Having finally gotten around to watching Top Gun: Maverick (Dir: Joseph Kosinski, 2022), one is able to make some overall sense of the franchise and what it has to say about the modern military. This sequel to Top Gun (Dir Tony Scott, 1986) is an excellent film that may be even better than the original. It is very rare for sequels to be acknowledged as better than their originals. There are only two clear cut examples: The Godfather: Part II (Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Dir: Irvin Kershner, 1980). However, these films were released very soon after their originals. They allowed an established creative team to expand upon work that had just been proven to be hugely popular. This creative team had more freedom (i.e., money) to make the sequels because of the recent success of the originals. Top Gun: Maverick was released a full 36 years after the original, making its success all the stranger.
The sequel is tremendously exciting, made with real care for the original and what made it so popular. In fact, it is the later films relationship to the original that is its chief source of interest. In itself the more recent film is entertaining, but not especially deep.
*SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS AHEAD*
The real Top Gun
Top Gun is the colloquial way of referring to the United States (US) Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI), previously known as the United States Navy (USN) Fighter Weapons School. It was established in 1969 at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. In 1996 it moved to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
The Top Gun program was created at the height of the Vietnam War. It had become apparent that US pilots were not enjoying the success they were expected to in air combat between aircraft. US aircraft were the most technologically advanced and thus expensive in the world. The North Vietnamese Air Force (the VPAF) used aircraft designed in the Soviet Union (USSR) and manufactured either there or in China. These were technologically inferior. This summed up the overall technological and strategic philosophy of the superpowers: the US had better technology so built fewer but ‘better’ aircraft; the Soviet Union had inferior technology but greater industrial capacity, so it built more but ‘inferior’ aircraft. But this was not being reflected in the air battles over Vietnam. The way that air arms measure success in air combat between aircraft (as opposed to aircraft being used to hit ground-based targets) is through a ‘kill-ratio.’ These are very simple to work out: it is just the number of aircraft you shoot down divided by the number of yours that the enemy shoot down. So, if the US shoots down 50 aircraft today, but loses 25, the kill ratio is a positive ratio of 2:1. If the figures are reversed you get a negative ratio of 1:2. A positive ratio broadly indicates you are winning, whilst a negative one indicates you are losing. Kill ratios can be worked out over different time periods in a conflict, but they always tend to produce the same answer. Over Vietnam, in 1969, US pilots were enjoying a kill ratio of positive 3:1.
The problem is that the ratio does not take into account the quality of the aircraft, the aircrew, the cost of both and thus the relative size of the air arms that each belligerent can afford. A positive 3:1 kill ratio suggest you are three times as successful as your enemy. But if your enemy has 1000 fighters and you only have 100 then you need the kill ratio to be positive 11:1. The ratio of 3:1 is going to see you lose. This can be analysed through simple economics as well. If you can only afford 100 aircraft because they cost ten times as much as those of your opponent (this is actually a realistic comparison in some conflicts today), then they had better be good.
Why the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI) was created
In a brief expository scene near the beginning of the original film, one of the characters explains that in Vietnam, kill ratios had fallen because pilots had lost the art of Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM, more commonly known as dogfighting). They had become dependent on missiles. This exposition does not make much sense, because throughout the film, missiles are regularly referred to as the weapon of choice. The problem was not that the pilots were dependent on missiles, but that the US Navy was preparing for what it considered the most likely major conflict – an all-out war with the Soviet Union. In that scenario, the main threat to the USN Carrier Battle Groups (CBG) would be large Soviet bombers with supersonic anti-ship missiles. To defeat these, the USN decided it needed a large aircraft that could accommodate a sophisticated but bulky detection and fire control radar and deploy many air-to-air missiles over long ranges. The idea was to shoot down the Soviet bombers before they could threaten the carriers. This same anti-bomber philosophy applied to other NATO air arms, including the United States Air force (USAF). The Royal Air Force (RAF) for example, saw its role as deploying nuclear weapons from bombers whilst defending the United Kingdom from Soviet Bombers. Nowhere in these scenarios is dogfighting needed. Bombers cannot engage in dogfights and if you are close enough to engage them visually, it is too late: their missiles are away. So, missiles were not the problem. The problem was that the US Navy had commissioned a very large interceptor aircraft (the F14 Tomcat) and trained its aviators as managers of sophisticated weapons systems, rather than dogfighters
