The Weekly Debrief: Why The F-35 Should Have Starred In Top Gun Sequel

Tom Cruise next to a model of a Typhoon at Top Gun: Maverick's London premiere.
Credit: Neil Mockford/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Top Gun: Maverick is—no spoiler!—a movie. And here are two things the Paramount blockbuster, which netted $151 million on its opening weekend, is not: a documentary, or a fictional account based on a true story. 

This seems obvious, but it’s important. The actors and director of the Top Gun sequel are in no way required to produce a realistic account of a strike mission. Their scriptwriters are, likewise, not obligated to constrain their characters to conventional tactics, or limit weapon systems to known specifications or even physics. 

For the sake of storytelling, your author prefers that they don’t, as long as any fictional conceits make the story more entertaining. By the subjective standards of this column, the Joseph Kosinski-directed sequel to the 1986 action film succeeds in ways that few follow-ups ever have.

All of that stated, it is time—and here come the spoilers, so you’re invited to stop reading if you care deeply about plot details yet missed opening weekend—to ruin a central premise of the plot of Top Gun: Maverick. 

In an early, expository scene, Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a semi-successful hypersonic test pilot who has been re-assigned to train a detachment of elite Fighter Weapons School graduates for a seemingly kamikaze strike mission, explains that only the Boeing F/A-18E/F is capable of hitting a target in a GPS-denied environment. As a result, he explicitly rules out the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II as an option for the mission. 

Unfortunately, it appears that Mitchell—er, Maverick—is not only foolish and dangerous (Iceman’s words, not mine): He’s also wrong. To borrow Maverick’s 2022 reply to a spiteful rear admiral: “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Maverick’s assessment of the F-35 was once correct. As filming of Top Gun: Maverick was beginning in 2018, the real stealth fighter was limited to an internal load-out of GPS-guided munitions. By November 2018, however, Lockheed Martin had integrated the Raytheon GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II. 

This dual-mode, GPS- and laser-guided munition gave the F-35 the ability to strike moving or stationary targets in almost any situation. If an enemy successfully defeated the munition’s anti-jam technology for receiving the GPS signal, the pilot could still designate the target with a laser. The F-35 could have performed the mission. 

As Maverick is fond of saying, “If you think up there, you’re dead.” Likewise, if you think during a Hollywood movie account of air combat, you’re probably missing the point. 

If you do, however, you might wonder why supposedly elite Navy pilots are dispensing flares to defeat radar-guided missiles, why an enemy with at least three Su-57 fighters somehow relies on 60-year-old SA-3s for ground-based air defenses and why the same enemy did not think to harden their mountain hide-out against anything except an attack by a 30,000-lb, GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator. 

Despite some discrepancies in the details, Top Gun: Maverick highlights one of the biggest challenges in modern air combat. More than 30 years after Operation Desert Storm, GPS can no longer be relied on for accurate targeting by stand-off munitions. 

Next year, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory plans to launch the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 into orbit, hoping to field a regional alternative to GPS guidance for munitions with greater resistance to enemy interference. Meanwhile, the Army’s Assured-Positioning, Navigation and Timing program is seeking to provide similar navigation support to dismounted soldiers. 

To quote one of the sequel’s less-heralded characters: “Put that in your Pentagon budget.” 

