United States Navy Fighter Weapons School

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NFWS Patch
The patch given to NFWS graduates.

TOPGUN is the popular name of the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program. SFTI is the modern-day evolution of the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School and carries out the same specialized fighter training as NFWS had from 1969 until 1996, when it was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nevada.


The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School was established on March 3, 1969 at NAS Miramar, California after a United States Navy study (sometimes referred to as the "Ault Report") directed by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) at less than desired performance of fighter aircraft, aircrews and weapons. The head of the study group, CAPT Frank Ault recommended that a graduate-level school be established to train fleet fighter pilots in air combat tactics to improve the relatively poor air combat performance of Navy aircrews over Vietnam.

The school was initially formed and placed under the control of Miramar-based fighter squadron VF-121 "Pacemakers", an F-4 Phantom Replacement Air Group (RAG) unit responsible for providing type-qualified air and maintenance crews to first-line units of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. It received relatively scant funding and resources and built its syllabus from scratch, while borrowing aircraft from its parent unit as well as other units to support the practical aspects of their operations.

Its objective was to develop, refine and teach Air Combat Maneuvering tactics and techniques to selected fleet air crews, using stand-in aircraft that could realistically replicate the nimble Russian-designed fighters that they were most likely to oppose in combat. At that time the threat aircraft were in the form of the transonic MiG-17 ‘Fresco’ and the supersonic MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’. This teaching concept is known in military aviation parlance as DACT, or Dissimilar Air Combat Training, and presently is widely used in air arms the world over.

Air crews selected to attend the TOPGUN course were usually considered to be the best that their units could offer. Upon graduating they would then return to their parent fleet units to relay what they have learned to their fellow squadron mates, in essence becoming instructors themselves. Such personnel are known as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

TOPGUN initially operated the A-4 Skyhawk and borrowed USAF T-38 Talons to simulate the flying characteristics of the MiG-17 and MiG-21 respectively. The school also made use of Marine-crewed A-6 Intruders and nearby USAF F-106 aircraft when available. Later, the T-38 was replaced by the F-5E Tiger.

During the halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam (in force from 1968 until the early 1970s), TOPGUN established itself as a center of excellence in fighter doctrine, tactics and training. By the time aerial activity over the North was resumed, every Navy squadron had its share of TOPGUN graduates. According to the US, the results were dramatic as the Navy kill-to-loss ratio or exchange rate against the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiGs soared from 3.7:1 to 13:1, while the Air Force, which had not implemented a similar training program, actually had its kill ratio worsen for a time after the resumption of bombing, according to Benjamin Lambeth’s The Transformation of American Airpower.

The success of the U.S. Navy fighter crews vindicated the fledging DACT school’s existence and led to TOPGUN becoming a separate, fully funded command in itself, with its own permanently assigned aviation, staffing, and infrastructural assets. Successful TOPGUN graduates who scored air-to-air kills over North Vietnam and returned to instruct included "Mugs" McKeown and Jack Ensch, and the first U.S. aces of the Vietnam War, Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Willie Driscoll.

Meanwhile the USAF did not see such dramatic improvement from its fighter crews over Vietnam. It was not until after that war’s end that the Air Force initiated a robust DACT program with dedicated Aggressor squadrons. The Air Force also initiated a program to replicate the first ten combat missions known as Red Flag and the United States Air Force Weapons School, founded in 1949, also increased emphasis on DACT.

The 1970s and 1980s brought the introduction of the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet as the primary Fleet fighter aircraft flown by students, while TOPGUN instructors retained their A-4s and F-5s, but also added the F-16 Fighting Falcon to better simulate the threat presented by the Soviet Union’s new 4th generation MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ and Su-27 ‘Flanker’ fighters. However, hard flying of the specially built F-16N aircraft led to discovery of cracks in the airframe which led to the subsequent retirement of this asset.

During the 1990s, the TOPGUN syllabus was modified to include more emphasis on the air-to-ground strike mission as a result of the expanding multi-mission taskings of the F-14 and F/A-18. In addition, TOPGUN retired their A-4s and F-5s in favor of F-14s and F/A-18s. In 1996, the transfer of NAS Miramar to the Marine Corps was coupled with the incorporation of TOPGUN into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at NAS Fallon, Nevada. TOPGUN instructors currently fly the F/A-18A/B/C Hornet and the F-16A/B Falcon (former Pakistani aircraft never delivered due to embargo) that are assigned to NSAWC.

TOPGUN course

NFWS Patch
Unofficial NFWS patch with F-5 planform

TOPGUN conducts five “Power Projection” classes a year, each one lasts for six weeks with twelve Fleet fighter and strike fighter aircrews. The TOPGUN course is designed to train already experienced Navy and US Marine Corp aircrews at the graduate level in all aspects of fighter aircraft employment, which includes tactics, hardware, technique and the current world threat. The course includes eighty hours of lectures and a flight syllabus that pits students against TOPGUN instructors. When each aircrew have ended their TOPGUN course they will return as a Training Officer carrying the latest tactical doctrine back to his/her operational squadron, or go directly to an FRS squadron to teach new aircrews. SFTIs can also become instructors themselves at TOPGUN at one point in their career.