This can be seen throughout the film. It is striking that the F14 features two crew and is huge in comparison to the aircraft the Top Gun instructors are flying as adversary trainers (the A4 Skyhawk). F14 pilots were at a major disadvantage in these dogfights. They could be visually identified before the instructors could themselves be picked up and the rules of engagement were designed to favour them – the dogfights had to involve visual detection for example. This seems highly artificial, but reflected the experience in Vietnam, where the VPAF had no offensive capability (i.e., bombers or attack aircraft) and used very small, lightweight fighters. These fighters benefited from rules of engagement that meant the US air arms had to both visually identify them and stay away from the Chinese-Vietnamese border. If a VPAF pilot got into trouble in a dogfight, they could make a run for it, just as the adversary aircraft in Top Gun could opt to run for the hard deck (an altitude limitation designed as a safety feature). The US Navy accurately diagnosed the problem in a way that Top Gun does not quite manage to do: the problem was that no one believed dogfights were going to happen anymore. They then did recur, but only in the very specific circumstances of the Vietnam War, a conflict that had not been planned for when it sprung into life. It is interesting that since Vietnam, the US Navy and other air arms have barely engaged in dogfighting again. For example, the US air arms achieved significant air to air kills in Operation Desert Storm, but these were nearly all kills achieved without the combatants sighting each other. They were all Beyond Visual Range (BVR) kills. There have not really been any examples of dogfighting since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the very small number of engagements in the 1982 Falklands War. In a certain sense, Vietnam was an aberration and the SFTI was an expensive solution to an historic problem
Since Vietnam, there was a focus on making aircraft smaller and more agile, although in the US this tended to be part of a high-low mix: rather than all smaller aircraft, the US would operate a larger fighter and a smaller one. In the US Navy this meant that the large F14 Tomcat operated alongside the smaller F18 Hornet. But the tendency has always been to add capability and thus end up making the aircraft larger. When the USN wanted to replace the F14, they built a larger version of the F18, the Super Hornet. These are the aircraft that Maverick et al fly in Top Gun: Maverick. These are not the most advanced aircraft the USN operates. They are now second fiddle to the F35C Lightning II. You actually see some of these majestic beasts in the opening shots of Top Gun: Maverick. The filmmakers opted to use the F18 Super Hornet because, as the film itself shows, it comes in two versions: the F18E is single seat, whereas the F18F is two seat. This means that almost all the shots of the actors grunting through the G forces and/or looking around in panic for enemy missile were really shot in the aircraft. The actors were in the back seat of an F18F. There is no two-seat F35C.
Playing volleyball with the boys – Situational Awareness
At the heart of Top Gun lies one of the oldest sociological questions of all: nature v nurture. It might be reasonably asked whether flying an airplane in combat is something that you are simply born to be good at, whether it can be learned, or whether it is a combination of the two. Nature suggests it’s all genetic, whereas nurture holds that it’s all a question of environment and education. The obvious objection is that since air combat is only around 100 years old, it cannot possibly be something we have genetically adapted for. This of course misses the point because it asks the wrong question. The question is not whether air combat is genetically encoded today, but whether the capabilities and skills it requires have been encoded. Humans have obviously not evolved to fly fighter jets, but they may have evolved to hunt animals in groups on the savannahs of Africa 1.5 million years ago. They have then applied these abilities to other aspects of modern life. It is similar to the surge of adrenalin and sweating you sometimes feel when undergoing a job interview: this is a modern adaptation of the fight or flight response that helped our ancestors dominate the Earth.
The lightning in the bottle of air combat is called Situational Awareness (SA). It means the ability to look at a dynamic, moving environment, to recognise and retain information about what is occurring and, most crucially, anticipate what may happen next and take appropriate action. At a certain level the abilities displayed by people with a high level of SA may appear almost miraculous. There is a speech in Star Wars Episode 1: the Phantom Menace (Dir: George Lucas, 1999) where a character is describing the abilities of the warrior-monk Jedi as being able to ‘…see things before they happen. That’s why (they) appears to have such quick reflexes.’ The Jedi can also read minds. Both of these are literally impossible in our universe. But humans can appear to be so quick to react that to all intents and purposes its instantaneous. By subtle analysis of body language, humans can appear to read minds, as any magician or poker player can attest. If you want to see SA in action, you can go the Amazon rainforest and find a tribe that still hunts the way humans did 1.5 million years ago. Or you can turn on your television set and watch soccer, basketball, tennis, Formula One or many other fast-moving sports. There are competitors that are good because they have trained hard but never quite become the best. There are competitors that seem to be much more gifted than everyone else but frustrate because they don’t seem to work hard enough and get caught up in the wealth and fame. Then there are the competitors that have both the gift and the work ethic. These are the greats.
