During Operation Rolling Thunder, from March 1965 to November 1968, U.S. Navy aircrews flying the F-4 Phantom II, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft at the time, shot down slightly more than two Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) MiGs for every F-4 they lost.2 In comparison, the less technologically advanced F-8 Crusaders shot down six MiGs for every Crusader lost.3 In about half as many engagements as their Phantom peers, Crusader pilots destroyed 50 percent more MiGs. The Crusader community’s ethos embodied the attributes described by Admiral Stockdale. Comparing their results with the Phantom’s shows the power of culture over hardware.
At the establishment of TOPGUN in 1969, the school’s staff revamped tactics and revolutionized the use of hardware. More important, instructors merged the Phantom’s modern technology with the mental agility of the F-8 community and spawned a cultural rebirth. Their work directly resulted in the Navy’s 24 kills during 26 engagements in 1972. The Navy’s domination of the skies in 1972 underlines the significance of TOPGUN’s combination of a fluid ideology with sophisticated hardware.4 The school’s rationale and methods radiated from that first, small hangar in Miramar. Today, TOPGUN’s impact is evident across the entire fleet. In a future fight, TOPGUN’s principle of adaptability, coupled with advanced tactics and hardware, will make the difference between victory and failure.
F-4 Phantom: Warfare as Science
During the early 1960s, U.S. Navy Phantom pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs) planned to defend fleets from attack by shooting down Soviet bombers.5 Eradicating bombers at long range required an engineer’s understanding of radar theory, the Phantom’s futuristic APQ-72 radar, and the AIM-7 Sparrow missile. Like today’s F-35C, Navy Phantoms did not have a gun. This focused Phantom crews on mastering their radar and missile hardware to shoot down aircraft.
These long-range intercepts required a formalized order of tasks during a flight and in the cockpit. The flight leader retained responsibility to run the intercept with little incentive to swap roles with the wingman. The wingman’s static role remained to support
The Phantom community’s devotion to extended-range intercepts made aerial combat a two-dimensional type of warfare. With Soviet bombers as the primary threat, there appeared to be no potential for engaging fighter aircraft in a short range, one-versus-one (1v.1) dogfight. Every aspect of the Phantom’s weapon system was optimized for shooting down bombers—not fighters. For example, the Sparrow missile required 5.2 seconds to fire.6 As a result, fighter-against-fighter combat received scant emphasis. In fact, some squadrons even prohibited dogfighting.7 Noted author, former commanding officer, and MiG killer John B. Nichols, wrote that the cutting-edge F-4 squadrons “seldom bothered with outmoded pastimes such as dogfighting.”8
Pilots and RIOs believed they could precisely forecast, execute, and control an intercept. Their primary mission, coupled with advanced hardware, transformed the community’s view of warfare. Mastering combat became a scientific exercise conducted chiefly via the RIO’s radar scope. Crews conducted attacks via scripted tasks in a set order with a constant, direct, and predictable relationship between cause and effect. Phantom aerial combat consisted of a series of clinical and predictable events with every action having a quantitatively measured and linear reaction. Euclidian geometry ruled and combat morphed into an ordered and structured evolution—in stark contrast with the reality of warfare.9 And when the reality of fighting the VPAF did not match the Phantom community’s vision, Navy aircrews did not possess the agility and flexibility to adapt.
Rolling Thunder began in March 1965 and ended just over three years later. The Navy’s air-to-air results with the F-4 fell well short of expectations. Phantom crews shot down 12 MiGs during 39 engagements, achieving a .31 kill efficiency rating.10 Worse, MiGs shot down five Phantoms, resulting in the Phantom community’s 2.4:1 kill ratio.11 How could pilots and RIOs, with hundreds of hours of flying experience, flying a $4 million fighter, fail to sweep the skies of mostly 1950s-era MiG-17s and MiG-21s, flown by comparatively inexperienced VPAF pilots? The Phantom community’s quantitative view of aerial warfare hindered their performance.
F-8 Crusader: Warfare as Art
In contrast, the F-8 Crusader community viewed aerial warfare as a fluid art. The F-8 had one pilot, a basic radar, up to four heat-seeking, visual-range AIM-9 Sidewinders, and four 20-mm cannons. Juxtaposed with the ultra-modern Phantom, flying and fighting the F-8 Crusader remained basic, visceral, and raw.
Despite the primary focus on fleet defense, F-8 Crusader pilots still trained against other fighters using heat-seeking missiles and cannons.12 Their devotion to fighter-versus-fighter combat formed the foundation of their ethos. Compared to intercepting a bomber, a fighter-versus-fighter engagement is complex and requires pilots to act, sense, respond, and then exploit their adversary’s miscues. Admiral Stockdale described dogfighting as a “constantly changing, three-dimensional puzzle of air combat maneuvering.”13 When fighters trained against one another, they violently and aggressively pushed the flight performance envelope to achieve an advantage and kill their adversary. Their fights were fluid, dynamic, and three-dimensional because of their extensive use of the vertical plane of maneuver. As Stockdale described, “They wove arabesques of maneuver in the vertical plane, that natural habitat of the gun fighter.”14
Crusader-based combat remained a nearly infinite mix of variables within a dynamic unknown, as opposed to the scientific and relatively static cause and effect of a long-range intercept. F-8 pilots prepared for war by embracing risk and incurring losses. John Nichols described the community’s perspective on losing pilots and aircraft as “part of the price one paid for proficiency in combat.”15 Whereas their F-4 counterparts remained risk-averse.16
Neither pilot within a two aircraft element of Crusaders retained static roles as the lead or wingman. Depending on the situation, the pilot in the best overall offensive position took the role of the shooter, with the other pilot supporting. A flat culture created fluid tactics based on flexible roles. They nicknamed this the “loose deuce” tactic, which prized flexibility to react to the unexpected. It required pilots to adapt to circumstances, rather than force facts into a rigid paradigm. This principle imbued F-8 pilots with an appreciation of combat as an art instead of science. Fighting was liberated, unordered, and unhindered by hierarchy. This culture prepared Crusader pilots to prevail no matter the situation, because they expected the unexpected.
