As U. S. naval aviation looks toward its future as the nation’s primary conventional striking force, it must carefully manage three closely related variables—weapons, tactics, and training—in its combat readiness equation. However, Navy tactical air (TacAir) has shown occasional shortfalls in its ability to contribute to the Maritime Strategy’s execution. Fortunately, a slow tactical renaissance is occurring within the Navy from top to bottom. This renaissance is leading TacAir toward better readiness for its role in the Maritime Strategy.
In the past year and a half, the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Topgun) has taken a critical look at its inputs to the Navy’s readiness equation, most of which occur in the areas of tactics and training. The resulting changes in Topgun’s structure and emphasis promise enormous benefits for Navy and Marine Corps tactical aviation.
To better understand these changes, it is necessary to trace Topgun’s history. Topgun was established in 1968 as an adjunct to the F-4 replacement aircrew training squadron at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar. The school owes its existence largely to a study conducted in 1968 by Captain Frank W. Ault. The Ault report was commissioned to assess the reasons for Navy tactical aviation’s somewhat disappointing performance during the first few years of the Vietnam War. Among other deficiencies, the report identified numerous flaws in fighter aircrew combat readiness, including a lack of tactics and training for air-to-air engagements against dissimilar aircraft, improper use of existing weapon systems, and unsound power projection fighter tactics.
To help counter these shortcomings, Topgun began conducting a fast-paced course intended to train a small number of experienced aircrews in advanced fighter tactics. Graduating aircrews were expected to return to their squadrons and spread the word, as training officers. The school was an unqualified success—while there were other contributing factors, when air strikes resumed over North Vietnam in 1972, the Navy’s kill ratio leaped from 2.42:1 to 12.5:1.
Topgun was formally established as a squadron in 1972 and charged with supporting both East and West coast Navy and Marine Corps fighter communities. The course eventually stabilized at six five-week classes conducted per year, comprised of eight aircrews each. These aircrews received intensive ground training as well as numerous air-to-air missions opposed by the school’s Northrop F-5s and McDonnell Douglas A-4s, which simulated Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-17s. Air intercept controllers and, eventually, adversary squadron pilots—each deriving their own specific training—were included in the course.
When the F-14A was introduced into the fleet, with its dual missions of power projection and maritime air superiority, the “Topscope” course was created. Topscope sought to do for maritime air superiority training what the Topgun course did for power projection: teach training officers. Topscope was short-lived, however, because of the increasing complexity of weapon systems and tactics, a need for better standardization, and an overall increase in emphasis on defensive antiair warfare. To meet these needs, Topgun began working directly with entire squadrons, instead of individual training officers. Fleet air superiority training (FAST) was born and exists to this day. It now includes elements of the entire carrier battle group. The week-long FAST course provides morning lectures on threat and friendly systems and tactics to all participants, and afternoon simulator training to F-14 aircrews. The logic behind the inception of FAST was a harbinger of many of the changes currently occurring at Topgun.
Topgun’s success is largely the result of almost ruthless devotion to quality, handed down over the years by the school’s custodians. The staff is comprised of knowledgeable fighter tacticians. Each is assigned one or more specific fields of expertise, such as a particular weapon, threat, or tactic. Equally important, every instructor is expected to become an expert in effective training techniques both on the ground and in the air.
All lectures are given without notes and are subjected to a rigorous “murder board” screening process before they may be given to the class or the fleet. Flight briefing skills, the ability to fly as a representative threat, and debriefing skills are also heavily emphasized. Remembering exactly what occurred during an air-to-air engagement, finding and analyzing mistakes, and pointing them out tactfully are special skills. Accordingly, the Topgun instructor training process is demanding—a new instructor only really begins to contribute after he has been on the staff for about a year. The Topgun course itself is kept in an intentional state of flux, based upon class critique inputs, and changes in threat and friendly systems and tactics.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Topgun and various other organizations (such as VX-4, VX-5, the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron, and the light attach weapons schools), Navy TacAir tactics and training gradually fell into stagnation. Many accurately accused both the strike and fighter communities of “preparing to fight the last war.” TacAir was so busy absorbing improvements in technology—brought on by a favorable funding environment—that necessary attendant advancements in tactics were frequently overlooked. Worse, the Soviets were rapidly advancing their own technology, a critical factor also often ignored. Meanwhile, increased operating tempos for carrier forces were not always accompanied by increased operating funds. This placed a premium on scarce power projection training time. Moreover, the quality of training that did occur did not provide adequate combat readiness—aircrews were not well trained on the ground or in the air.
