With these recommendations, Captain Frank Ault ushered in a new era of naval aviation. Few of Ault’s recommendations are as immediately recognizable as this one in the report’s Section IV, which led to the creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School in 1969. The school, devoted to advanced tactical development, tactics instructor training, and subject-matter expertise, is better known to the world as TOPGUN.
Stood up a mere 60 days after Ault’s report, TOPGUN began its life as a fly-by-night, shoestring operation in a “liberated,” condemned trailer, helmed by a lieutenant commander and staffed by nine lieutenants. In the half-century since, TOPGUN has remained true to its roots, and throughout its continual evolution, the junior officers (JOs) who comprise the TOPGUN staff remain its heart and engine.
Early Days: Designed to Fail
TOPGUN’s first officer-in-charge (OIC) was Lieutenant Commander Dan “Yank” Pedersen. A combat veteran and experienced instructor at the F-4 Phantom replacement air group (RAG), Yank was pegged for his experience, but also for convenience. The TOPGUN project was an experiment. Designed to standardize tactics and create expert instructors, the school would quickly run afoul of many squadron skippers who prized their independence and were loath to let some junior officer at the RAG tell them how to fight. “Our failure,” Yank wrote, “could be written off to the stumbling of youngsters who, while well intended, were not up to the task.”2
Scrounging Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar for a place to host the school, Yank’s cadre of nine instructors (four pilots, four naval flight officers [NFOs], and one intelligence officer)—all lieutenants or lieutenants (junior grade)—found an abandoned modular trailer and bribed public works to tow it closer to the flight line. Working long hours and short weekends, the original TOPGUN cadre learned every detail of fighter operations, prepared lectures, and planned a five-week course that explored the breadth of the F-4’s capabilities but paid special attention to within-visual-range (WVR) combat.
The Phantom was originally designed to intercept Soviet bombers at long range, and its crews were trained to employ beyond-visual-range AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. Moreover, the aircraft did not even carry a cannon for close-in combat. This design was sorely tested in Vietnam, where restrictive rules of engagement limited the F-4’s ability to attack enemy aircraft without visual identification. The lack of the gun and an improper understanding of air-to-air missile employment led to the disastrous results highlighted in the Ault Report. To correct this, Phantom crews at TOPGUN were educated on missile systems and employment and flew in intense “dogfights” within visual range, all while learning how to instruct their peers in the fleet in these same skills.
Despite the reticence of fleet squadron commanding officers (COs), TOPGUN’s JOs began to have an impact. Phantom crews who trained at Miramar returned to their squadrons filled with confidence and knowledge and began to impart their experience to their shipmates. The results were impressive. When Operation Linebacker began in 1972, the Phantom tore through the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, scoring 24 aerial victories that year, 57.5 percent of its wartime total.
TOPGUN’s place was secure, and as the Phantom withdrew from service, the school shifted to mastering the F-14 Tomcat and later the F/A-18 Hornet. For half a century, TOPGUN’s success has stemmed from one consistent source: the JOs who run the school and who graduate TOPGUN as “patch wearers.”
TOPGUN Students, Graduates, and Staff
Modern TOPGUN instructors master a variety of disciplines. When selecting students and instructors, TOPGUN looks for individuals who have the talent to excel in fighter aviation; the passion to live and breathe tactical aviation and constantly hone their craft; and, finally, the personality to be able to teach what they have learned and know to those around them—subordinates, peers, and seniors. It does no good to give a patch to the “ace of the base” if he or she cannot subsequently impart that wisdom for the betterment of the organization.
The priority is that TOPGUN aviators must be men and women who are gifted teachers. Naval aviators come from all over America, with a wide range of personalities, backgrounds, and interests. There is no blueprint for success in fighter aviation, but to teach at TOPGUN an aviator must be knowledgeable, competent, and dedicated. They devote long hours to instructing, meeting with students, working on weekends, providing briefing practice, informal lectures, and personal feedback.
Far from being the cocky, self-interested hotshots portrayed in pop culture, TOPGUN instructors are expected to subordinate their needs to those of the “class fighters,” the students who visit NAS Fallon to earn the patch of a TOPGUN graduate.
Of course, to teach hungry, ambitious JOs how to fight and win in combat, the TOPGUN instructors must be excellent aviators. This process begins in the fleet, where TOPGUN graduates serve as training officers—mentoring and instructing young aviators, encouraging the most promising to apply to the TOPGUN course. The best applicants are selected for follow-on instructor duty at one of five locations: TOPGUN, Naval Air Warfare Development Center’s “Strike U” (responsible for Air Wing training at NAS Fallon), one of the two fleet weapons schools at either NAS Lemoore or Oceana, the RAGs, or in the test community.
While students at TOPGUN, many aviators experience the first in-flight failures they have ever encountered. Strike-fighter aviators typically come through training at the top of their class, and the best of those apply to TOPGUN. “The Course” is designed to push aviators to their limits. It is expected, not an exception, that a pilot/crew will have to “refly” an event during the 12-week syllabus. Having completed the course, new TOPGUN staff have no time to rest, as they begin a demanding instructor-under-training (IUT) syllabus, designed to transform them into the best fighter aviators in the world. Only after completing the IUT syllabus is a TOPGUN instructor finally ready to teach the fleet’s best aviators.
