Reforming America's Overhyped Airpower

F-14 Aircraft
Photo credit to Flickr user 

In 1986, audiences across the United States flocked to see the new Tom Cruise movie, “Top Gun”, which was produced with the full cooperation – and censorship – of the U.S. Navy. At the beginning of the film, a caption appeared on screen to give the audience some background information on the Top Gun school. It read: “On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it: Top Gun." The film made millions and encouraged a new generation of Americans to become naval aviators. There was only one problem: It was all hype. Rather than being unique, Top Gun taught tactics developed a dozen years earlier by the Air Force's Fighter Weapons School – and in Vietnam the school's graduates proved to be less than the best in the world. “Top Gun” was a Pentagon propaganda film designed to make the U.S. Navy look a lot better than it really is. Sad as this is, the film was hardly the first time Americans were exposed to propaganda masquerading as entertainment (or education) to make their country's airmen look like unequaled supermen. Not by a long shot.

Even now, the American military services' search for heroes—needed to maintain popular support for massive military budgets – often elevates people to glory that some would say is not entirely justifiable.

This process of indoctrination began in World War I. America entered the war at the last moment, and was in need of heroes. But not just any kind of hero. No, they wanted a superhero, and so they created one and his name was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a fighter pilot. Rickenbacker was credited with 26 kills and became a national celebrity. Most Americans will recognize the name even now, and many of them consider him “the ace of aces”. Unfortunately, that is not true. Don't get me wrong, Rickenbacker was a very good pilot, but he was not especially great when you compare him to other allied aces. As historian Pierre Berton observed, an allied pilot named Donald Maclaren had his first dog fight on the very same day that Rickenbacker did, in February 1918, but Maclaren went on to get 48 kills, nearly twice as many as Rickenbacker. (1)

Indeed, Berton noted that “ … as late as 1975, American magazines continued to cite Rickenbacker as the leading allied ace. In January of that year the men's magazine Argosy, in a long article on the leading fighter pilots of the war, declared that 'two names stand out from all the rest – Baron Manfred von Richtofen and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.'”(2) To put that claim into the proper context, Historian Dan McCaffery noted that “By the war's end, Canada, with a population of only eight million people, had produced four super aces with fifty or more kills each. Germany, by contrast, had three and France and England just two each.”(3) Rickenbacker would obviously not be able to compete with these gentlemen.

Even now, the American military services' search for heroes— needed to maintain popular support for massive military budgets – often elevates people to glory that some would say is not entirely justifiable. This is especially true in the domain of airpower which makes the largest demands of all on the public purse.

Up through the mid 60s, US pilots flying the latest supersonic fighters routinely lost dogfights to Canadian pilots flying the subsonic F-86s.

Fast forward to the Korean War, in which American pilots claimed a kill ratio of between 10 and 12 to 1 against enemy fighters. American pilots in their F-86 Sabres fought well against Chinese and North Korean MiG-15 pilots, but that ratio, and the notion that the air war over Korea was a one-sided American victory has been called into question in recent years. Indeed, as Dorr, Lake and Thompson said “An air-to-air kill:loss ratio which appeared to be in the order of 10:1 after the war now appears closer to 2:1.”(4) In addition, they point out, “a 1:1 ratio [is] conceivable if F-80s and F-84s were brought into the equation.”(5) The reason for the skepticism is that we now know that Soviet pilots, many of them experienced veterans of WWII air combat, flew covertly in the Korean War also, and they contest the American boasts as well. While the MiG was slightly superior in acceleration and low speed turn rate, Colonel John Boyd maintained that the Sabre had an edge because it was technically better in transient maneuverability.  Notwithstanding this, a 2008 RAND study suggests that the kill ratio between US F-86 pilots and Soviet MiG-15s was “likely 1.3:1”.(6) Also keep in mind that the Soviet Union claimed 52 aces in the Korean War, whereas America can only claim 41.(7) It appears that the top two aces of the war were Soviet pilots, and Soviet MiG-15 pilots themselves say they achieved a ratio of 4:1 against allied aircraft.(8) Furthermore, they argue that their procedures for confirming kills were far more rigorous than the

All this is quite consistent with the pioneering work by air historians like Jeffrey L. Ethell who have examined in dogfight-by-dogfight detail the conflicting air combat claims of both sides in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Their evidence is overwhelming: all air forces exaggerate their air-to-air (and ground target) kill claims, while tending to understate their own losses. The historians' most consistent finding is that the skills of individual pilots, as opposed to aircraft technical performance, were always the critical factor. Given the WWI  Rickenbacker mythbuilding and the continuing USAF and USN inflation of heroes and kill claims in subsequent wars, the Soviet challenge over the skies of Korea must not be dismissed as a cakewalk for the Americans.

