United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program

The patch awarded to NFWS graduates

The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program), more popularly known as TOPGUN, is the modern-day evolution of the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School which was originally established on March 3, 1969 at the former Naval Air Station Miramar in California.[1] The SFTI program carries out the same specialized fighter training as NFWS (Navy Fighter Weapons School) had from 1969 until 1996, when it was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nevada.



The United States Navy (USN) Fighter Weapons School was established on March 3, 1969 at NAS Miramar, California at the direction of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).

The school was the end result of a study, published in May 1968, by USN Captain Frank Ault who, at the direction of the CNO, researched the failings of the US air to air missiles used in aerial combat in the skies over North Vietnam.[2] Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from 2 March 1965 to 1 November 1968, resulted in nearly 1,000 US aircraft losses in approximately one million sorties.[3] Operation Rolling Thunder became the Rorschach test for both the USN and the US Air Force, and from which they drew nearly opposite conclusions.[4] The USAF concluded that its air losses were primarily due to unobserved MiG attacks from the rear, and was therefore a technology problem. The Air Force focused on upgrades to their F-4 Phantom II fleet, such as installing an internal 20mm Vulcan cannon, developing improved airborne radar systems, and working on solving missile problems.

The Navy, in what became known as the "Ault Report", came to the conclusion that inadequate air-crew training in air combat maneuvering (ACM) skills was the problem.[5] The conclusions of the "Ault Report" were not news to the F-8 Crusader community, who had been lobbying for an ACM training program ever since the commencement of Rolling Thunder in 1965.[1]

The Ault Report recommended establishment of an "Advanced Fighter Weapons School" to revive and disseminate community fighter expertise throughout the fleet. The school was initially formed using many F-8 pilots as instructors,[6] and placed under the control of F-4 Phantom-equipped Replacement Air Group (RAG) unit VF-121 "Pacemakers." At the time it received relatively scant funding and resources, and built its syllabus from scratch, while borrowing aircraft from its parent unit as well as other units to support the practical aspects of their operations.

Its objective was to develop, refine and teach aerial dogfight tactics and techniques to selected fleet air crews, using the concept of Dissimilar Air Combat Training. DACT uses stand-in aircraft to realistically replicate expected threat aircraft and presently is widely used in air arms the world over. At that time the predominant threat aircraft were the Russian-built transonic MiG-17 'Fresco' and the supersonic MiG-21 'Fishbed'.

TOPGUN initially operated the A-4 Skyhawk and borrowed USAF T-38 Talons to simulate the flying characteristics of the MiG-17 and MiG-21, respectively. The school also made use of Marine-crewed A-6 Intruders and USAF F-106 aircraft when available. Later, the T-38 was replaced by the F-5E and F-5F Tiger II.

One British writer erroneously claimed that the early school was influenced by a group of a dozen flying instructors from the British Fleet Air Arm aboard HMS Ark Royal, who were graduates of the Royal Navy's intense Air Warfare Instructors School in Lossiemouth, Scotland.[7][8] However, an earlier incarnation of TOPGUN, the U.S. Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Units, or FAGU, had provided air combat training for Naval Aviators from the early 1950s until 1960, when a doctrinal shift, brought on by advances in missile, radar and fire control technology, contributed to the belief that the era of the classic dogfight was over, leading to their disestablishment.[9][10] The pilots who were part of the initial cadre of instructors at TOPGUN had experience as students from FAGU.[10]

U.S. Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Unit aircraft from NAF El Centro in the late 1950's

Air crews selected to attend the TOPGUN course were chosen from front-line units. Upon graduating, these crews would return to their parent fleet units to relay what they had learned to their fellow squadron mates—in essence becoming instructors themselves.

During the halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam (in force from 1968 until the early 1970s), TOPGUN established itself as a center of excellence in fighter doctrine, tactics and training. By the time aerial activity over the North resumed, most Navy squadrons had a TOPGUN graduate. According to the USN, the results were dramatic. The Navy kill-to-loss ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiGs soared from 3.7:1 (1965–1967) to 13:1 (post 1970), while the Air Force, which had not implemented a similar training program, actually had its kill ratio worsen for a time after the resumption of bombing, according to Benjamin Lambeth's The Transformation of American Airpower.

The success of the U.S. Navy fighter crews vindicated the fledging DACT school's existence and led to TOPGUN becoming a separate, fully funded command in itself, with its own permanently assigned aviation, staffing, and infrastructural assets. Successful TOPGUN graduates who scored air-to-air kills over North Vietnam and returned to instruct included "Mugs" McKeown and Jack Ensch, and the first U.S. aces of the Vietnam War, Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Willie Driscoll.

