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3 Good Reasons Why The F-35 Was Not Featured In Top Gun: Maverick

F-35
AF-2, Major Eskil "Taz" Amdal, Ferry From Eielson, Alaska To Edwards AFB, Ca., 8 March 2018

Why didn’t the F-35 take the lead fighter role in Top Gun: Maverick? Tom Cruise’s new movie, Top Gun: Maverick, is a really fun movie. Like its predecessor, it gives the viewer a good feeling for what it is like to fly a modern combat aircraft. The critics seem to like it well enough and current box office receipts suggest the public does too.

You should see the new Top Gun movie for one additional reason. It is likely to be one of the last of its genre. The introduction of stealthy fifth-generation aircraft, the increased sophistication of electronic warfare systems, and the proliferation of advanced unmanned systems, long-range precision missiles, and hypersonic weapons will change the character of the future fight for air superiority. The days of within-visual-range engagements with aircraft blasting away at each other with cannons are about over. So too is the need to fly into the teeth of land-based air defenses.

The primary factor changing the nature of air operations is the advent of so-called fifth-generation fighters. The U.S. leads the world in the deployment of fifth-generation aircraft with the F-22 and, most significantly, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Not only is this aircraft being deployed with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, but it is rapidly becoming the Free World’s top-of-the-line fighter. Ironically, a version of a Russian stealth aircraft, the Su-57, actually makes a significant appearance in the movie.

One of the most noteworthy features of Top Gun is the absence (beyond a few seconds at the beginning of the movie) of the F-35C, the Navy’s premier fifth-generation aircraft. The new aircraft is currently deploying on aircraft carriers. Some C-variants also are flown by the Marine Corps along with their short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, the F-35B.

Some sources reported that the movie’s producers chose not to make the F-35C the focal point because it only comes in a single-seat version. This created cinematographic challenges that the director and camera people could not overcome.

Instead, the moviemakers chose to focus on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The F/A-18E/F is a very good multi-role fighter. Its features, including a new counter-stealth Infra-Red Search and Track sensor and advanced cockpit, make the Super Hornet a worthy companion to the F35C in the carrier air wing.

In reality, if the F-35 had been the centerpiece of Top Gun, it would have made for an entirely different and possibly boring movie. There are three good reasons why F-35 was not employed. The first is that with the F-35 there would be no heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping dogfighting scenes. The F-35 was designed to employ a combination of stealthiness, advanced sensing, and long-range weapons to engage aircraft from outside their sensor ranges. In the Red Flag exercises conducted prior to the pandemic, F-35s achieved a kill ratio against a variety of aggressors of 20 to 1, even when the scenario involved vastly superior numbers of adversaries. In previous exercises, F-35s, employed as stealthy sensors, have enhanced the effectiveness of non-stealthy four-generation aircraft in both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations.

The F-35’s stealthiness, electronic warfare suite (including the ability to use its radar to jam enemy sensors), and advanced sensors mean that it would not engage hostile air defenses in the ways depicted in the movie. The ability of the JSF to avoid detection by hostile air defenses is one reason that Germany chose the F-35 to be the platform to support its nuclear weapons delivery hosting mission.

The second reason is that with the F-35 leading the way for a combination of manned and unmanned systems, there would have been no dramatic flights into the Valley of Death lined with air defense systems. Modern U.S. suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations would not involve closing with the air defenses down on the deck. The Russian air campaign over Ukraine has confirmed what air forces the world over have known since the Vietnam War. Flying at low altitude into the teeth of a layered air defense system is a suicide mission.

The F-35 is designed to take on air defenses at range using a host of onboard weapons and electronic warfare systems, plus offboard systems. One tactic is to have the F-35 lead the way for fourth-generation aircraft, such as the Super Hornet and the EA-18 Growler electronic warfare aircraft. The dominant scenario laid out in the movie is one for which the Navy’s evolving carrier air wing has been specifically designed to address.

The third reason that the F-35 was not used in Top Gun is that in the future, there will be alternative ways for the Joint Force to address ground-based air defenses to those presented in the film. In the future, joint and coalition operations will employ the F-35 and its airborne adjuncts as passive, stealthy sensors providing precise targeting data for long-range precision fire systems. The F-35 is both a high-performance combat aircraft and an advanced airborne sensor platform. In the hands of militaries with the capabilities and knowledge to exploit its data-gathering potential, the F-35 can enable information dominance.

This will be particularly useful in enhancing joint operations. The U.S. Army and Navy have demonstrated that the F-35 can act as a passive aerial sensor in support of both long-range strike systems and missile defenses. In the near future, the joint force commander will likely team the F-35 with long-range fire systems, such as the U.S. Army’s Precision Strike Missile or its Mid-Range Capability. The JSF’s weapons will be reserved for extremely high-value targets or those that are only accessible for a fleeting period of time.

You do not have to take my word for how different the future of air operations will be now that the F-35 is being deployed in numbers. A recent study that interviewed over thirty pilots with experience flying both fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft make it clear that the JSF will fundamentally change both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. These pilots had previously flown early variants of the JSF without much of the software and other advanced capabilities that the current version possesses. Each of the pilots interviewed said they would choose the F-35 over the aircraft they used to fly for air-to-air engagements.

Author Biography and Expertise: Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Chuck Richards

    June 9, 2022 at 1:18 pm

    Very good article. This was the first thing I asked my friends when we left the movie. Doing some digging, I really could not find anything other than the single-seat issue. I like the movie, but I really think they should have addressed this somehow. They made it seem as if the U.S. is at the bottom of the barrel on fighter tech, when in reality the opposite is true.

