the F-14 Tomcat, forced another rewrite of the training syllabus as has the more recent introduction of the F-35C Lightning II whose first students arrived in 2020.
Brad Elward does a sterling job recounting the history and development of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School. The glory years of the 1970s and 80s are captured beautifully with the glossy pages filled with colourful Skyhawks, Tigers, Tomcats, Falcons and Hornets. Most of the book’s 144 pages portray adversary aircraft in all their exotic schemes and would be a real treat for nostalgic enthusiasts, modern aficionados and modellers alike. The quality is as you would expect from Schiffer – perfect! This is a beautifully presented and wonderful story of one of the pre-eminent fighter schools anywhere in the world.
The US Navy’s TOPGUN school is legend. Brad Elward and Schiffer have created a stunning tribute paying homage to its past and set an exciting scene for the future. This is a fabulous addition to the amazing and very accessible Legends of Warfare series and a small indication of what’s to come with Elward’s epic Topgun: The Legacy: The Complete History of Topgun and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation (also from Schiffer).