Visiting NAWDC: A Discussion with TOPGUN


2017-09-01  During our recent visit to NAWDC we had a chance to talk with the N7 Department, otherwise known as TOPGUN.

The lead for the discussion was the Department Head, Commander Mariner.

According to the US Navy, the role of N7 within NAWDC is as follows:

In the early stages of the Vietnam War, the tactical performance of Navy fighter aircraft against seemingly technologically inferior adversaries, the North Vietnamese MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21, fell far short of expectations and caused significant concern among national leadership.  

Based on an unacceptable ratio of combat losses, in 1967, ADM Tom Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations, commissioned an in-depth examination of the process by which air-to-air missile systems were acquired and employed.  Among the multitude of findings within this report was the critical need for an advanced fighter weapons school, designed to train aircrew in all aspects of aerial combat including the capabilities and limitations of Navy aircraft and weapon systems, along with those of the expected threat.

In 1969, the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) was established to develop and implement a course of graduate-level instruction in aerial combat.  Today, TOPGUN continues to provide advanced tactics training for FA-18A-F aircrew in the Navy and Marine Corps through the execution of the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) Course.  TOPGUN is the most demanding air combat syllabus found anywhere in the world.  The SFTI Course ultimately produces graduate-level strike fighter tacticians, adversary instructors, and Air Intercept Controllers (AIC) who go on to fill the critical assignment of Training Officer in fleet units.

 The role of the squadron pilots is a key element driving change in any air-enabled combat force.

As Ed Timperlake, a former Naval Aviator, who was honored to engage with the first CO of TOPGUN the late “Mugs” McKeown on a worldwide assessment of tactical aviation for the CIA at the height of the Cold war, has argued:

The skillfulness and success of fighter pilots in aerial combat is an extensively researched yet modestly understood and fundamentally complex concept.

Innumerable physical and psychological factors along with chance opportunities affect a pilot’s facility for success in air combat.

Perhaps the best narrative of the intangibles of the skill and courage of a fighter pilot was captured by the author Tom Wolfe in his seminal work The Right Stuff.

From the first day a perspective fighter pilot begins their personal journey to become a valuated and respected member of an elite community, serving as an operational squadron pilot, the physical danger is real.

But so is the most significant force for being the absolute best that a fighter pilot can feel which is day in and day out peer pressure by those they really and truly respect, their squadron mates.

In our discussion with the TOPGUN team they emphasized that the pilots came from the fleet, and while at TOPGUN, they honed their skills in the aircraft and helped to develop future TTPs against emerging threats.

“We are looking to make the squadron pilot more capable in real world operations.”

“We have been working integration with the F-35 for some time.

“The advantage of the TOPGUN pilot is that we have wrung out the capability of the Super Hornet and have brought that knowledge to integration with the F-35.

“We look for how each platform can enable the other to maximize lethality and survivability for the fleet.”