  2. Steven

    June 10, 2022 at 7:50 am

    Nice piece. I love the F-35, always have.

  3. TrustbutVerify

    June 10, 2022 at 8:17 am

    First, potential spoilers ahead!

    3….2…1…

    Yes, I was sitting there saying that the F-35 would have been great to suppress the SAMs even if you wanted the F-18 to deliver the ordinance. The whole “GPS jamming” issue was pretty bogus in that regard.

    I think, in the real world, a couple of B-2s would have just dropped laser-guided bunker busters into the crater. Or the F-35 would have been used as top cover against any aggressor aircraft that might get off the ground (it isn’t like they only had 4 F-18s on the carrier!).

    In the end, it is a movie. You would think that they would have consulted the pilots flying in the movie on mission planning – at least – and then designed something exciting from there.

    • Bayfront

      June 10, 2022 at 12:08 pm

      When I saw the movie I didn’t find it realistic. As you also mentioned I would have signed out a B-2, and at least 6 Super Hornets to cover for the B-2. Also, since they obviously knew where all the missile batteries were, why didn’t they annihilate those with some of the missiles on the incoming. Also, which banana republic has 5th.-gen aircrafts purchased from where????

      However, it is just a movie made to profit from selling a fantasy to those who didn’t pass the pilot tests and not the planning instruction manual for the USN or USAF.

    • Curt

      June 10, 2022 at 12:37 pm

      There were numerous issues, just like in the original Top Gun.

      Like,
      – why were the F-18s flying without support? Even if they went in under the radar, after they hit the target, there would be aircraft to cover the egress.

      – Why not use a B-2 with a couple of MOPs? It is not like that was what it was designed for or anything. No need for “Two Miracles”, no need for any tomahawks, etc.

      – Why were their missiles lining the canyon? They couldn’t shoot downward, why not deploy them somewhere else. A second thought is why were there no guns deployed in the canyon?

      – Why was the reserve aircraft(s) not launched for the strike, it would do no good 100nm away if there was a problem. Then, why would you launch an aircraft configured with bombs to do CAP?

      – Where were the rest of the aircraft in the air wing?

      and the list goes on, but the real question is, How much did they pay George Lucas to rip off his story line? They even had someone use the force!

  4. Jeff Mason

    June 10, 2022 at 9:27 am

    “The ability of the JSF to avoid detection by hostile air defenses is one reason that Germany chose the F-35 to be the platform to support its nuclear weapons delivery mission.”

    Last time I checked, Germany didn’t have nukes.

    • Western Veteran

      June 10, 2022 at 2:30 pm

      I saw that too. I think there’s still a few B-61 nukes in Germany, but the wording of the sentence suggests it was Germany’s nuclear weapons mission.

  5. Matt Weinstein

    June 10, 2022 at 11:39 am

    Germany has no nuclear weapons of its own, but it stores 20 or fewer U.S. B-61 nuclear gravity bombs at Büchel air base, and maintains a fleet of aging Tornado fighter bombers to deliver them. This gives it a seat in NATO’s nuclear planning group.

  6. Jim O'Brasky

    June 10, 2022 at 9:13 pm

    Between 1965 and 1968, USAF and USN aircraft striking targets in North Vietnam, had to survive engagements by MIG-17 and MIG-21 aircraft under radar control piloted by experienced Soviet pilots – the result was attacks on US aircraft from astern with short range weapons – the exchange rate was about 2.2:1 in the resulting dogfights in US favor.
    In 1968, the US Navy established its fighter weapons school to teach tactics with strong emphasis on exploiting Sparrow missiles in long range engagements under E-2 control. Between 1969 and 1972, the USAF exchange rate remained at 2.5:1 but the USN exchange rate increased to about 10:1.
    The US Navy introduced the F-14A with AIM-54A Phoenix in 1974. Phoenix had an active radar, a range of about 90 miles and a speed of M=5. The fighter weapons school emphasized exploitation of the F-14A with Phoenix. It is worth noting that in 1972, a single F-14A with armed six AIM-54A conducted six simultaneous air to air engagements against targets that included M=3 high altitude targets and near zero velocity helicopters at very low altitude.
    In 1974-1978, the ACEVAL/AIMVAL test program was intended to evaluate F-16 fighters armed with really high performance short range air-to-air missiles against longer range threats. The results were interesting in that F-14A’s with Phoenix Missiles and Fighter-Weapons School optimized tactics very reliably defeated the optimized short range systems. The result was that the US adopted the AIM-120 missile with active radar and a 90 mile range – a very Phoenix-like missile with a weight of only 350 pounds vice 1000 pounds.

    Since about 1980, some 300 air-to-air engagements have occurred at long range or beyond visual range without a single engagement resulting in a dog-fight!!

  7. Addison

    June 10, 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Great article. I love this site – and I totally get the need to generate ad revenue given that it is free to access – but my god, the general level of ‘spamminess’ in addition to the sheer quantity of them (including annoying pop-ups) is pretty annoying. Not to mention affects credibility to those visiting the site for the first time.

  8. Hoi Polloi

    June 11, 2022 at 12:17 pm

    I found the combat scenarios depicted in the film utterly absurd. The flight sequences and camera work were great but a big part of the original movie’s allure were the realistic scenarios involved, i.e. the grey zone conflict between an American carrier in the Indian ocean and interloper Soviet air squadrons trying to push them around. The F14 was designed for the exactly the same role that was depicted in the original movie: fleet air defense and air interdiction. The new film felt like a half baked idea for a crappy video game. It could and should have been SO much better.

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