TOPGUN: The Legacy – Brad Elward

Review by Takis Diakoumis.

When this latest epic volume from Schiffer and Brad Elward arrived, I was absolutely stunned. Weighing in at almost 700 pages, this massive book is without doubt the most comprehensive publicly available study of the US Navy’s TOPGUN program I have ever had the pleasure to read. Schiffer Military books have always set the bar incredibly high – their catalogue is amazing, from the physical quality of the final product to the extensive coverage of their unique subjects – this beauty now takes it all to the next level! 

The evolution of air combat in the second part of the last century is a story told through hard lessons, heavy losses and deep and honest reflection. With the US Navy dominating the Pacific by the end of the Second World War, it entered Korea with its new stable of jet fighters led by the straight-wing F9F Panther. Technically inferior to both the US Air Force’s F-86 and indeed North Korean, Soviet-built MiG-15s, the Panther claimed five MiG-15s for the loss of two; compare that with USAF Sabres claiming 792 MiGs for 78 losses. While the different nature of the missions conducted by the respective services goes some way to explaining the discrepancy, it was also abundantly clear USN training was inadequate. Fleet pilots would often train informally as a part of squadron build-up, lessons and tactics were not reinforced and there was no Navy-wide holistic approach to training and fighting in the new jets of the day. The other key takeaway from Korea was simply that this was not a conflict either service expected to fight and where, for the first time, fighters dominated the arena as opposed to massed formations of strategic bombers. 

The Navy would later enter Vietnam with brand new and capable fighters led by the F-8 Crusader and the F-4 Phantom, but where the combat training edge still lagged and technological advances were seen as key to dominating the sky. Vietnam was the first conflict to see the triple-threat of enemy aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery and the new surface-to-air missiles that cost the US dearly across all services in both men and machines. The expected missile war never quite eventuated – as much due to the restrictive rules of engagement as it was to early problems that included basic weapon failures as well as often firing outside of what was then a fairly limited effective envelope. Between 1965 and 1968, Crusaders achieved a kill ratio of 6.3:1 with the Phantoms even lower at only 3.2:1. 

The Navy’s reaction was absolute this time. The Ault Report – a study commissioned to investigate the poor fighter and missile performance delivered 242 recommendations. The most significant of these called for the creation of a graduate-level programme to teach advanced fighter tactics. The Navy would authorise the creation of such a programme within VF-121, led by Lieutenant Commander Dan Pederson with his initial cadre of instructors, all with recent combat experience and even some MiG killers among them. Pederson’s team would rewrite fighter tactics and instruction that continue to this very day. TOPGUN was formed. 

As a deep dive into the evolution of air combat tactics, Brad Elward starts at the very beginning with a study of the tactics developed during the First World War as the first pilots and flying machines met over the trenches of the Western Front. By the end of the Great War, tactics had matured into a well-defined set of rules and principles guiding young flyers into perfecting their craft. Elward continues his analysis with careful study of the Second World War where conclusions mirror those of the First – air superiority was absolutely crucial to overall campaign success. Of note here is how respective services began the war as compared to how they finished; the USAAF entered believing bombers were the mainstay of the service while the USN inotially positioned aircraft carriers as support vessels for battleships. Indeed, the USAAF suffered more severely before their fortunes turned in Europe while the Navy’s success appeared fairly swiftly thanks in part to its quick pivots and tactical revisions mid-conflict. Both the Navy and Air Force would enter Korea equipped with volumes of tactical information and force employment references to support the more limited goals of that arena. At least for the Navy, between mission assignment and early carrier jet development, many lessons of the Pacific Theatre in the preceding years would be overlooked. Elward’s early sections up to Vietnam are an illuminating quick study of those conflicts and important phases of the development of aerial combat tactics. 

Elward’s critical assessment of aerial operations in Vietnam is as thorough as you will find and importantly covers USAF operations as well. He notes the USAF accepted the Navy’s view that interceptors needed only missiles and began to also acquire the Phantom as its primary fighter, employing it in the dual fighter-bomber role. The problem here remained that interceptor training had focused on countering mass bomber formations and other general fighter training was on nuclear delivery. Tactical formations were throwbacks to the Second World War and typical units would fly only a single ‘Air Combat Maneuvering’ mission per quarter – against a target flying straight and level. Initial Navy engagements over Vietnam were attempts at positioning the aircraft to within medium-range parameters for Sparrow missile shots, effectively the same tactics taught against Soviet bomber formations. The war’s critical year was 1968. The services were effectively neck-and-neck with North Vietnamese MiGs, issues with missile reliability worsened, and both the USAF and USN had come to realise key tactical shifts were required for the tide to turn 

Dan Pederson would graduate six TOPGUN classes by the end of 1969; each with eight crews (for 48 graduates). While a good portion of the training and general syllabus had been designed, much of it was also expanded and enhanced through each course. A key new element and a main recommendation of the Ault Report was the inclusion of dissimilar air combat training – training against different aircraft types to your own (initially A-4s). This understanding of the different capabilities inherent in each mount, and in particular how to exploit their weakness, would be crucial. Elward includes some fascinating commentary from the founding instructors as he outlines in thorough detail the first year of the school. TOPGUN’s success during that first year is attributed to its dedicated team of instructors, the heavy weight of the Ault Report itself and, most importantly, the hands-off approach taken by the surrounding leadership. They simply got out of their way.

