One thing about the new Top Gun: Maverick movie really, really confused us: why isn’t the latest and greatest stealth fighter, the F-35, the top dog in the movie? We asked an expert to get to the bottom of this: 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.