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


That is NOT an F-18 in that picture. You would think AW would be able to get that right!
This is an aviation news journal, right? So how can the editors make such a dumb mistake as to call a Eurofighter Typhoon an F/A-18E/F???
Source photo and caption here:
It probably cost more to use the F35. Hollywood has to pay rental on the planes they use. As I recall, I think the rental on an F-15 many years ago was like $7500 an hour. That would be big chunk of a movies budget if using several fighter planes each with their own rental fees. Fellow posters, that was a good pickup on that photo above. I had never seen it before and first thought something here is odd for some reason. You folks were right! Kudos. Kurt
I would have expected everything ... but that AW&ST could make such a mistake ... well ... this is a really big blunder !!!
What irke'd me about the movie, the Navy allowed the script writers to minimize the importance of the WSO/NFO backseater...I took it personally as Ive got over 3,000 hrs in F4B's/J's as a was a 'team mission' aircraft and the 2 man crew worked as one....'Bob' was detuned to the level of humor and contrasted poorly w/ the array of cool callsigns and toothpik chewing front seaters...pist me off....jb/usmc
There is no backseat in the F-35. If they used one, where would Tom Cruise sit for his in-flight, in-action scenes. The Super Hornet has a back seat and a stellar combat record.
FYI, the Brits don’t fly the F-18, so the Typhoon is there to impress those who have no idea…
Concerning the comments about the "The mistake" in the text and featured image, I note that the caption specifically indicates that this is a publicity shot at the LONDON premiere where apparently a model of the Eurofighter Typhoon (used by the RAF) was featured as a backdrop and properly identified as such. Nowhere in the text does it say that this aircraft is a Hornet.
Reasons why the F-35 was not chosen:
-$36K/hr for C model
-No two seater for Cruise to flop around in
The “Top Gun: Maverick” producers wanted to create top quality and realistic inflight scenes and, avoid CGI as much as possible. Since there are no two-seat F-35Cs, the F/A-18F Super Hornet allowed all the actors including, Tom Cruise to ride on the backseat during filming. Using a photo of the European premiere with a Typhoon is misleading for the article.
Watched the movie yesterday. I give it I 8 out of 10. Good story up until the end for me. Nice shot of the star flying his own p-51 BZ ! North Island is was not Fighter Town! Excellent write in for Val Kilmer. Cruise is a class act! Mentions F-18 not up to speed against latest fighters is a think for the folks that are designing the next gen. Hope the movie brings in some more young people to keep the traditions moving!
I see you corrected the photo to identify it as a Typhoon. Early this morning the caption was F-18. Aviation Weak? :)
According to an article I read in Fortune mag, the Navy charged $11,000/hr for F/A-18F flight time.
I’m not sure that even covers the cost of the JP-5
I just assumed they could not film with the f35, because it's the latest plane they have and don't want to show even more details to the public from up close.
There are several reasons for not using the F35. Very high costs per hour is one. No two seaters is another reason and a third good reason is also the poor availability of the F35's. The film would probably have taken much more time using F35. Plus, of course, neither the Navy nor the USAF would have been so keen to show the flight and combat performances of the F35. It is less agile than legacies F18, F15 and F16 as well as Eurofighter Typhoon. And finally, the US forces wouldn't like to show the cockpit, the systems and military tactics of their F-35.
Bernard Guillaume
Really enjoyed the movie. Agree with all the comments about why the F-35 wasn't used. The attack on the "facility" seemed like it was straight out of the attack on the "Death Star" in Star Wars. I would expect that the mission could be undertaken with some sort of drone, with or without GPS availability, but I could be wrong. The type of obsolescent aircraft described could allude to a certain adversary country that has them, but probably can't maintain them in flyable condition due to lack of parts, maintainers, etc. There are parts of the movie that are a bit corny, but important to the plot. Val Kilmer ought to get an Oscar for his part in the movie!
Why Tom Cruise is showing up in front of an Airbus Typhoon for promoting Top Gun? Anyway it's not a first for him. In a 'Mission Impossible' movie is climbing on an Airbus 400M, he's learned to fly on Airbus Helicopters and he arrived at Cannes Movie Festival in an Airbus Helicopter AS350. Is Tom Cruise on Airbus payroll? Soon will he be promoting the LMXT?

While watching the Maverick movie, I looked around the theater to see who else was there. It turned out that about one-third of the audience was of my age (vintage Vietnam, with US flag or unit caps on), but the majority of the group was made up of teenagers, 20-somethings, a few 30-40 folks, and a few (very few) wives. Nevertheless, when the "wow" shots were on-screen, everyone reacted strongly, and at the end we all stood up and cheered!! It was the best display of pro-military emotion that I have witnessed in many years. Kudos to Tom Cruise, Val, and all the rest of the cast and production crew for an outstanding film. Sorry for the disappointment of the gung-ho pro-F-35 folks, but it was not the appropriate aircraft for the movie, as is expressed by earlier posts on this page. Period.

SPICE and other optically-guided munitions mean satellite navigation is no longer required. But that's surely the least of the criticisms of the movie