The opportunity to fly the sleek and high-powered F-16N Vipers, as they were called by the staff, was one of the privileges of being a TOPGUN instructor.
The F-16N was the US Navy version of the famous and well used “hot rod” of the Air Forces of the NATO countries, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The F-16N was specifically developed as an adversary aircraft and was an offshoot of a variant being developed for foreign sales. The N was used in adversary role at TOPGUN, Miramar California, where it would play the role of the “bad guy” in air combat maneuvers (ACM) and training. The F-16 closely resembled the performance of the Warsaw Pact countries’ fourth-generation MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters.
The Navy had been looking for a replacement to its aging fleet of adversary aircraft, specifically the A-4 Skyhawk and F-5 Tiger in the early 1980s and after examining the various aircraft available, the service selected the F-16N which was a basic F-16C (Block 30 with the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine) that retained the APG-66 radar the F-16A/B models. To completely simulate adversaries, the ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) was incorporated into the F-16N as well as the ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser and the ACMI pod.
The Navy ordered a total of twenty-two single seat F-16N’s, and four two seat TF-16N’s which were deployed in the late 1980’s.
From the Navy perspective, short of actually having a Fulcrum or Flanker, the F-16N was as close to a real dissimilar fighter as they could get. Therein lies perhaps it’s greatest advantage. Navy Tomcat and Hornet crews were now fighting a truly different aircraft, flown by superb aerial tacticians.
As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, indeed, the opportunity to fly the sleek and high-powered Vipers, as they were called by the staff, was one of the privileges of being a TOPGUN instructor. “Flying the Vipers was a huge plus to come to TOPGUN. It truly brought a capability to the school that pushed us over the top.”
Moreover, the F-16N great range allowed the instructors to face a first group of fighters leaving their Vipers with enough fuel to face a second fight.
Unfortunately, the F-16N’s began to experience the wear and tear that comes with high g’s (contrary to many reports it wasn’t excessive g’s – Elward explains that it was more that the aircraft was flown to its limits more frequently. TOPGUN instructors are very strongly opposed to the notion that they overflew or abused the F-16Ns – they used them for a specific threat and for a specific set of performance parameters, that happened to utilize the high-g capability of the aircraft. So, unlike fleet aircraft, that did the majority of their operations in low-g environments, and occasionally fought it a high-g environment, the F-16Ns were flown in the high-g environment more often, hence, the hours they burned up were at higher gs and thus accumulated more stress) over the course of many aerial engagements. The Vipers quickly accumulated fatigue and began to show cracks where the tail section met the fuselage. “We flew them hard:’ said another instructor to Elward, “but we didn’t abuse them. Let’s get that clear. These were high-performance, high-g-capable aircraft, and when we flew them, we flew them to their specified limits. The problem was, however, that we typically only flew them at high performance.”
TOPGUN’s Viper fatigue issues got so severe that Class 05-91 had to be canceled due to a lack of adversary assets to fly against the students. TOPGUN was not the same school when the F-16Ns were down.
The Navy was faced with a costly repair effort to keep the F-16N’s flying, and decided to retire the aircraft. In 1990 TOPGUN had already begun looking at alternatives, such as flying limited “blue air” flights, using adversary from fleet adversary squadrons, and obtaining its own F-14s and later F/A-18s.
The last F-16N left Miramar in early 1995. The loss of the F-16Ns was a blow to TOPGUN. As one instructor explained to Elward, “TOPGUN just was not as credible of an adversary without that plane. It was that good.”
Ironically, the F-5E’s that the F-16N was supposed to retire ultimately outlasted its supposed successor. Regardless, the F-16N will stand as the finest adversary tactics fighter ever flown by the US Navy.
In 2002, the Navy began to receive 14 F-16A and B models from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) that were originally intended for Pakistan before being embargoed. These aircraft are operated by the Naval Air Warfare Development Center (NAWDC) / (TOPGUN) for adversary training and like their F-16N predecessors are painted in exotic schemes. Thus, TOPGUN has had the benefit of flying against F-16s as dissimilar aircraft since 2002-03. As these jets age, NAWDC is currently considering a new adversary aircraft, and among the contenders is the F-16V Block 70 Viper.
According to Elward, TOPGUN also routinely flies its students against a variety of adversary assets, including USAF F-22, F-35A, F-15C, and F-16s as a part of the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) curriculum’s Basic Fighter Maneuvering (BFM) training, the class 1v1 Graduation Flight, and the class Graduation Exercise, which comes at the end of the SFTI Course.
The idea remains that the best air combat training comes from dissimilar air combat training. Elward said, “This was something the founders of TOPGUN understood well and implemented at the School from day one. In fact, DACT was being implemented at the F-4 and F-8 RAGs [Replacement Air Groups] as early as mid-1967, and it was accepted that aircrew learned the most about how to fly their plane using DACT. The challenge for TOPGUN has always been, ‘how do we get adversary aircraft that are truly representative of the threat our aircrews will face in battle.’”
Photo credit: PHC Dupree and Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Mahlon K. Miller / US Navy