It was not until after the war in Vietnam ended that the Air Force initiated a robust DACT program with dedicated aggressor squadrons. The Air Force also initiated a program to replicate an aircrew's first ten combat missions known as Red Flag, and the United States Air Force Weapons School also increased emphasis on DACT.

TOPGUN F-16N and A-4F aircraft in formation over Lower Otay Reservoir

The 1970s and 1980s brought the introduction of the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet as the primary Fleet fighter aircraft flown by students, while TOPGUN instructors retained their A-4s and F-5s, but also added the F-16 Fighting Falcon to better simulate the threat presented by the Soviet Union's new 4th generation MiG-29 'Fulcrum' and Su-27 'Flanker' fighters. However, hard flying of the specially built F-16N aircraft led to discovery of cracks in the airframe which led to the subsequent retirement of this asset. However, in 2002, the Navy began to receive 14 F-16A and B models from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) that were originally intended for Pakistan before being embargoed. These aircraft (which are not designated F-16N/TF-16N) are operated by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) / (TOPGUN) for adversary training and like their F-16N predecessors are painted in exotic schemes.

Largely due to the end of the cold war in the 1990s, the TOPGUN syllabus was modified to include more emphasis on the air-to-ground strike mission as a result of the expanding multi-mission taskings of the F-14 and F/A-18. In addition, TOPGUN retired their A-4s and F-5s in favor of F-16s and F/A-18s in the Aggressor Squadron. In 1996, the transfer of NAS Miramar to the Marine Corps was coupled with the incorporation of TOPGUN into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at NAS Fallon, Nevada. TOPGUN instructors currently fly the F/A-18A/B/C Hornet and the F-16A/B Falcon (former Pakistani aircraft never delivered due to embargo) that are assigned to NSAWC.


Unofficial NFWS patch with F-5 planform

TOPGUN conducts four “Power Projection” classes a year. Each class lasts nine weeks and consists of nine Navy and Marine Corps strike fighter aircraft—a mix of single-seat F/A-18 Cs and Es, and two-seat F/A-18 Ds and Fs. The TOPGUN course is designed to train already experienced Navy and Marine Corps aircrews at the graduate level (although it is currently not a regionally or nationally accredited educational program) in all aspects of strike-fighter aircraft employment, which includes tactics, hardware, techniques and the current world threat for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The course includes eighty hours of lectures and twenty-five flights that pit students against TOPGUN instructors. When a pilot or WSO completes the TOPGUN course he/she will return as a Training Officer carrying the latest tactical doctrine back to their operational squadron, or go directly to an FRS squadron to teach new aircrews. SFTIs can also become instructors themselves at TOPGUN later in their career. Each year, a small number of aircrews do not meet TOPGUN's standards and are dropped from the course.

TOPGUN trains four to six Air Intercept Controllers in each class on advanced command, control, and combat communication skills. They are completely integrated in the course and participate in most of the training missions. These "AIC" students, some of whom are E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officers, go back to their Carrier Air Wings after graduation and are given the responsibility of training all the air controllers and fighters in their Carrier Strike Groups in the art of air intercept control.

TOPGUN also conducts an Adversary Training Course, flying with adversary aircrew from each Navy and Marine Corps adversary squadron. These pilots receive individual instruction in threat simulation, effective threat presentation and adversary tactics. TOPGUN provides academics and flight training to each Carrier Air Wing during their Integrated and Advanced Training Phases (ITP/ATP) at NAS Fallon which are large scale exercises that can involve as many as fifty aircraft. These large scale exercises serve as “dress rehearsals” for future combat scenarios. In addition to training crews, TOPGUN also conducts ground school courses six times a year. The Training Officer Ground School (TOGS) offers graduate level academics to Fleet aviators, adversary instructors and other officers and enlisted personnel.

TOPGUN holds a Strike-Fighter Tactics Refresher Course (also known as "Re-Blue") once a year, usually in the fall, bringing current fleet SFTIs back to Fallon for a 2 day refresher, updating TOPGUN's recommendations.

The TOPGUN course has changed over time. In the 1970s it was four weeks long, in the 1980s five weeks. The final F-4 Phantoms went through the class in March 1985, and the final F-14 Tomcats in October 2003. Programs formerly run by TOPGUN that have been transferred to other commands or discontinued include Fleet Air Superiority Training (FAST) and Hornet Fleet Air Superiority Training (HFAST): coordinated programs of academics and simulators, training fighter pilots and WSOs in Maritime Air Superiority in the carrier group arena.

TOPGUN was made famous in popular culture by the 1986 release of the motion picture Top Gun.