Air-to-air combat over Vietnam could not have been more different than the Navy’s prewar expectations. In the overwhelming majority of engagements, fighter crews had to go eyeball-to-eyeball prior to shooting their foes. Rules of engagement required pilots to visually identify an adversary, then aggressively maneuver, fight, and kill a highly-maneuverable and deadly opponent attempting to do the same.
The F-8 community’s emphasis on the fluid character of 1v.1 aerial combat prepared them, and they outperformed their F-4 peers. Crusader pilots flying the older, less advanced fighter, achieved a 6:1 kill ratio. From their first engagement in 1966 until the end of Rolling Thunder, Crusader pilots shot down 18 VPAF MiGs during 25 engagements, achieving a .72 kill efficiency rating, while losing just three Crusaders.
The cultural agility of the Crusader pilots made the difference. They adapted and flexed to the reality of combat, while the Phantom community’s worldview failed and needed to be fixed.
Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN): A Cultural Rebirth
Appendix Four of the Ault Report, written by F-8 pilot Captain Merle Gorder, recommended establishing a postgraduate fighter weapons school, which resulted in the 1969 creation of TOPGUN.17
The school’s first commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Dan Pedersen, created a small, flat, empowered culture devoted to the art of aerial warfare: dogfighting.18 From this starting point, instructors developed tactics for the F-4. The TOPGUN junior officer instructors leveraged the F-8 community’s 1v.1 fighter combat and loose deuce templates.19 However, to be effective, the loose deuce required independently minded, agile, and aggressive aviators, devoid of the leader/wingman hierarchy.20 TOPGUN brought this agile spirit to the Phantom and destroyed the previous rote, static, and scripted mindset. Instructors, students, and graduates began aggressive dogfighting with the Phantom, using the vertical plane of maneuver. Further, the school researched and taught the advantages and disadvantages of the Phantom’s weapon systems in a short-range dogfight. TOPGUN disrupted the existing linear paradigm and brought fluidity to the Phantom community’s way of war.
The blending of cutting-edge technology with a fluid frame of mind crushed the unsuspecting VPAF MiG pilots in 1972 when combat returned to the skies above North Vietnam. All told, 24 MiGs fell to Phantoms during 26 engagements with only two losses, a 12:1 kill ratio, showing that agile pilots flying an advanced fighter had no match.21
Today’s TOPGUN Culture
The creation of TOPGUN married the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, the F-4 Phantom, to the culture and tactics of the F-8 community. Its overwhelming success shows that culture must be the foundation of the fleet’s ever-more advanced hardware, software, and tactics. Technology alone, especially when combined with a view of warfare as a science, will not suffice. Warfare is an art to be mastered.
To avoid the traps of rote, stagnant, and linear thinking, commanders and aircrew must constantly evaluate their combat philosophy. Is it similar to the 1965 Phantom community’s linear and fixed culture? Or does it resemble the post-TOPGUN flexibility and agility? Winning requires flexibility and a willingness to rewrite doctrine and rule books. Today’s Navy must possess a philosophical view of combat that embraces the unknown, is constantly self-critical, and strives to be better every day. TOPGUN endures as a command that prepares naval aviators to adapt to chaos, stress, and disorder.
Future adversaries may only allow us days to learn and adapt—not years. The Navy’s culture must be one of fluid adaptability from day one. John Nichols’s words sum it up best, “Next time we cannot count on having time to play catch-up, and next time is one day closer with every sunrise.”22
1. Admiral James B. Stockdale, U.S. Navy (Retired), Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995), 65.
2. Center for Naval Analyses, TOPGUN Turns 50.
3. Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: USAF, USN and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961–1973 (Hinckley, UK: Midland Publishing, 2001), 271.
4. Marshall L. Michel III, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam 1965–1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 277.
5. Barrett Tillman, MiG Master: The Story of the F-8 Crusader (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 117.
6. It took 3.8 seconds for the Phantom’s radar to settle out and the missile control system interface to initialize and an additional 1.4 seconds after trigger squeeze to launch the missile. Report of the Air-to-Air Missile Capability Review (Washington DC: Department of the Navy, 1969), 28.
7. Captain Dan Pedersen, U.S. Navy (Retired), TOPGUN: An American Story (New York: Hachette Books, 2019), 39.
8. Commander John B. Nichols, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Barrett Tillman, On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 74.
9. Williamson Murray, America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017), 34.
10. Nichols and Tillman, 78.
11. Hobson, 271.
12. Tillman, 119.
13. Tillman, x.
14. Tillman, x.
15. Nichols and Tillman, 72.
16. Pederson, 100.
17. Robert K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Creation of Top Gun and the U.S. Air Victory in Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), 101.
18. Pedersen, 133.
19. Nichols and Tillman, 78.
20. Pedersen, 133.
21. In contrast, the U.S. Air Force focused on technological versus cultural improvement after Rolling Thunder. Their results during combat in 1972 are telling. In comparison, USAF Phantom crews shot down 48 MiGs, during 82 engagements, and lost 24 Phantoms, resulting in a two-to-one kill ratio. Michel, 277.
22. Nichols and Tillman, 86.