The tactics of Top Gun
Hamm-fisted command decisions
I can’t believe I have to say this, but I know it’s a film. The fact I demand John Hamm be stripped of his command should tell you it’s satire.
I finally watched Top Gun: Maverick last night and throughout I was utterly confounded by this film’s judgement. Not just it’s central judgement, that a second-rate 80’s action film needed an unprompted sequel, but by the command decisions made throughout by supposedly experienced, capable and fictional Navy commanders.
My confoundment started with Mach 10 test scene, because I wasn’t sure that pulling a banked curve at Mach 7+ would be a great idea, but I concede that I don’t know enough about supersonic flying, developmental aerodynamics or performance characteristics of scramjets to know that for sure.
As well as not being an expert in supersonic flying, developmental aerodynamics or performance characteristics of scramjets, I’m not an expert in staging complex 21st century air operations either, but I read a lot of war nerdery and I’ve written for NATO journals before, so I’m not a complete dunce (although I’d happily be corrected with any of my arguments here). But some of the decisions of this film, operational, strategic and tactical, leave me utterly baffled.
The first judgement I find utterly unfathomable with is the decision to use the F-18.
Just… why not use F3-5s? I’m aware that the US Navy has always preferred the F-18 to the F-35, but why ignore the fact that the F-35 is the best aircraft available for this job on every single level?
Let’s ignore for a moment the argument that there may be entirely different, more suitable methods of destroying the enrichment facility; there’s high-altitude bombing for instance, or the less sexy option of diplomacy. You may argue that the F-35, although it’s supposed to be capable of performing an air superiority role, has made too many allowances for its ground support capability, and would be a sitting duck in a dogfight. Many do. An F-35 would likely be chewed up by an SU-57, although the comparison is irrelevant (more on that later). It’s irrelevant because the mission priority isn’t dogfighting, it’s a stealth ground attack. Which is the entire reason the F-35 exists.
The F-35 has among the lowest radar-cross sections of any fighter in service today. The F-18 has an RCS of 1m2, compared to the F-35’s RCS of 0.005m2, about the same as a golf ball. If you’re asking pilots to go through a SAM battery to come home, why not give them the plane most capable of bringing them home through it? It’s not like selecting the F-35 means sacrificing payload or performance; it’s able to carry a huge range of precision missiles and bombs, and can carry two AMRAAM missiles internally without forgoing any stealth at all. If the SAMs are such a threat to the survival of the pilots, why not put them in the aircraft you had designed to negate the threat from SAM batteries? The entire purpose of the $1.7 trillion F-35 programme is to given the US an aircraft capable of attacking targets by penetrating protected airspaces. It’s entire purpose is missions like this.
The task of skipping through the canyon is also more suited to the F-35. The stealth fighter is said to have comparable manoeuvrability to an F-16, which is more manoeuvrable than an F-18. I hesitate to use a Quora link, but this is more engineery proof than I am capable of translating. The F-35 also has a better climb rate for the post-drop climb, although it is .2 Mach slower - but, given in the canyon approach the pilots are pulling speeds the F-35 is more than capable of, I’m still at a loss.
Regardless, they’ve decided to use F-18. Staggering quickly onto the next blunder; the Navy can’t be sure that the Tomahawk barrage launched before the mission begins is going to destroy every plane on the ground - indeed, that’s not even the intent. They’re only meant to disable the runway. What that means is that A: if the barrage doesn’t render the runway completely inoperable, enemy aircraft will still be able to scramble and B: if the runway is destroyed, any enemy aircraft that are already up aren’t coming back down anytime soon, as proves to be the case.
Given the swath of Tomahawks that are launched, let’s allow that the Navy have made pretty sure that actually, the runway is inoperable for
Russian unamed adversary enemy pilots, if not for Maverick (there is a whole separate issue that the F 14 Maverick steals has a field takeoff distance of 2,500 ft, against less than 1,000ft for the Su-57). That still leaves problem B.
Vice Admiral Jon Hamm puts those pilots into this mission fully aware that if they make it through the significant SAM coverage, they may have to content with any aircraft able to take off despite the Tomahawk barrage or any that were already airborne. The fact that the enemy may be conducting patrols, when there is a US aircraft carrier and a missile cruiser sat off the coast, takes him by surprise is testament to his over-promotion.
He addresses this threat to his pilot’s survival by telling them, if enemy aircraft do appear, ‘it’s a dogfight all the way home’. My question is; why? Why does the Navy, after performing a surgical missile strike against an airfield, not put up any air cover for the mission, or even as a distraction to the mission’s intent?
