In September, the Tailhook Association—the nonprofit association of naval aviation—convened its annual symposium in Reno, Nevada. This year’s symposium commemorated the 50th anniversary of the founding of TOPGUN, the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School. A crisis in air-to-air combat in the early days of Vietnam brought the school into being in 1969; commentary from Tailhook 2019 suggests a new crisis is at hand.
If so, its consequences could prove dire. Back then the foe was North Vietnam, a doughty opponent that nonetheless posed little threat outside its borders. Today, China has emerged as a serious military competitor across the Indo-Pacific even as Russia resumes its station as a world power. It is one thing to reinvent yourself when you can learn from past mistakes without fear of losing a war—quite another when you are fighting a peer competitor and could suffer a defeat of seismic proportions while trying to adapt.
A mix of material and cultural factors brought TOPGUN into being. By the 1960s the Navy fielded carrier-based fighter jets whose design philosophy centered on guided missiles. It had become an article of faith that U.S. aircraft would prosecute missile engagements at “standoff” range, firing beyond enemy weapons range and beyond visual range. Adversaries would never get off a shot in reply. Missiles had rendered gunfights a thing of the past, or so it was thought in the early 1960s. Yet Ho Chi Minh’s pilots were an ornery lot, refusing to follow the script American tacticians had written for them. Rather than remain at standoff distance to be blasted out of the sky, North Vietnamese airmen closed to dogfighting range and took their chances in gun duels.
Imagine that: an enemy might decline to do your bidding. U.S. aviators were ill prepared for North Vietnamese tactics. Indeed, the F-4 Phantom—the Navy’s premier fighter in the 1960s—was not even equipped with guns for close-range combat. Hence the crisis that brought about TOPGUN. A tougher-than-expected antagonist stunned naval aviation into arming its warplanes for dogfighting, developing tactics for close combat, and re-grounding naval aviation’s culture on solid precepts—including the soundest of all military assumptions, namely that America’s enemies get a vote in war and will always cast it against our efforts.
The adversary, in other words, is not an inert, passive mass on which we work our will; but rather a living, breathing contestant certain to veto U.S. tactics and operational methods. And with sufficient ingenuity and resolve a rival might just make its veto stick. Humility is a virtue. Yet often it takes a trauma—a defeat or something likewise dramatic—to remind a martial institution to respect antagonists’ skill and moxie rather than disdain them.
In a sense, then, winning big can be a curse. Complacency afflicts those who ace the most severe test. Naval aviation contracted a case of hubris amid the afterglow of victory in World War II and the Korean War. The Vietnam War bestowed a gift on carrier aviators by debunking faulty assumptions underlying air tactics and aircraft design, and it did so in a theater where tactical setbacks carried less-than-catastrophic repercussions. Better to unlearn unsound concepts and methods in a peripheral setting rather than in a globe-spanning and perhaps mortal conflict against the chief adversary of the time—the Soviet Union.
In short, Indochina acted as a laboratory where naval aviation could rediscover the fundamentals and gird for success in the late Cold War. Thank you, Hanoi.
Back to Reno and Tailhook ‘19. The organizers put a portentous question to a panel of eight lieutenants—instructors representing various segments of the aviation tactical-training community: “Are we ready to fight a peer competitor today?” The panelists answered with refreshing bluntness. The first respondent set the tone: “The simple answer is, ‘No.’” That inaugurated the chilling part of the deliberations. The United States’ standing in the world depends on military might—on its ability to cow prospective antagonists while heartening allies and friends. Air power is one of the principal “sticks” of U.S. foreign policy. A U.S. air supremacy deficit could embolden hostile powers while disheartening partners. The U.S.-led world order could unravel over time.
Here a caveat is in order. The panelists defined not being ready to fight a peer competitor in a curious way. For instance, a TOPGUN instructor lamented that future fights are shaping up to be “fair fights.” In this view naval aviation is unready unless it commands an overmatch in the wild blue. Nevertheless, that lofty standard is a fitting one. Parity on an aircraft-for-aircraft or missile-for-missile basis works against the United States. After all, U.S. forces wage war on rivals’ home ground, where a multitude of advantages—including the advantage of numbers—already go to the defender. A carrier air wing or two could confront the combined weight of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Naval Air Force. Parity on a one-to-one basis translates into inferiority when a fraction of one force squares off against the whole of another.
Air battles must be as unfair as possible if Washington hopes to accomplish its goals in distant arenas.
The panelists pointed to material and human factors molding the balance of air power. Recent years, declared one, have seen a “huge shift” from the relatively placid interlude following the Cold War. Carrier aircraft no longer boast the same “kinematic advantage,” or edge in speed and energy maneuverability, that once granted them near-invincibility in the Balkan wars, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Aircraft designers must try to restore that hardware advantage, making air battles lopsided once again, even as aviators experiment with new tactics to ensure the U.S. “man in the box” is the finest combat pilot in the world.
