Military Aviation

All you need to know about today’s TOPGUN: why the US Navy Fighter Weapons School is recognized worldwide as the center of excellence for fighter tactics training

Today’s TOPGUN is stronger than ever and is widely accepted as the center of excellence for fighter tactics training.

Currently located at Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon, Nevada, TOPGUN – the US Navy Fighter Weapons School (NFWS) – was formed in late 1968 at NAS Miramar, California, to create a graduate-level course in fighter tactics for Navy pilots deploying to Vietnam. Before TOPGUN, Navy F-4 Phantom II fighter crews in Vietnam managed only a 2.5:1 kill ratio versus Soviet-built MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters: after TOPGUN formed, the community tallied a 12.5:1 kill ratio. Since then, TOPGUN has become the standard-bearer of Navy fighter and strike fighter tactics and training, and is recognized worldwide as a center of excellence. The 1980s also brought worldwide attention to the school from the Paramount movie Top Gun.

As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Navy Fighter Weapons School: Fifty Years of Excellence, today’s TOPGUN conducts three twelve-week courses per year, with each consisting of three programs: Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) course, air-intercept controller (AIC) course, and Adversary course. Each SFTI course consists of nine crews, designated as TG-1, -2, -3P, -4W, of F/A-18E/F Super Hornet crews, as well as Marine Corps F/A-18C/D Legacy Hornet crews. At least three of the SFTI course attendees are weapons system officers (WSOs) from the two-seat Navy F/A-18F community or the Marines F/A-18D community.

The TOPGUN course is divided into four phases: Basic Fighter Maneuvering (BFM), Air-to-Surface, Section, and Division. Each phase runs between three and three and a half weeks except for air-to-Surface, which is two weeks. All phases are conducted at NAS Fallon except the BFM phase, which rotates through fleet training areas such as Lemoore, Oceana, and Miramar, with occasional detachments (dets) to Pensacola or Key West. This rotation gives the staff an opportunity to interact with the fleet squadrons, allowing instructors to give guest lectures to squadrons and guest flights (Bush Rides) to prospective students. Moreover, the BFM det allows the students to fly 1v1 (one aircraft versus a single adversary) sorties at sea level, where they are more likely to operate on deployment and can further maximize the performance of their jets.

Instruction comes through lectures, labs, flights, and briefing and debriefing. Lectures discuss topics such as “Blue” (friendly) hardware (APG-79 radar, AIM-9 missiles, and laser-guided munitions), “Red” threat systems (pilots and weapons), and tactics. Even with extensive and detailed lectures, the bulk of the training imparted through the postmission debriefs. It is here that the students are taught the art of debriefing to instruct. Each flight is critiqued by the flight members, including the participating AICs and adversary aircraft crews, with TOPGUN instructors providing comments and critiquing the students’ debriefs. Learning to properly debrief is a key skill that all TOPGUN graduates must have to effectively draw out and pass along the lessons learned from each training flight.

Adversary and AIC students join the course just after the SFTI students complete the BFM phase, which typically is three to three and a half weeks into the course. Adversary and AIC students receive the same lectures as the SFTI students, plus few additional lectures tailored to their specific needs. Adversary students conduct an abbreviated BFM phase while the SFTI students complete Air-to-Surface, then start leading Red air events for multiplane section and division flights. AIC students typically come into the fold to control section and division events, and all three courses graduate together, with each student receiving the appropriate patch signifying their successful completion of the course.

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TOPGUN also offers other programs, including its three-day Senior Officer Course (SOC) and a Re-Blue event, held each fall which invites all patch wearers back to Fallon for a short three-day update on tactics. TOPGUN also provides subject matter lectures to fleet squadrons during its BFM dets, which helps gives the school much-valued time with the fleet squadrons, something that has been less frequent since TOPGUN departed Miramar for Fallon in 1996. The school patches roughly thirty-three to thirty-six pilots and WSOs, twelve AICs, and twelve adversary instructors per year.

Of interest is that in June 2017, Lt. Cdr. Michael “M.O.B.” Tremel, a graduate of class 02-11 and former TOPGUN instructor shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter, using an AMRAAM, registering the first Super Hornet kill and marking the Navy’s first air-to-air kill since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. A large part of the second decades of the twenty-first century was spent on integrating the new F-35C Lightning II into air wing operations and developing new tactics for the stealthy strike fighter. TOPGUN received its first F-35C students in early 2020 as part of Class 02-20 and currently has seven F-35C instructors on staff. As the school moves forward, it will continue to develop new tactics to address ever-evolving foreign adversaries, including near-peer threats presented by the Chinese J-20 and J-31, and Russian Su-57 stealth aircraft. TOPGUN is also working to become more involved in advising industry, weapons and procurement, and tactics joint development. Finally the school is evaluating new adversary alternatives to flank its current fleet of F-5s, F/A-18s and F-16s. Among the aircraft evaluated there are also new Block 70 F-16s. This model is based on the advanced F-16V configuration and features the APG-83 AESA radar, new displays and avionics, and structural upgrades to extend the aircraft’s service life more than 50 percent beyond hat of previous F-16 production aircraft.

TOPGUN is now stronger than ever and is widely accepted as the center of excellence for fighter tactics training. Throughout its long history, this culture has developed through the dedication of its instructor staff. Traditions such as the Murder Board, which thoroughly vets new instructor’s lectures, and the Standardization Board, which oversees the instructor training and the development of new tactics, work to ensure that TOPGUN instructors are the best of the best and that the lessons passed along by its instructor are sound.

TOPGUN, The Navy Fighter Weapons School: Fifty Years of Excellence, is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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