TOPGUN also conducts an Adversary Training Course, flying with adversary aircrew from each Navy and Marine Corps adversary squadron. These pilots receive individual instruction in threat simulation, effective threat presentation and adversary tactics. With each class, TOPGUN also trains four Air Intercept Controllers in effective communication, coordination and display interpretation skills. Prior to each deployment, Navy fighter aircrews participate in Fleet Air Superiority Training (FAST) and Hornet Fleet Air Superiority Training (HFAST), these are coordinated programs of academics, simulator and flight training designed to provide current threat updates to achieve Maritime Air Superiority in the carrier group arena. TOPGUN also provides academics and flight training to each Carrier Air Wing during their Integrated and Advanced Training Phases (ITP/ATP) at NAS Fallon which are large scale exercises which can involve as many as fifty aircraft. These large scale exercises serve as “dress rehearsals” for future combat scenarios. In addition to training crews, TOPGUN also conducts ground school courses six times a year. The Training Officer Ground School (TOGS) offers graduate level academics to Fleet aviators, adversary instructors and other officers and enlisted personnel.

Before the retirement of the F-14, TOPGUN participated in Fighter ACM Readiness Programs (FFARP) for the F-14. Currently, only Strike Fighter ACM Readiness Programs (SFARP) for the F/A.18 is conducted, which are formally controlled by adversary squadrons on each coast. In early October 2003 the final Tomcat TOPGUN class graduated and not long after that TOPGUN bid farewell to the F-14s.

TOPGUN was made famous in popular culture by the 1986 release of the motion picture Top Gun.

Similar schools

The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon is the Navy center of excellence for Naval strike and air warfare and is commanded by an Admiral. TOPGUN is a department (N7) under NSAWC as are several other formerly independent weapons schools for AEW (TOP DOME), JTAC (run by SEALs), “Strike U” (N5), Airborne Electronic Attack and Maritime Weapons Schools. Additional schools are resident at the Master Jet bases and designated as Type Wing Weapons Schools such as the Strike Fighter Weapons Schools at NAS Lemoore and NAS Oceana. Instructors and curriculum at these schools support the locally based squadrons and conduct unit level training. NSAWC conducts training for both individuals in the case of TOPGUN and provides Air Wing level training. As a designated center of excellence, NSAWC provides standardization for the entire Weapon School community sets standards/criteria for individual qualification.

US Air Force

The United States Air Force operates a similar training program, called the United States Air Force Fighter Weapons School, and conducts large-scale tactical training exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

US Marine Corps

The Marine Corps operates Marine Aviation & Weapons Tactics Squadron – One (MAWTS-1) at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma with an Adversay squadron, VMFT-401, co-located at the base. MAWTS provides training for qualification of individual Weapons & Tactics Instructors (WTI) that return to their squadrons as experts in employment of the aircraft and its weapons systems. MAWTS conducts large scale exercises several times a year called “WTI” evolutions that are similar to Red Flag or NSAWC Air Wing training and involve all aircraft operated by the Marine Corps.


410 Squadron of the Canadian Air Force conducts an annual Fighter Weapons Instructor Course (FWIC) at CFB Cold Lake in Alberta. The course is three months in length and is specific to the CF-18 Hornet aircraft. There are eight students per course.

United Kingdom

The Royal Air Force also has a similar course specific to each aircraft type, known as the QWI (Qualified Weapons Instructor, pronounced Que-Why) Course. It is five months in length.


The Pakistan Air Force established its Weapons and Tactics school known as Combat Commanders School (CCS) in 1976. The CCS is located at the Mushaf Air Force Base (formerly known as Sargodha Air Base). The CCS offers the following subjects:-

1 Application of flying tactics. 2. Utilization of weapon systems. 3. Standardization and evaluation of various units. 4. Research and development in the field of tactics and weapons employment.

Pilots are selected by Air HQ in Rawalpindi normally after nine to twelve years of service. The successful graduates would hope to command a squadron in the rank of wing commander. The courses are tough and some candidates inevitably fail to make the grade. There are three courses offered at the CCS, the Combat Commanders Course lasting for 4/5 months, a 3 month weapons course, and a 4/5 week fighter integration course.


The Indian Air Force also operates a school which is designed to operate on similar lines called the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) based at the Maharajpur Air Force Station in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India.


  • Dave Parsons and Derek Nelson (1993). Bandits – History of American Adversarial Aircraft, Motorbooks International.
  • George Hall (1986). TOPGUN – The Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, Presidio Press.
  • Robert Wilcox (2005-reissue)Scream of Eagles, Pocketstar
  • Lou Drendel (revised 1984) …And Kill MiGs!, Squadron/Signal Publications
  • Dean Garner (1992). TOPGUN Miramar, Osprey Publishing, London, 160 pp. ISBN 978-1855322462


TOPGUN Instructor then-LT Bill “Hack” McMasters on wing of F-16, 1992.

TOPGUN F-14 Tomcat in 7-G turn, silhouetted behind setting sun, vapes off trailing edges of both wings.

Pair of TOPGUN F-16s.

TOPGUN F-16 in 9-G sunset turn.


F-14’s Radar Intercept Officers (RIO) also attended TOPGUN.

The first aircraft operated by TOPGUN was the A-4 Skyhawk which remained a favorite among instructors for decades.

TOPGUN Stairwell at the original NAS Miramar location featured silhouettes of all Navy and Marine Corps MiG kills.