The situation was reminiscent of a controversial conclusion of the Ault report years earlier: “We may have concentrated too extensively on improving the machine without spending enough on the man who flies the aircraft” (quoted by Randy Cunningham, Fox Two, Chaplain Fighter Museum, Mesa, AZ, 1984, p. 134). For the fighter community, it was obvious that the word was not getting out from the most basic to the most advanced level of complexity, including the following examples:
One-Versus-One Proficiency: One-versus-one air combat maneuvering is one of the most fundamental skills a fighter pilot must master. Years ago, Topgun created a systematic means for grouping the many different types of enemy fighter aircraft into several categories based upon their performance characteristics. Rather than having a set of tactics to use against each fighter, the “category system” made it possible for squadrons to train to specific one-versus-one tactics for each category. The squadrons that use the system in their training usually perform much better than those that do not. The category system was to have been taught to fleet squadrons by training officers who graduated from Topgun; unfortunately, it has taken a long time to spread the experience.
Weapon Systems Knowledge: One of the classic lessons of fighter combat has been that a majority of the threat aircraft have been shot down by a minority of pilots (in World War II, 40% of the kills belonged to 4% of the pilots). One of the common threads linking the successful pilots was thorough knowledge of their weapon systems. The complexity of modem tactical aircraft weapon systems has grown at an accelerated pace during the last decade, demanding even more of an aircrew’s time to master their details. Weapon systems are heavily emphasized in the Topgun course, yet the school’s interface with the fleet indicates that few aircrews approach a desirable level of weapon systems knowledge.
Forward Quarter Missile Tactics: Threat fighter aircraft capable of firing missiles in the forward quarter did not exist in the Vietnam War, but there are plenty today. The tactics to counter this threat were relatively simple until recently, when the threat achieved a true lookdown/shootdown capability. The tactics are not so simple now, but they do exist and are effective. Unfortunately, many aircrews are in for a rude awakening the first time they face this threat. They are not trained correctly to counter it. Reactions in the forward quarter chess game must be automatic and correct—it has been proven many times on air combat maneuvering ranges that misconceptions or a partial understanding of tactics in this environment can quickly become fatal.
Strike Tactics: Exercises conducted at NAS Fallon have demonstrated a lack of common ground between the fighter and attack communities over strike tactics. In many cases, both are ignorant of their critical relationship in planning and executing a strike which threat fighters are expected to oppose. Often, the fighter and attack portions of a strike are not systematically integrated. The results are predictable: the strike makes it to the target but suffers severe losses to aggressor aircraft during its egress. Moreover, fighter aircrews themselves are usually unaware of the various factors surrounding their own important role in such a strike because of too much community-isolated training and improper training at the individual unit level. For example, few routine fighter power projection training missions use a strike package—either imaginary or simulated by an adversary aircraft—for the fighters to protect. Yet having such a package makes a tremendous difference in the manner in which fighters conduct themselves, for every decision made by a fighter aircrew will be influenced by the strike’s position and status. If the aircrews are not required to make these decisions in training, it is unlikely they will make those same decisions correctly on real strikes (which the Fallon exercises simulate).
These examples represent only a few of the training problems the fighter community faces. The attack community faces many similar problems. In neither community do the problems favor any one experience level—all aircrews are affected. The problem came to light most vividly after the Navy’s strike on Lebanon in December 1983. Tactics and training deficiencies were apparently such a significant factor in this strike’s failure that they to the establishment of the Navy Strike Warfare Center(Strike U) at NAS Fallon, Nevada.
Many of the reasons for reduced aircrew tactical proficiency are far beyond Topgun’s control; some have been discussed before in Proceedings. (See R. M. Nutwell, “Deep Six’ for TacAir?,” Proceedings, January 1983, pp. 76-83; J. A. Winnefeld, Jr., “The Missing Fighter Readiness,’’ Proceedings, April 1984, pp 51-57.) However, early in 1985, the Topgun staff took a critical look at its own overall contribution to readiness in the fighter community. The philosophy that worked so well in Vietnam had, for many reasons, become inadequate.