The whole process, from untested “nugget” aviator to TOPGUN graduate takes approximately four and a half years and includes hundreds of flights, thousands of simulator hours, lectures, briefs, combat deployments, and more.
As top-notch evaluators and aviators, TOPGUN instructors know that stagnation is the enemy of victory in combat. Technology and tactics change at a breakneck pace and to master them, TOPGUN instructors must remain at the cutting edge of aviation evolution. In this capacity, instructors master a given discipline and then continually work with industry and test-community experts to refine tactics, develop new approaches to aerial warfare, and promulgate updates to the fleet.
The strike-fighter bible is the TOPGUN Manual, a multivolume work that lays out recommendations for employment across the spectrum of strike-fighter execution. This publication is written by the junior officer instructors who are assigned a subject matter and then expected to become the Navy and Marine Corps’ expert in that discipline. Each instructor is responsible for a chapter of the Manual, which is validated through fleet experience and updated constantly through feedback from TOPGUN graduates around the world.
TOPGUN’s instructor cadre epitomizes the school’s product of tactically superior, knowledgeable instructors; they are the standard to which all TOPGUN graduates are held. Instructors at the weapons schools in Oceana and Lemoore provide local expertise to the F/A-18 fleet, serve as check-flight evaluators, and provide instruction in the Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program. Patch wearers at the RAGs supervise instruction of the Navy’s newest fighter aviators and the RAGs’ instructor cadre. In the operational test community, TOPGUN graduates provide essential feedback to test and acquisition organizations, ensuring the Navy combines tactical excellence with technological superiority. Closer to TOPGUN’s home, patch-wearing experts at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) in Fallon provide capstone training for carrier air wings preparing to deploy.
Let the JOs Loose
Tactical innovation in the strike-fighter community is JO-driven. As instructors, subject-matter experts, and innovators, the JOs of TOPGUN are its most important asset and the most enduring legacy of their predecessors who started the school in a condemned trailer at NAS Miramar in 1969. Successive COs of TOPGUN routinely describe themselves as the third-most important person at TOPGUN, behind the senior JOs who serve as training and standardization officers.
In the early days, TOPGUN benefited from higher level commanders who kept “Big Navy” from reaching into the school to change the syllabus, remove resources, or divert personnel elsewhere. Those senior officers, who believed in the school and in the ability of its JOs, bought TOPGUN the time it needed to make an impact on the fleet.
Today, TOPGUN’s CO, and his commanding officer at NAWDC, exist for the same purpose. Throughout the post-Vietnam drawdown and the post–Gulf War “peace dividend,” TOPGUN endured. Now that the United States again faces the prospect of high-end conflict against peer adversaries, the role of JOs as TOPGUN’s innovation engine is more important than ever.
Improvements to the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the new F-35 Lightning II aircraft are continually explored, tweaked, and evaluated by TOPGUN’s instructors and students. They will keep these aircraft lethal and survivable into the future and will drive the requirements for the follow-on Next Generation Fighter, but only if the JOs who run the school are allowed to have a voice.
Detractors may point to a bunch of lieutenants on shore duty as inexperienced in the ways of the Pentagon, but that is in fact their strength. Untrained in “that’s how we always do it,” and refusing to take “no” or “I don’t know” for answers, TOPGUN graduates focus on tactical excellence and innovation, unburdened by tours in the Navy’s bureaucracy and undaunted by the acquisition process.
The WTI Future
Based on the success of TOPGUN, naval aviation’s other communities pursued their own advanced weapons schools, producing patch-wearers of their own. More than a finishing school for the best lieutenants, each of these schools produces top-notch instructors who become expert tactical advisors and evaluators for fleet commands. Even the saltiest carrier air wing commanders heed the instruction and advice of a weapons school graduate.
As other naval communities, including surface warfare and information warfare, adopt the Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) model, senior officers must let their JO patch-wearers lead the way. They must trust their weapons schools to produce high-quality graduates who understand not only how to employ their platforms in combat, but how to train and evaluate others. Rank is immaterial when it comes to tactical innovation; seniority only matters outside of the brief/debrief room. The tactical changes developed by the weapons school may seem to pile up faster than you can process them, but this is exactly what is required of 21st-century warfighters. The debrief points are designed to make tacticians better, to improve understanding, and to increase the effectiveness of our combat forces.
TOPGUN has succeeded because senior officers have trusted its graduates to accomplish the mission and have given them the latitude to do so. Senior officers who have oversight of weapons schools and WTIs would do well to take a page from Yank’s mentors and protect the nascent programs from the inevitable pushback, budget cuts, and community resistance to standardization.
Fifty years ago, a group of motivated junior officers changed fighter aviation forever. Naval aviation stands on their shoulders, and we will forever be indebted to Captain Ault’s vision and the ability of a small group of lethal warriors to carry his charge forward. Today’s junior officer TOPGUN graduates are their legacy and their future; the JO is why tactical naval aviation thrives and endures.
2. Captain Dan Pedersen, U.S. Navy (Ret.), TOPGUN: An American Story (New York: Hachette Books, 2019), 104.