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act ensures military branches cannot act unilaterally on major operations, so why didn’t VaDm Hamm ask the USAF to provide a contingent of F-22 Raptors to ensure air superiority? I’ve already explained that an F-35 may be at risk during a dogfight. But that’s because it’s not designed for dogfighting, whereas the F-22 is. In fact it’s designed almost purely for air superiority; the USAF always planned to deploy the F-22 as the air superiority fighter; the F-35 is an air-to-ground support aircraft that’s capable of defending itself. As General Mike Hostage, a former USAF chief, put it in 2014: “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22.”
The enemy aircraft in the film is an SU-57, which is an untested (as far as I can discern) dogfighter. It’s not clear that the F-22 would guarantee air superiority over the SU-57 (although, given the propensity of
Russia unamed adversary to overstate the capability of their equipment, the USAF pilot’s experience with the airframe and it’s greater manoeuvrability, I’d bet on it), but it would be the best plane available to gain air superiority.
The Raptor has drawbacks, namely a short range of less than 2,000 miles and that it can’t be launched from carriers, but isn’t that what refuelling aircraft are for? Maybe the USAF just didn’t return his calls. Let’s say they were on holiday that day. OK, no problem. There’s an easy solution; the mission launches from USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class carrier. That thing is fucking huge. HUGE. So huge, in fact, that the average Carrier Air Wing has about 48 F-18s (it can carry a maximum of 130). That means VaDM Hamm has 40 F-18s sat below deck. He has 40 aircraft he could launch to provide cover and/or a distraction. He launches… one. After he’s already lost two aircraft.
Now it could be that VaDm Hamm holds back his pilots because he’s worried about SAM coverage. That’s a fair argument; and that leads us to a second problem in their strategy. Why doesn’t the Navy launch a Tomahawk strike at the SAM batteries? I’m pretty sure the SAMs in the film are some version of the Russian S-125 system, which can deployed against cruise missiles and engage multiple targets, and even has a history of taking down stealth aircraft. But even with the limited likelihood of taking out each and every battery, a missile attack would A; likely take at least a few batteries out, B; reduce the number of missiles available to be fired at your aircraft and C; increase the number of targets available for the SAMs to target. This would significantly increase the probability of your pilots coming home alive
The decision not to stage a preemptive barrage of the SAM batteries is clearly an active choice VaDm Hamm has taken; the other ship in the strike force is the USS Leyte Gulf, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. That can carry up to 122 Tomahawks. But let’s be reasonable - the full 122 can’t be used for Tomahawks, because that would leave them dangerously short of protection in the event of a retaliatory strike (the Ticonderoga uses the same launch systems for the Tomahawk as the Seasparrow). Filling it with Tomahawks would leave the strike force dangerously unbalanced and short of anti-air and anti-submarine capability. That’s understandable. It’s why the US Navy has as many destroyers as the next three fleets combined. It’s why the Navy has twenty one other Ticonderogas. It’s why the Navy have SEVENTY ARLEIGH BURKE DESTROYERS.
Speaking of leaving pilots over-exposed to unnecessary and easily mitigated dangers, why on earth would you leave an AWAC up, off the cost of an enemy you’ve just attacked, without fighter protection? It’s hard to believe that the
Russians unamed adversary would have access to 5th gen fighters and uranium enrichment capability, but not radar? Because if they do have radar, they’re certainly going to see that Hawkeye up there, which means the enemy are going to be alerted to your presence and likely scramble some fighter to investigate. But given that the enemy hasn’t reacted to the appearance of an US aircraft carrier and missile cruiser off their coast, maybe it’s a fair assumption they aren’t.
It’s established that before the SU-57s will likely head for the target once the airfield has been hit, yet VaDm Hamm makes no attempt to establish air superiority, no attempt to prevent this. Once he’s informed of the surprising presence of enemy aircraft near an enemy airfield deep in enemy territory, he makes no attempt to intercept or divert them - despite the fact that there are four F-18 fueled up in reserve on the deck. He is content to let his pilots take their chances against superior aircraft. This is an almost unforgiveable, unfathomable command mistake which results in the loss of two of his aircraft. His mistake is almost unheard of in American military strategy; he deliberates under-uses the forces at his disposal. The mission is clearly beyond the scope of a limited strike; it amounts to a declaration of war against a peer power. There is no concept of minimum necessary force, no concept of plausible deniability. VaDm Hamm ties one hand behind his back for no discernible purpose. He must be stripped of his fictional command immediately.