Cold War Era

In 1970s Israeli pilots who would have led Operation Opera went to TOPGUN and taught instructors tactics for F-4 versus MiG-21 and One versus Many

The Israelis sent an F-4 crew to TOPGUN following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The history of air combat has seen one recurring theme—new tactics are learned in battle, forgotten or discarded when battle concludes, and relearned at great cost during the next war. This cycle continued into the 1960s, when America was drawn into the Vietnam War. Despite having a skill and equipment advantage, US Navy aircrews were faring poorly against North Vietnamese fighters. Air combat lessons learned during prior wars, and since forgotten or deemed inapplicable due to advances in technology, were once again relevant.

TOPGUN, the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, was established in 1968 to teach Navy aircrews the core air combat tactics, to train others in those tactics, and to ensure that naval aviation “never again” forgot its lessons learned.

As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, although aircrew from other countries, principally Israel, Australia, Germany, and Canada, attended TOPGUN’s ground school, and some, including the Germans and Israelis in 1975, actually flew against the TOPGUN instructors, very few foreign students attended the TOPGUN class. Dan “Bad Bob” McCort, an F-4 pilot who was on staff from 1977 through 1980, said the Israelis sent a crew to TOPGUN following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “We had them come through as a crew in a class so that they would have interaction with the staff and the students because of their experiences and their employment of the F-4 specifically against a MiG-21, the high threat at the time,” McCort said. “I remember going out one on one against Zev Rahz in an F-4—I was in an F-5 for that mission—and watching him employ it in a way that I’ve never seen an F-4 employed. I mean, that was a no-kidding eye opening; this is what we call a pivotal moment here.”

McCort said that the experience with the Israelis had changed the way TOPGUN taught about the MiG-21. “We had this concept of how to employ the airplanes based on some of the results of the Have programs, and that’s what we were teaching.” McCort added, “A lot of these tactics had been, in concept, understood, but these guys having done it day in, day out (because we hadn’t got to that point yet), really clearly got it!” McCort went on: “For example, Zev was the one that showed us how to turn into a MiG-21, maintain knots, and drag the guy down in altitude to the point where his thrust-to-weight advantage and his energy addition rate and his lack of bleed would make the difference.”‘ McCort said that as he and Zev met and passed, “I was used to seeing an F-4 either try for a two-circle turn or go into a vertical move to try to get something to happen. Zev basically tried to drive it one circle, and he just dove down deep. It was a real big surprise. That was a tactic that we jumped on and refined to exploit the energy addition for the Phantom and the bleed rate in the MiG-21. This was a key component of my 1v1 lecture in the F-4 against what became a Category II airplane.

Mike “Squeeze” Gaskell, an instructor on staff in the late 1970s, vividly recalled the Israelis’ visit to TOPGUN. “I’ve never seen things done with the F-4 that these guys could do with the F-4,” said Gaskell. “They were excellent pilots.” Gaskell said there was one incident in particular that stuck with him. “During one of our debriefs, they really didn’t want to hear a lot about the TOPGUN way of doing a debrief or tactics. They kept asking questions […]. This guy would ask, ‘Now, when you did this, what were you doing?’ And he’s pretty much grilling me. I didn’t understand what it was all about until years later. Those guys were the two pilots who led the strike—Operation Opera or Babylon—against the Iraqi nuclear power plant.” Here, Gaskell was referring to the Israeli’s Jun. 7, 1981 strike. Saddam had a powerful air force at that time, “and they wanted to know more [about Iraqi Air Force air-to-air tactics]. That’s why they were there.”

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-4J Phantom II VF-31 Tomcatters, AC106 / 157307 / Mig Kill – 1972

Another benefit from the Israelis’ visit was TOPGUN’s recognition of the need to train to fight in a “one v. many” environment. Manfred “Fokker” Rietsch, TOPGUN’s first Marine Corps instructor, recalled the Israelis told the staff, “You need to develop tactics for a ‘one versus many.’ ‘How do you fight one versus many?’ So we took their word for it and said, `Okay, fine. We’ll have one versus many tactics.’” Rietsch said it was really an acknowledgment that in a large fight, “You’re not going to have a Sparrow or be two versus two, or two versus one, or one versus whatever. You’re going to have a bunch of airplanes out there. This is where it’s so important to have the internal coordination within your flight on how you sort, who targets who, and if you engage, who’s going to engage what.”‘ The “one v. many” flight was introduced in the mid-1970s under Jim Ruliffson’s command tour but was slow to take start because it demanded “a lot of assets,” said Rietsch.”

Ironically, at about the same time the USAF came to the same realization on the benefits of “one versus many” practice. In a 1975 Fighter Weapons School Review article, author Donald L. Gish, then an active-duty major, wrote, “Other areas in which training and tactics must improve are ‘one vs many’ and ‘gaggle’ type engagements. Viewing the European scenario, we cannot expect to fight with a superior number of aircraft, not when the odds are even.” Gish wrote further, “We must anticipate and train for an element against four or six opponents, or a flight of four against twelve.” Thus, both fighter weapons schools began training to prepare for what they viewed as the inevitable conflict on the plains of Europe, fighting outnumbered against Soviet and Warsaw Pact air forces.

TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: War Thunder Via Pinterest and U.S. Air Force

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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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