The similarity between sport and combat is referenced directly in both Top Gun movies. Top Gun features a scene where the protagonists are playing beach volleyball, whereas in Top Gun: Maverick, they play a very specific quasi-sport called ‘Dogfight football.’ Top Gun lets the audience make the connection, whereas in Top Gun: Maverick the point is made directly in a line of dialogue. Both movies are referred to as ‘competition movies’ by their creative teams. It is also noteworthy that when director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise reunited four years after Top Gun, they made Days of Thunder (Dir: Tony Scott, 1990). Days of Thunder is about a maverick NASCAR driver and his struggle to balance his aggressive instincts with the inherent danger of the sport. It is derisively referred to as ‘Top Gun with cars’ and is not a very good movie.
The franchise narrative
Both Top Gun movies are satisfying because rather than posing a philosophical question and asking you to make your mind up, they take a position in the nature v nurture debate. One is all in favour of films that pose philosophical questions and then ask the audience what they think, just as long as this does not happen too often and it is not Christopher Nolan doing it. Both movies come down on the side of nature. The lead in both films is Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. He had a fighter pilot Father, but it is intimated that he did not get much nurture from him. Maverick then breaks the rules and succeeds anyway because he is innately gifted. In Top Gun: Maverick, the second lead is Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw. Rooster is the son of Goose, Maverick’s former backseat radar operator from the first film. We know he did not get much nurture because his Father’s death is the end of the second act in Top Gun, when he is shown as being around 2 years old. Rooster also breaks the rules and succeeds.
There are other characters in both films who are very good pilots, but the films firmly maintain that they are a second class to the innately gifted. The most obvious example of this is the closest the first film comes to an antagonist, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky. Iceman does not take risks and believes Maverick is irresponsible for doing so. Iceman represents the idea that good flying in the missile age is not about being aggressive, but being able to manage the technical systems in the aircraft.
The tip of the spear
Top Gun is not a subtle film. It breaks the rule that showing is usually better than telling, but this can be forgiven because what is shown is exciting and some of the concepts are too technically difficult to avoid exposition scenes. And the exposition scenes are relatively short. Several times Iceman berates Maverick for being dangerous. In one scene Maverick responds in a seemingly unhinged manner and boastfully declares that he is dangerous. It is a rare moment of self-awareness in movies that feature a lot of men repressing their true feelings.
In one of the earliest scenes of the film, the head of the Top Gun school describes his charges as the elite, ‘the tip of the spear.’ It is here where the lexicology of the film comes together. Maverick and Iceman have been given names that reflect two philosophies of air combat: Maverick represents aggression, violence, risk-taking. Iceman represents the pilot as manager of a weapons system. Throughout the film, there are several references to the cost of the F14 and the fact that it belongs to the taxpayers not the pilots. Iceman sees his role as keeping this asset intact, whereas Maverick cares more about killing the enemy. The spear is the F14 itself. You have to train to use a spear effectively. You also have to train to use an F14 effectively. But when the spear costs $30 Million (1986 prices) and is so complex to control, can you afford to wield it in a dangerous manner in training? This is where the two philosophies come into tension with one another. The phrase ‘good flying never killed anyone’ sounds like an exhortation to take care, but its double meaning should now be obvious: learning good flying of one’s own aircraft does not help one in shooting down enemy aircraft. This depends on possessing SA in the first place, but also on allowing SA to control one’s actions. In both films, Maverick states that there is no time to think in air combat: ‘if you think, your dead’. He argues that his abilities are instinctive, but instinct, by definition, cannot be taught or learned. In a sense, Maverick as a character is a rejection of Top Gun as an institution: he does not even win the Top Gun Trophy, coming second to Iceman. It is striking that Maverick has no real character arc. He enters the film as a cocky, arrogant warrior, briefly doubts himself, then leaves the film as a cocky, arrogant warrior. When we meet him again, over 3 decades later, he is still the same character. Iceman is now an Admiral, but Maverick remains a Captain on purpose, because he does not want to grow and lose doing what he loves. What made him a great pilot has been there from birth and will continue to be there until he ceases flying.
