The Weekly Debrief: Why The F-35 Should Have Starred In Top Gun Sequel
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.”
-$36K/hr for C model
-No two seater for Cruise to flop around in
I’m not sure that even covers the cost of the JP-5
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.