The following year in 1970 would see the first validating encounters by recent graduates over the skies of south-east Asia when, in March, crews would score the first kill against a MiG-21. The key point here was how the kill was achieved – by employing tactics exactly as instructed. TOPGUN had prepared the crews by providing them the ability to effectively measure their opponent as they employed textbook tactics straight out of the syllabus. Crews had normalised their tactical bag of tricks and could access the right approach at the critical time. Elward includes a number of encounters through the Linebacker campaigns of 1972 where the Navy would achieve a kill ratio of 12.5:1. The results were in! 

The rest of the 1970s would see the school expand dramatically and include different adversary aircraft types, including the A-4 and F-5 (chosen to simulate the MiG-17 and MiG-21). An interesting point Elward includes is the relationship between the F-4 Phantom-dominated TOPGUN and the F-8 Crusader community. The F-8 crews were effectively doing their own thing and even though Crusader squadrons were slowly fading away, their experience was invaluable, not least as the ‘Last of the Gunfighters’. The Phantom lacked this crucial weapon and getting F-8 crews on staff would help expand the syllabus to include aerial gunnery just in time for the introduction of the F-14 Tomcat, the latest Navy interceptor. 

A sometimes important omission, or light inclusion, on the study of the evolution of TOPGUN is the technological shifts in weapons ranges that facilitate the rich training experience. Elward outlines the key leaps made in the Air Combat Maneuvering Range, including the instrumentation towers placed strategically across the range that communicate with an equivalent pod carried by the aircraft. The pod would measure and send back aircraft data and other metrics to aid the debrief and improve training outcomes. The data collected would validate all missile shots which could be replayed and studied to better understand how the encounter occurred and what lessons could be assimilated. 

The 1980s would see TOPGUN develop new tactical lessons around the new fleet defender Tomcat, moving slightly away from one-v-one and one-v-many tactics to division tactics, and with some focus on defending the fleet from multiple Soviet bomber attacks. The course adapted rapidly to keep pace with other Soviet developments, including the introduction of the new fourth-generation fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-27 as well as the array of advanced medium-range weapons they carried. The Soviets had vastly improved their forward-quarter targeting tactics and technology and TOPGUN was adjusting to meet the challenge. The decade would prove to be its heyday. TOPGUN instructors were regarded as the best tacticians and aviators in the fleet. Their advice was sought by not only the Department of Defence but across NATO. The winds of change were nonetheless being felt. The importance of air-to-ground missions was resurfacing and the dual-role F/A-18 Hornets were now firmly established throughout the fleet. 

The 1991 Gulf War would again highlight some training gaps through the fleet. Elward includes careful analysis and comparison here with the overall performance of the Air Force in the Gulf. The war highlighted the better weapons capability of the Air Force, especially with Precision Guided Munitions, as well as superior countermeasures equipment and even large force tactics and employment of unit weapons training officers. The Air Force Weapons School taught air-to-air as well as air-to-ground, catering for the growing number of dual-role platforms across its squadrons with the F-15E and F-16. TOPGUN had already begun its internal review highlighting some of these points even before the Gulf War had laid them bare. 

The remainder of the 1990s would prove to be the most active period as a reorganisation of the school introduced strike into the syllabus and saw a move from the kill-marked Miramar hangars, surrounded by active fleet squadrons in San Diego, to Fallon in Nevada. Hornet crews would be dominant students through the school and the Tomcat was now dropping bombs! 

The first two decades of the 2000s saw conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and TOPGUN’s now maturing air-to-ground syllabus remained critical for operations. The Super Hornet was approaching critical mass across the fleet and the glorious Tomcat was retiring. Squinting over the horizon, you could see the F-35C whose first students would arrive by 2020. TOPGUN would undergo further change over these first two decades, sometimes seemingly struggling for relevance in the face of frantic technological change and often unclear but certain global threats to the fleet. The Navy tradition of reflective analysis and willingness to change have ensured the school remains not only relevant but more important than ever in honing the edge. 

Brad Elward concludes with a series of observations on what not only made TOPGUN the overwhelming success story over 50 years but what may also help it continue to reimagine itself in the ongoing quest for training the best crews and delivering the right outcomes for fleet squadrons. If you’re looking for what you might call the typical TOPGUN story filled with gorgeous shots of colourful adversary aircraft and Tomcats and Hornets and even Scooters in their heyday, then this is not the book for you; try the author’s other recent TOPGUN book, also from Schiffer as a part of their Legends of Warfare series, or even the countless number of fine glossies published over the years. 

This is a thoroughly researched and careful analysis of TOPGUN, the school. The inclusion of former instructor commentary threaded throughout the text lends enormous credence to Elward’s deconstruction of the important moments in the school’s history. This book is the story of TOPGUN like you’ve never seen before with critical and open analysis of key events, machines and the people brought together to achieve great things. Read it cover-to-cover or dip across and in and out, any student or aficionado of aerial warfare will gain enormous insights into the pre-eminent fighter weapons school of the past 50 years, what made it tick and how it evolved through challenge and change. This is a real beauty, a trophy on any bookshelf that will no doubt claim the mantle of go-to text for this incredible story. 

ISBN 978-0-76436-2-545

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