Fittingly for teachers, the panelists fretted more about human than matériel shortcomings. They spoke forcefully on behalf of additional manpower for naval aviation, including the training apparatus. Squadrons need access to more capacious airspace to practice countering longer-range enemy weaponry and handling longer-range weapons of their own. Above all, U.S. aviators need more flight hours. Just as athletes hone their tactical acumen through constant practice and self-critique, airmen need sufficient resources and time to undertake “repetition after repetition after repetition”—and flourish in action.
The logic of deploying human excellence to offset material shortfalls rings familiar. During Great Britain’s age of maritime mastery, Parliament sought to maintain a Royal Navy equal in numbers and physical capability to the next two fleets combined, on the well-founded assumption that Britain might face an alliance of its brawniest opponents. The conceit was that British seamanship, gunnery, and élan honed through repetition in high-seas operations would beget a decisive advantage against peer forces. British mariners doubtless would have welcomed the type of material overmatch espoused at Reno—but they seldom had the luxury.
Here is the heartwarming part of the deliberations to accompany the doleful outlook. The instructors pointed out that naval aviation is working with other communities within the U.S. Navy, and with fellow armed services, to tighten up the sinews that bind them into a cohesive fighting force. This helps offset peer competitors’ home-field advantage. For instance, carrier airborne early-warning-and-control aircraft are working with the surface navy—especially Aegis destroyers and cruisers that help wage the air battle from beneath—and with the U.S. Air Force. If the U.S. military hopes to excel at joint warfare, it must pursue ever-greater harmony and resilient networks among elements of the force. In so doing it compensates—in part—for the numbers challenge.
Next, the panelists urged naval leaders to accelerate adaptation within the big, unwieldy, set-in-its-ways bureaucracy. One respondent insisted that the service tries to do it all, performing every mission imaginable. The Navy could get away with spreading itself thin during the early post-Cold War years, when the strategic landscape lacked a peer competitor. Yet armed forces that try to do everything, everywhere, in stressful times generally end up accomplishing little, anywhere. Naval leaders must shed secondary missions to liberate finite time, intellectual energy, and resources for what matters most.
This is sage counsel. Strategy is about mustering the gumption to set and enforce priorities. It makes no sense to sacrifice something of central importance for the sake of something peripheral. If competing against rival great powers in their own backyards is the central task before the U.S. Navy, naval overseers must offload lesser commitments to concentrate on that uppermost goal.
And lastly, the eight young aviators on the stage at Tailhook reported trying to imprint a culture of ruthless critique on the naval air arm. The bad news according to one participant: “we have been dishonest” about aviators’ performance during exercises since the Cold War, drawing up unrealistic, canned scenarios and letting standards slip. The good news: Renewing the culture of self-criticism promises to be easier in the tactical realm than in the murkier, more ambiguous realm of strategy and policy. Results are instant and verge on irrefutable in air combat, whereas historians quarrel without end about strategic cause and effect in long-ago conflicts.
Institutional honesty is a pivotal virtue for the aviation community, as indeed it is for any military institution. Naval aviators need to admit they may lose under certain circumstances—otherwise it would not be a fair fight—and harness that conviction to fire the quest for innovation. The panel espoused employing objective, data-driven analysis to evaluate aircrew performance in battle scenarios rather than issuing subjective, easily fudged verdicts certifying who lost and who won. A TOPGUN commentator reported simulating “red air” that acquitted itself perfectly every time. Going up against a perfect foe “punishes” even slight errors committed by “blue air” (U.S. crews).
Good. Better to err on the side of making the red team superhuman than depict it as a pushover.
The Tailhook convention supplied the forum for a bracing conversation among up-and-coming leaders of the naval aviation community. Edmund Burke, among the greatest political philosophers, would smile at the frank, discomfiting tenor of the Tailhook panel discussion. Two centuries ago Burke pointed out acerbically that our enemy is our friend: “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with difficulty obliges us to an intimate acquaintance with our object and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not suffer us to be superficial.”
So, in a way, China and Russia have rendered the U.S. military a service through their prowess and sheer cheek. Formidable competitors are compelling U.S. fighting forces to survey the tactical and strategic environment anew, sharpen their skills, and fortify their nerves. Young leaders in U.S. military ranks likewise wrestle with senior leaders. If this year’s Tailhook panel is any indication, an insurgent spirit animates the rising generation of U.S. naval officers and enlisted professionals. They will refuse to suffer their leaders to be superficial. To impudent youth this oldtimer replies , “Huzzah!”