The French pilots simply out flew the Americans time and time again.

The American claim of mastery of the skies during the Korean War becomes even more dubious when one looks at the poor performance of USAF and USN pilots in exercises with NATO air forces in the 1950s and 1960s. Up through the mid 60s, US pilots flying the latest supersonic fighters routinely lost dogfights to Canadian pilots flying the subsonic F-86s (Albeit these were the hottest performing of all F-86 models, the Canadair Sabre Mk VI). Like the Soviet pilots the Americans faced in Korea, the Canadian Sabre pilots had long years of dogfight experience and flew a truly great aircraft.  In 1959, for example, a time when many American pilots still had jet combat experience, the USAF was defeated at a competition in Cadeaux, France. In competition against British, French, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch pilots, the Canadians won, while the team from USAF Central Europe, the only US team in the competition, finished in last place.(10) If the USAF could deal with Soviet MiG pilots so easily in Korea, why not French, Canadian, British, Belgian or Dutch pilots six years later?  The French team outperformed the USAF that year, and another group of French pilots would come back to deal with the US Navy seven years later, and, sadly, once again give them reason to doubt the hype about their dominance of the sky.

In the spring of 1966, the super carrier USS America was cruising the Mediterranean about to join the French in an exercise called “Fairwind IV”. According to author Donald E. Auten, a former naval aviator and Top Gun graduate, the French planners were top notch, and their pilots were “... also quite competent. They were young, aggressive, independent, and had a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement, and extracted the full performance capabilities from their airplanes.”(11) The French aircraft were all older models, some dating back to the Korean War era, whilst the Americans flew the much newer and more powerful F-4 Phantom. The rules of engagement specified that visual identification was required before attacking hostile aircraft, which obviously limited the use of the Phantom's radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The rationale for this rule was to prevent fratricide. In other words, pilots had to make visual contact before engaging a target to minimize the possibility of a “blue-on-blue” incident. This was an eminently reasonable precaution, but keep in mind that the dogma in the USN and the USAF at the time was that beyond visual range missiles had made dogfighting obsolete. The French felt otherwise, and as we'll see later, for good reason. peacetime American fighter pilots are victims of their military bureaucracy’s longstanding obsession with the “Up-or-Out” promotion system.

Things did not go well for the Americans during this exercise with France, the country that enabled the US to win the Revolutionary War and to survive the War of 1812. Actually, not well is quite an understatement. The French pilots simply outflew the Americans time and time again. In fact, right from the start, clever and skilled French pilots brutally disproved the American theory that the French cannot fight. They began the exercise by flying very low to sneak up on the USS America, totally undetected. As F-4 pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade John Monroe “Hawk” Smith put it “We were sitting on deck, waiting for the ship to turn into the wind so we could launch. It was recovery time for the previous cycle, and the returning Phantoms, Intruders and Skyhawks were in the delta stack, low on gas, and waiting for their Charlie time. Just as America began her turn into the wind, the French hit us. They roared into the stack engaging every plane they saw. The French decimated our jets then bolted out of the area before we could launch.”(12)

The French were able to do this because, thinking tactically, they had been monitoring the movements of the American forces and found it all too easy to  predict when they should strike.(13) “As the exercise progressed,” wrote Auten, “... and the number of engagements increased, it became clear that America's aircrews were usually outmaneuvered and outclassed by the French.”(14) The French, unlike the Americans, still knew how to dogfight. So did the Israelis. And from what I've learned watching the 1996 documentary “Top Gun Over Moscow,” so did the Soviets and Russians. Hawk took the defeat very badly and quipped “We just had our collective asses handed to us by a second-rate military flying club flying a bunch of cheap, little airplanes by pilots who didn't even hold down an honest sixteen hour-a-day job. We looked like a bunch of buffoons...”(15)

What accounts for the higher number of allied aces in WWI, the much higher kill scores of German aces in WWII, the better scores of Russian aces in Korea and the lopsided dogfight victories of Canadian and French pilots over Americans in post-Korean NATO exercises? The common thread is simple: the high scores and the victories went to the pilots with the most dogfight experience and the longest tours in the fighter cockpit. Thus American pilots were hamstrung in war by being forced into far shorter combat tours than enemy pilots.