The staff focused its attention primarily on Topgun’s emphasis on producing training officers. The “high-mix-only” philosophy was reexamined and, although judged obsolete, it was found wanting for the reasons
- The Topgun course is very intensive—it has been likened to “taking a drink from a firehose.” While the principles of fighter tactics have not changed significantly, application of these principles (and hence, the Topgun course) has become more complex. It was unrealistic to expect a young aircrewman to absorb every detail and pass it all on to his squadron. Nor could a single aircrewman be asked to give the same quality lectures on numerous subjects that require each Topgun instructor months to assemble. Worse, these lectures were only given to 48 fleet aircrews per year, unless an instructor was able to find time to present one to an individual fleet squadron at its request.
- Topgun graduates, usually first-tour aviators, complained of the lack of command support for the tactics and training techniques they brought back from the course. Commanding officers were either unaware of their graduates’ capabilities or unwilling to use them correctly. There were exceptions—some squadrons learned a great deal from their graduates—but, clearly, the system was not working properly.
- Valid complaints surfaced that, because of the large amount of time Topgun spent on the class and its West Coast location, the school was not adequately supporting fighter squadrons that were not based at Miramar.
In the spring of 1985, Topgun received indication that its command status would be changing to “Echelon Two” (reporting directly to the Chief of Naval Operations). At the same time, the staff was reexamining its contribution to fleet fighter readiness and revising the squadron’s charter. This controversial but long-needed shift proved a powerful opportunity to make constructive changes. The result was a series of initiatives, which were incorporated into a new charter when the school finally became an Echelon Two command in October 1985.
Under Topgun’s new charter, the power projection class will still receive priority—teaching training officers remains an important function of the school. However, adjustments to the class reflect more of a “high-low” mix than before. The class is evolving more towards emphasis on creating a true training officer rather than primarily providing means for an aircrew to become “up-to-speed” in current fighter tactics. Also, the size of each class will increase to 12 crews, the intensity of the class will be tempered slightly, and five classes instead of six will be given per year. These changes produce tow important results. First, they will allow 12 more crews per year (60 pilots instead of 48) to attend the course without significantly changing its quality. This will hep service A-7E squadrons that are transitioning to the F/A-18. Second, the move will also free five additional weeks per year for Topgun to work directly with the fleet. Also, several aircraft can be withdrawn from supporting the class, to provide outside adversary support if required. This significant shift in emphasis will lend much more scheduling flexibility to an already ambitious schedule.
Placing less emphasis on the class will allow more direct fleet support. This support will take the following forms:
Fleet Lectures: Fleet air superiority training remains one of Topgun’s most successful programs, reaching virtually every comer of the battle group. The success of the FAST philosophy of teaching directly to fleet aircrews is now being added to power projection training. Nine of Topgun’s most important power projection lectures are targeted for all fleet fighter squadrons, in addition to the class. Lecture subjects range from the basics, such as one-versus-one maneuvering, to surface-to-air countertactics and strike tactics. Also, every attempt will be made to give these nine lectures at the most appropriate time during a squadron’s training cycle, although it will be easier for West Coast squadrons because of funding constraints. This program is already benefitting fleet squadrons and training officers. Also, it will ultimately improve tactics standardization, a shortcoming within Western air forces which even the Soviets have criticized.
Senior Officers’ Course: Tactical awareness in the Navy must come from the top down. One of the most successful new programs in Navy TacAir is a concerted reemphasis on tactical awareness among its senior officers. The two-week Navy Strike Warfare Center strike leader attack training syllabus (SLATS) course, in which prospective airwing and squadron commanders, strike leaders, and others receive instruction on current strike warfare doctrine, is the Mecca for this tactical renaissance. Topgun participates fully in the process by providing one week of condensed information to senior officers. The senior officers’ course has been needed for a long time. Its effects will not be felt for a while, but will be long-lasting and positive. One important side-effect is that commanding officers will now be more aware of their Topgun graduates’ capabilities so they may use them more effectively.