In contrast to the complexities of Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick is a film that is not really about anything at all. It is just enjoyable. There is an allusion of sorts to the fact that Maverick will have to cease flying soon, because he will be replaced by drones. But it is not suggested that just the dangerous Maverick(s) will be so replaced: all pilots will. Having been raised at the beginning of the film, this idea is not seriously pursued. Rear Admiral Chester ‘Hammer’ Cain appears to tell Maverick and the audience that drones are the future of air warfare. But this idea is then immediately forgotten. Drones make literally no further appearance in the movie and nor does Admiral Cain. They are not even spoken of. When Maverick learns of his mission from Vice Admiral Beau ‘Cyclone’ Simpson it is a completely piloted mission. This is a way of giving Maverick a happy ending. It is suggested that he will soon become irrelevant, but then this is simply ignored.
There is an interesting moment however, where the very absence of drones can be noticed. It almost slips under the radar of the discussion. Maverick has been shot down in enemy territory. Rear Admiral Solomon ‘Warlock’ Bates orders a launch of search and rescue. This is a technical mistake by the filmmakers, because it is known as Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR, pronounced ‘Caesar’), distinguishing it from simply rescuing civilians. CSAR involves heavily armed helicopters, often supported by fighter aircraft. Admiral Simpson overrules the order because there are enemy aircraft in the vicinity and ‘We are not losing anyone else today.’ This refers to the essential dilemma of CSAR operations: a pilot is shot down. Two helicopters with a total of maybe ten crew members fly out to rescue the downed pilot. But if they themselves are shot down things are much worse. What if the extracting vehicle was an unmanned helicopter, that is, a drone? There is far less risk involved and sending out a drone to pick up Maverick would make more sense. This is an area where the US military has conducted significant research. It has started to pick up momentum now that conventional peer-to-peer warfare looks more likely. It also raises very interesting moral and legal questions. Assuming it is unarmed, would such a drone be a legitimate military target? Would it depend on whether it was carrying a downed pilot or not? These concerns feed into decisions about whether to send the drone or not. Maverick might be taken prisoner which is bad. But if he is being hoisted away by a drone and that drone is shot at, then things are really bad. It would be very difficult for an enemy to distinguish between a combat drone and a rescue drone. A combat drone in their airspace would be a (further) violation of sovereignty and a continuation of an armed attack, giving them a right to self-defence. A CSAR drone, which carries no weapons, might merely be a violation of sovereignty, which allows a much lower level of response on the part of the state in question.
Before concluding, it is worth drawing attention to the two main legal issues the film does raise:
- The legality of the whole operation is dubious. In the briefing, Admiral Bates states that the target is a uranium enrichment facility ‘built in violation of a multilateral NATO Treaty.’ This is obviously a load of rubbish. NATO does not make treaties. You could conceivably argue they enforce international treaties sometimes. Admiral Bates goes on to say, ‘The uranium produced there represents a direct threat to our allies in the region.’ This makes more sense, if you view it as a form of collective self-defence. The problem is this would be pre-emptive self-defence and there is no real legal basis for this. The whole mission is clearly inspired by the real Operation Opera. This involved the Israeli Air Force destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak on 7 June 1981. The mission was a success but was illegal and was condemned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Security Council Resolution 487 (1981) is an unusually strong condemnation of Israel that stops just short of calling the operation illegal, even though lawyers know it was. Even if you could get over all these legal hurdles, you would still be left with the problem that violating international treaties does not create the right to unilateral enforcement of them. There are only two ways such enforcement (i.e., bombing a reactor) could be legal: if the treaty itself allows for it, which is very unlikely, or the UNSC says it is legal through a resolution. If and when Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear weapons programme it will not be based on either of these.
- The scene where Maverick is shot down rather implausibly shows an Mil:35 attack helicopter trying to kill him – surely, he would be wanted as a prisoner? The legal issue here is obvious – someone in Maverick’s condition is out of the fight and should be captured and treated as per the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Black Hawk Down (Dir: Ridley Scott, 2001) is a great film directed by the rather more famous and certainly more alive brother of Tony Scott, Sir Ridley Scott. It is considered to be a more serious take on war, and it has more legal issues within its narrative. But the original Top Gun is a more serious film than it first appears. It has profound things to say about how warriors train and fight wars. Black Hawk Down does a great job of making you see the battle through the eyes of the soldier but is less concerned with larger questions like whether peace-keeping operations can and should be conducted more like combat operations. Once you leave aside the very limited discussion of drones, Top Gun: Maverick, is not really about anything. Even the enemy is not named, although it is clearly inspired by Iran and its rivalry with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Maverick and Rooster steal an F14 at the end of Top Gun: Maverick, and Iran was the only export customer for the F14. But these are simply plot devices and at no stage is it suggested that Iranians are bad people. The film is tremendously exciting, however. I recommend it to anyone who feels the need for speed.