Even worse, in peacetime American fighter pilots are victims of their military bureaucracy’s longstanding obsession with the “Up-or-Out” promotion system. That system mandates that every USAF and USN pilot must get promoted on schedule or face early separation from the service. Even the cream of the fighter jocks, those who want to do nothing but fly and fight, must rotate out of the cockpit into ‘generalist’ jobs every four years or less in order to get promoted and avoid termination. This in turn breeds mindless careerism: promotion becomes a higher priority than being a great fighter pilot.

That Up-or-Out promotion system may have seemed promising at its inception, but has now produced an officer corps lacking in deep combat skills, top-heavy with at least 50 percent more generals than necessary, and obsessed with promotions.

The resulting deficient skills of American fighter pilots became painfully clear in early Vietnam combat. Air-to-air losses were excessive and victories all too rare. Both Navy and Air Force crews performed poorly in combat against antiquated North Vietnamese MiGs, because like the French, the top North Vietnamese pilots stayed in the cockpit without rotating to other jobs--and clearly knew how to dogfight. And just like the Fairwind IV exercise with the French, actual combat quickly forced the Americans to adopt visual identification as an ironclad rule of engagement, particularly after several early beyond visual range missile engagements resulted in friendly losses.

Desperately seeking a solution to their poor performance against the MiGs, the Navy launched their Top Gun school in 1969, and the kill ratio supposedly went up to 12:1 in the final battles of the war. Note however that several aviation experts researching North Vietnamese air force records, including Jeffrey Ethell and Robert Dorr, found evidence that the North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots actually did quite well against the Americans despite the launching of top gun. Dorr believed that “... the MiG-21 did score an almost 2:1 kill ratio against us in air-to-air combat but that the MiG-17 did less well, even though North Vietnamese pilots preferred the MiG-17.”(16)

In any event, Top Gun did not live up to the hype of producing “the best fighter pilots in the world.” No, that title belonged to the Israelis, and unlike the U.S. Navy, many Israeli pilots were top notch dogfighters, not just a few select crews. In comparing schools, Commander Sharkey Ward, a Royal Navy Sea Harrier pilot has said that the RN's Air Warfare Instructor School “made Top Gun look like a holiday.”(17) Even the USAF’s school, founded much earlier in 1954 and home to John Boyd’s revolutionary energy-maneuverability tactics, did not solve the fundamental problem: Up-or-Out. USN and USAF pilots simply had to spend too much of their time out of the cockpit getting “their boxes checked” for the next promotion rather than putting in the years and years of intense air combat training required to become world-beating pilots.

As the late Colonel John Boyd put it,“Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds."

Up-or-Out was imposed by Gen. George C. Marshall at the end of WWII as an attempt to produce younger senior commanders and to have in place a large cadre of multi-skilled officers ready to lead a rapid draft mobilization for the next world war. That Up-or-Out promotion system (locked into law by the 1947 Officer Personnel Act and further bureaucratized by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act) may have seemed promising at its inception, but has now produced an officer corps lacking in deep combat skills, top-heavy with at least 50 percent more generals than necessary, and obsessed with promotions.  Promotions are based on pristine personnel files rather than character, leadership, and war-fighting capabilities. The fitness report system favors those easiest to lead—the careerists--over those superbly skilled at their profession.  And the constant rotations out of combat units into generalist slots means it is rare indeed to find an American officer with 15 years of flying fighters, leading tank units, or commanding at sea. This is what is what is wrong with the Up-or-Out promotion system. The resulting careerism breeds a desire to get promoted at the expense of developing operational expertise.(18)

But this does not have to be the case. As one USAF pilot who served on exchange in Canada once said: “Most of the [Canadian] pilots I ran into were more concerned about being professional pilots, and weren't consumed by 'careerism'...  They did not appear to be constantly looking for the next rung on the ladder as so many of my USAF peers seemed to be... Probably as a group, they were the best collection of pilots I came across.”(19) If America dropped the Up-or-Out system, it is arguable that its pilots might not have forgotten how to dogfight because, as committed military professionals, they could not ignore it was and still is essential in combat. In every first rate air force around the world, particularly those facing immediate threats, a pilot's main responsibility is to become and remain proficient in combat, not to protect his career. There is no good reason why American pilots cannot be allowed to do the same.