Overland Air Superiority Training (OAST): One of Topgun’s early initiatives was to support air wing training at NAS Fallon. This two-or three-week period is the climax of an air wing’s power projection training cycle prior to a deployment. The facilities at the Fallon ranges were vastly upgraded with the arrival of Strike U, which is the primary supporting activity for air wing training in the area. In February 1986, Topgun made its first such deployment, supporting an air wing during its first week at Fallon. It was immediately evident that little meaningful training was being conducted for fighter assets that first week, before practice air strikes were to begin the following week.
Topgun proposed and designed and Strike U fully supported a program designed to conduct more systematic training for fighters on subsequent detachments—and OAST was born. The program includes strike, fighter, and early warning assets, emphasizes participation from strike leaders and senior aircrews, and consists of both lectures and flights. Its primary purpose is to provide training to integrate fighters properly into the “macro” aspects of strike tactics. Secondary training in the “micro” aspects of carrying out those strikes is also provided. While the program initially experienced growing pains, it is now thriving.
Adversary Support: Even though it has never been in better shape, the Navy’s adversary support community is facing a difficult period. Improvements in threat aircraft performance and avionics capabilities far surpass that which current adversary aircraft are able to simulate. Furthermore, the increasing numbers of fleet fighter aircraft (the influx of F/A-18s and an additional air wing) are stretching already severely limited numbers of adversary assets to the breaking point. The lease of F-21A (Kfir) aircraft from Israel and the introduction in 1987 of a small buy of F-16N aircraft (which will be the Navy’s only radar-equipped “bogey”) will only partially alleviate the problem. Accordingly, Topgun is much more aggressively pursuing its role as the adversary “model manager.” Adversary training, standardization, support for fleet readiness programs (such as the fleet fighter and strike fighter air combat maneuvering readiness programs—FFARP and SFARP), and adversary asset management in the next several years will require careful attention if we are to simulate a formidable threat properly.
Tactics Development: Unlike weapons and other hardware, tactics are difficult to measure qualitatively. One result of this unfortunate fact of life is that the Navy’s formal tactics development system is weaker than its hardware acquisition system. Before its status changed to Echelon Two, Topgun was never specifically chartered to conduct tactics research, but did anyway. In the process, Topgun and VX-4 have become the primary sources of new fighter tactics, with many other commands contributing, as well. The results are often published in the “Topgun Journal” or the “VX-4 Newsletter” because formal tactics documents usually take too long to update. This problem is currently receiving considerable attention.
Each command has its own unique area of expertise which it may contribute to tactics development. However, until recently, most commands conducted their research independently, rarely reaping the benefits of a synergism of their various specialties. Fortunately, this has changed. For example, tactics development for countering forward quarter missile-capable threats has benefitted enormously from cooperation between VX-4 (whose strong suites are weapon systems and tactics) and Topgun (which specializes in tactics and training). Topgun now chairs a tactics development steering committee which is able to present a community-wide voice on key issues. In spite of the constraints of geographic separation of participating units, the demands of the class, and the cumbersome formal Navy tactics development system, Topgun continues to work closely with others responsible for tactics development, including the Air Force.
These and other changes will enable Topgun to have a more direct impact on fleet fighter aircrews. Several other needs will be addressed in the future as well. As Topgun expands, it will be able to provide more support to fleet replacement squadrons (FRSs). This support will not come so much in the way of adversary support for FRS classes as it will to staff instructors in teaching techniques and tactics updates. The command will also be in a position to coordinate a more systematic integration of various existing formal fighter training programs throughout an airwing’s turnaround training cycle. In addition, there is a great deal of interest in providing an OAST program to Marine Corps aircraft wings.
When discussing fighter training, Manford von Richthofen wrote, “It is not the crate that matters, but who sits in it.” We are headed in the right direction.
In today’s air combat arena, we cannot afford to “brush up” tactically at the last minute or to have to learn by many mistakes, for aircraft and aircrews are too expensive and take to long to develop. Navy TacAir will have to get it right the first time. Topgun is but a single contributor to combat readiness in the Navy, yet it is better prepared now than ever before to do its part in ensuring that the fleet aircrews will “get it right the first time.”