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The Navy Fighter Weapons School, the official name for Topgun, was created in response to the poor performance of U.S. Navy fighters and their missiles in the first few years of the air war over North Vietnam. When the Navy compared its combat performance in the Vietnam War to previous conflicts, one measure was kill ratio, the number of enemy aircraft destroyed for each American fighter lost. In World War II the Navy’s kill ratio was 14 to 1, meaning it destroyed 14 enemy aircraft for each Navy aircraft lost. In the Korean War, American jets overall had a 12-to-1 kill ratio over enemy fighters. While some inaccuracy is to be expected in these numbers — people were shooting at each other, after all — they provide a rough indicator of effectiveness.

During the first few years of air combat in Vietnam, the Navy’s kill ratio was around 2.5 to 1, quite a bit lower than in previous wars. This was more surprising when one considers that the U.S. employed sophisticated, high-performance, missile-armed fighters against what was thought of as the relatively primitive air force of North Vietnam. There were many complicating factors, but that kill ratio indicated profound problems, so Navy leaders or­dered a study. It was led by Capt. Frank Ault, and the results were known as the Ault report.


One of its major conclusions was that air-to-air missiles needed to be more reliable. Fighter pilots many times aimed at the enemy and squeezed the trigger only to find the missile did nothing or flew off on its own. This was partially due to the pounding these weapons took from frequent aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings. Industry and government responded with solid-state electronics and other ad­vances that greatly improved reliability.

A second conclusion was that pilots had not been well trained in close-in maneuvering, which could be attributed to the attitude that missiles would eliminate the need for dogfighting. But when missiles failed or an enemy fighter managed to get into a position of advantage, dogfighting proved to be a valuable skill.

A two seat F-5F leads an F-5E and a McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk back from a hard day of training over R-2301 West near Yuma, Arizona. All three aircraft carry the orange pod that transmitted data to the Tactical Aircrew Combat Training System (TACTS), which supported real-time ground control and detailed debriefs. (Dave Baranek)


One way to address this training problem was to establish a core of specialists to train fighter crews in air combat maneuvering. To gain even more benefits, these in­structors were to fly aircraft that were different from the Navy’s fighters and replicated the capabilities of likely enemy fighters. The Navy’s re­sponse to the Ault report led to the establishment of Topgun at NAS Miramar, initially as a de­partment in an existing squadron (the F-4 Phantom training squadron), which evolved into a standalone aircraft squadron. The Navy (and Air Force) also established other adversary squadrons at fighter bases to prepare crews to face enemy fighters.

As for Vietnam aerial combat, Topgun training and other measures resulted in an increase in the Navy’s kill ratio to 13 to 1. That’s a good return on investment.

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