Topgun in the Mid-1980s: Building on the Legacy – Part Three
(Topgun F-5E heads out for an air combat maneuvering training flight with a C-model and D-model from the Air Force F-15 Fighter Weapons School.)
PART 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 benefited 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.
(Three F-5Es cruise off the coast of Southern California on their way to a Topgun class training flight.)
(In the 1980s, roughly half of the Navy’s deployed flight ops were night flights. Topgun training finally addressed this environment.)
Next: PART 4: The Only Constant Is Change