Since its inception, the Navy Fighter Weapons School—or TOPGUN—has had a singular purpose: create the best air-to-air combat aircrew in the world. For half a century, TOPGUN has achieved this goal through a rigorous training program built on intensive classroom instruction, detailed flight briefs, and meticulous mission debriefs. As this elite organization charges head-long into its sixth decade of operations, a TOPGUN-style introspective is warranted to uncover the enduring “goods” while highlighting a mounting challenge for naval aviation.
From inception, TOPGUN was designed to eliminate errors associated with human bias and ego by stripping away misunderstandings, misconceptions, and tribal lore associated with aerial combat. TOPGUN fills this void with technical understanding, tactical proficiency, and honest feedback loops. Fulfilling this mandate required a special breed of aviators who were capable of elevating the performance of those around them. TOPGUN instructors had to be equal parts lethal fighter aircrew and skilled teachers. This unique combination requires three key attributes—passion, personality, and talent. The evaluation period begins early in a candidate’s first operational tour and continues throughout the TOPGUN course. The school accepts only those aviators with a demonstrated passion for naval aviation and aerial combat; an ability to accept and grow from constructive criticism; the ability to speak truth to power; and an excellence in airborne execution.
Internally, TOPGUN’s culture cultivates an ideal environment to drive tactics development. Instructors are expected to possess a questioning attitude while maintaining intellectual integrity. Thus, TOPGUN instructors foster an environment that challenges existing assumptions, is open to alternate paths, and incorporates new technologies, procedures, and tactics in pursuit of improved performance. Within this culture, passionate and talented young officers enjoy the freedom to experiment without fear of reprisal: testing, failing, learning, repeating, and ultimately developing optimal solutions.
Externally, these organizational traits produce a reputation of excellence. Decades in the making, this reputation serves as the foundation from which trust and credibility are conferred upon its instructor cadre. This trust allows an organization manned almost exclusively by lieutenants to have an outsized voice within naval aviation and the Navy. The importance of this trust is not lost on TOPGUN instructors—current and former—and they guard this reputation closely.
The primary challenge to TOPGUN in the coming years will be its ability to keep pace with the accelerating threat. As the Navy and the nation return to great power competition, TOPGUN faces tough decisions as it looks to provide naval aviation with tactics and systems recommendations to pace the threat. The speed with which China and Russia are developing and fielding military technologies is increasing while resources available to TOPGUN’s tactics research are struggling to keep up. The adversary technological, industrial, and tactical threat pace places TOPGUN on the horns of a dilemma. Should it continue to tightly control tactics development and standardization, or should it look to expand its partners in its quest to keep pace with the threat? Both options have associated benefits and risks.
If TOPGUN continues to tightly control tactics development and standardization, it must curate a high level of standardization and tactical proficiency throughout the fleet. As the standardization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s within the F-14 community attest, this dual feat should not be trivialized nor, once obtained, readily ceded. In contrast, today’s F/A-18 and E-2 communities are testament to TOPGUN’s success in achieving a high-level of tactical standardization and elevating airborne execution. Unfortunately, the rapidly advancing adversary has a vote. Whether it is tactical recommendations for the Navy’s burgeoning fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or delivering the most advanced F/A-18E/F software updates to deploying squadrons, signs of strain on TOPGUN’s current model exist. Without meaningful increases to manning and training resources (aircraft, simulators, range space, weapons, TDY funding, etc.) and targeted internal process changes, TOPGUN’s ability to deliver tactical recommendations at the speed of relevance will diminish.
One viable process alternative is to collaborate more closely with operational squadrons and the test community to develop cutting edge tactics. In this model, TOPGUN would delegate portions of tactics experimentation to the fleet and test communities in exchange for an increase in resources and a reduction in tactics development time. Leveraging existing partnerships with the test community, TOPGUN could oversee a working group comprised of selected operational squadrons and designated test experts. In this model, test community experts would support fleet squadrons, who would be chosen based on work-up and deployment cycle timing. Operational squadrons would benefit by receiving greater exposure to the expertise of TOPGUN and the test community and would deploy with the latest hardware and software that may not be available fleet-wide.
This model is not without risks. For an organization that is seen as a brand, ceding even partial control of tactics development is fraught with potential pitfalls. Quality control could suffer. Fleet-wide standardization might see deviation. And organizational resistance might increase from differences in interim “experimental” tactics. All parties have a responsibility to mitigate such problems; however, TOPGUN, given its mandate, bears the brunt of these challenges. Through proper supervision and strong processes (including non-disclosure agreements and memorandums of agreement), the risks associated could be controlled. The ongoing efforts between TOPGUN, VX-9, VFA-22, and VFA-94 in developing tactics for the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod on the F/A-18E/F should be closely monitored. If deemed successful, lessons learned from this process should be incorporated, and the process expanded to other systems.
Whether improving air-to-air kill ratios in the skies over Vietnam or serving as the model for the 2015 establishment of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), TOPGUN has been a highly effective training and standardization organization within the Navy. Recent and ongoing advances in adversary capabilities provide a new set of challenges for TOPGUN to solve; we must figure out how to scale up TOPGUN’s impact to stay ahead of our adversaries without sacrificing excellence.