Similar schools

The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon is the Navy center of excellence for Naval strike and air warfare and is commanded by an Admiral. TOPGUN is a department (N7) under NSAWC as are several other formerly independent weapons schools for AEW (TOP DOME), JTAC (run by SEALs), "Strike U" (N5), Airborne Electronic Attack and Maritime Weapons Schools. Additional schools are resident at the Master Jet bases and designated as Type Wing Weapons Schools such as the Strike Fighter Weapons Schools at NAS Lemoore and NAS Oceana. Instructors and curriculum at these schools support the locally based squadrons and conduct unit level training. NSAWC conducts training for both individuals in the case of TOPGUN and provides Air Wing level training. As a designated center of excellence, NSAWC provides standardization for the entire Weapon School community sets standards/criteria for individual qualification.

US Air Force

The United States Air Force operates a similar training program, called the United States Air Force Weapons School (formerly called the "United States Air Force Fighter Weapons School"), and conducts large-scale tactical training exercises (see Red Flag) at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

US Marine Corps

The Marine Corps operates Marine Aviation Weapons & Tactics Squadron – One (MAWTS-1) at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma with an Adversary squadron, VMFT-401, co-located at the base. MAWTS provides training for qualification of individual Weapons & Tactics Instructors (WTI) that return to their squadrons as experts in employment of the aircraft and its weapons systems. MAWTS conducts large scale exercises several times a year called "WTI" evolutions that are similar to Red Flag or NSAWC Air Wing training and involve all aircraft operated by the Marine Corps.


410 Squadron of the Canadian Forces Air Command conducts an annual Fighter Weapons Instructor Course (FWIC) at CFB Cold Lake in Alberta. The course is three months in length and is specific to the CF-18 Hornet aircraft. There are eight students per course.

United Kingdom

The Royal Air Force also has a similar course specific to each aircraft type, known as the QWI (Qualified Weapons Instructor, pronounced Que-Why) Course. It is five months in length.


The Hellenic Air Force built its own school in 1975. The school was called Tactical Weapons School and is based in Andravida Air Base. In 1983 Hellenic Air Force enstablished the KE.A.T. which means in Greek, Air Tactics Centre. Now the Tactical Weapons School is part of the KE.A.T. and are both based in Andravida acting as an independent squadron of the Hellenic Air Force. Every year the best pilots from all the squadrons of the Hellenic Air Force, are trained in KE.A.T. in modern Air To Air Tactics, Air To Ground Tactics, COMAO packages and Electronic Warfare. The pilots which graduating from the KE.A.T. are the best pilots in the Hellenic Air Force.[11]


The Pakistan Air Force weapons and tactics school was known as Fighter Leaders School and in 1976 was re-established as the Combat Commanders School (CCS). It is located at PAF Base Mushaf (Sargodha). Students are taught the following: 1. Application of flying tactics. 2. Utilization of weapon systems. 3. Standardization and evaluation of various units. 4. Research and development in the field of tactics and weapons employment. Two "aggressor" squadrons are assigned to the CCS, the Dashings flying the Mirage III/5 and the Skybolts flying the Chengdu F-7. The PAF's F-16 squadrons also assign aircraft and pilots to the CCS when required during a CCS course.[12]


The Indian Air Force also operates a school which is designed to operate on similar lines called the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE, pronounced Tac-D) based at the Maharajpur Air Force Station in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India.


The Royal Netherlands Air Force has a Fighter Weapons Instructor Training (FWIT) with 323 Tactical Training, Evaluation & Standardisation Squadron (TACTESS) at Leeuwarden Airbase. This training is a multi-national effort with Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Portugal.


Turkish Air Force has a similar training program which is given in air-to-air and air-to-ground simulated warfare conditions based on highly developed ACMI (Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation) system, named Anatolian Eagle. Each year several countries participate into operations including Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Netherlands, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States of America.

Located in Konya 3rd. Main Jet Base, the main missions of the program include: to systematically test and evaluate the fighters’ combat readiness statuses and to manage the tactical training progress, to build a background and knowledge base in order to make research on tactical aeroneutics, to make research to allow fighter elements of the Turkish Air Force Command to reach the military goals in the shortest time and with minimum resource and effort, to support the definition of operational requirements and supply and R&D activities, to allocate training environment in order to fulfill the requirements of the Turkish Air Force Command, to support the tests of existing/developed/future weapon/aircraft systems.


The Argentine Air Force trains its fighter pilots in the CEPAC (Course Combat Airman Standardization) course given at the IV Air Brigade in the town of "El Plumerillo" located in the province of Mendoza. The officers received from the Military Aviation School receive academic instruction and flight training aircraft in the AT-63 Pampa advanced, and then integrate some of the operational squadrons of the Air Force.





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