Three Proposals for Reform

It is clear now that most American pilots do not match the manufactured image that surrounds them. These days, USAF F-22, F-35 and F-16 pilots are only getting 8-10 flying hours a month, USN F-18 pilots are down to 11 hours, and no simulator will compensate for such inadequate training time.(20) What follows are my proposals for reform so that American pilots can actually live up to the praise and accolades they receive in popular culture. The American military and the American public should consider the following suggestions:

1.    Drop the Up-or-Out promotion system and let pilots focus their careers on flying skills.

2.    Consider decreasing the active/reserve ratio because reserve units, particularly Air National Guard units, have demonstrated greater unit cohesion, experience, skills, and continuity than have regular air units. Moreover, reserves are readily deployable, as proven in ongoing wars. Other important benefits would include, as Chuck Spinney showed twenty-four years ago, the possibility of reducing USAF- and USN-wide organizational overhead and command bloat while permitting a substantial reduction in excess base capacity without changing the number of combat coded aircraft available to the operational commanders. The result would be a more economical, rational and capable USAF and USN--- and, I might add, air forces less polluted by careerism and more in tune with the wars the 21st century is likely to bring. (21)

3.    Learn from other nations on how to train, train, train--and how to get the best results from people. That last point, about people, bears repeating. As the late Colonel John Boyd put it, “Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds." That means that people, in this case pilots, must be allowed to focus on their combat skills above all else. When this happens, the Pentagon will not need a massive propaganda machine to build hype for America's airmen, they will become true warriors instead of careerists, and Tom Clancy will need to find a new job.

My thanks to Winslow T. Wheeler, Chuck Spinney, Pierre M. Sprey, Don Vandergriff and Robert F. Dorr for their assistance in researching this article. 

Photo credit to Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25 for original photo used.

End Notes

(1) Pierre Berton Marching As To War: Canada's Turbulent Years 1899-1953 (Anchor Canada: Toronto, 2002), p. 241.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Dan McCaffery Air Aces: The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots (Toronto: Lorimer, 1990), p. 3.

(4) Robert F. Dorr, Jon Lake and Warren Thompson Korean War Aces (Osprey: Oxford, 1995), p. 87.

(5) Ibid., p. 82.

(6) John Stillon and Scott Purdue “Air Combat Past, Present and Future” RAND Project Air Force presentation, August 2008.

(7) Leonid Krylov and Yuriy Tepsurkaev Soviet MiG-15 Aces of the Korean War (Osprey: Oxford, 2008), p.86.

(8) Heavy Metal: MIG 15: RUSSIAN STEALTH. Documentary on the History Channel, 2002.

(9) Yefim Gordon Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 (Surrey: Aerofax, 2001). p. 66

(10) Larry Milberry The Canadair Sabre (Toronto: CANAV Books, 1986), p. 177.

(11) Donald E. Auten Roger Ball! The Odyssey of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2008), p. 120.

(12) Ibid., pp. 121-122.

(13) Ibid., p. 126.

(14) Ibid., p. 122.

(15) Ibid., p. 127.

(16) Robert F. Dorr, email to the author, August 22, 2013.

(17) Commander “Sharkey” Ward Sea Harrier Over The Falklands (London: Cassell, 2000), p. 47.

(18) Donald E. Vandergriff Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs 2nd Edition, (NY:, AUG 2013), pp. 131-136, 151 and 155.

(19) David L. Bashow Starfighter: A Loving Retrospective of the CF-104 Era in Canadian Fighter Aviation ( Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications. 1991), p.110.

(20) United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report: F-16C,T/N 87-0315, 194th Fighter Squadron, 144th Fighter Wing, Fresno ANGB, California, 27 December 2012, p. 13.

(21) Chuck Spinney “Shape Up and Fly Right: How to Build a Better Air Force for Less Money” The Outlook, Washington Post , April 16, 1989. (Also reprinted in the Air Force Times).

Photo of Roger Thompson

By: Roger Thompson, .

Roger Thompson, MA, FRSA, is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University, and a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society. He is the author of Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy's Status Quo Culture and Brown Shoes, Black Shoes, And Felt Slippers: Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War U.S. Navy. For more information visit