Why didn’t the F-35 take on the main fighter role in Top Gun: Maverick? Tom Cruise’s new movie, Top Gun: Maverick, it’s a really fun movie. Like its predecessor, it gives the viewer a good feel for what it’s like to fly a modern fighter plane. Critics seem to like it quite a bit, and current box office receipts suggest that audiences like it too.
You must see the new Top Gun movie for an additional reason. It is likely to be one of the last of its kind. The introduction of fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the increasing 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 struggle for air superiority. The days of close-range combat with aircraft blasting each other with cannons are almost over. So too is the need to fly against land-based air defenses.
The main factor changing the nature of air operations is the advent of so-called fifth-generation fighter jets. The US leads the world in deploying fifth-generation aircraft with the F-22 and, more significantly, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Not only is this aircraft being deployed with the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, but it is fast 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 film.
One of Top Gun’s most notable features is the absence (apart from a few seconds at the beginning of the film) of the F-35C, the Navy’s first fifth-generation aircraft. The new aircraft is currently being deployed on aircraft carriers. Some C variants are also flown by the Marine Corps along with their short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, the F-35B.
Some sources reported that the film’s producers chose not to make the F-35C the focal point because it only comes in a single-seat version. This created cinematic challenges that the director and camera staff were unable to overcome.
Instead, the filmmakers 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 infrared search and tracking sensor and advanced cockpit, make the Super Hornet a worthy companion of the F35C on the carrier’s air wing.
In reality, if the F-35 were the centerpiece of Top Gun, it would be an entirely different and possibly boring movie. There are three good reasons why the F-35 was not employed. The first is that with the F-35, there would be no heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping dog fight scenes. The F-35 is designed to employ a combination of stealth, advanced detection and long-range weapons to engage aircraft outside its sensor ranges. In Red Flag exercises conducted before the pandemic, F-35s achieved a kill rate against a variety of aggressors of 20 to 1, even when the scenario involved a much higher number of adversaries. In previous exercises, the F-35s, employed as stealth sensors, increased the effectiveness of four-generation non-stealth aircraft in air-to-air and air-to-ground operations.
The F-35’s stealth, electronic warfare suite (including the ability to use its radar to block enemy sensors), and advanced sensors mean it wouldn’t engage hostile air defenses in the way depicted in the film. The JSF’s ability to evade detection by hostile air defenses is one of the reasons Germany chose the F-35 to be the platform to support its nuclear weapons delivery mission.
The second reason is that with the F-35 leading the way for a combination of manned and unmanned systems, there would be no dramatic flights to Death Valley in line with air defense systems. Modern US suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations would not involve shutting down with air defenses on deck. The Russian air campaign over Ukraine confirmed what air forces around the world have known since the Vietnam War. Flying at low altitude on the teeth of a layered air defense system is a suicide mission.
The F-35 is designed to tackle air defenses at a distance using a range of onboard weapons and electronic warfare systems, in addition to external 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 presented in the film is the one that the Navy’s evolving aircraft carrier’s air wing was specifically designed to address.
The third reason the F-35 was not used in Top Gun is that in the future there will be alternative ways for the Joint Force to approach ground air defenses to those presented in the film. Going forward, joint and coalition operations will employ the F-35 and its air adjuncts as passive and stealthy sensors, providing accurate targeting data for long-range precision fire systems. The F-35 is a high-performance combat aircraft and advanced aerial sensor platform. In the hands of military personnel with the capability and knowledge to exploit its data-gathering potential, the F-35 can enable information mastery.
This will be particularly useful in improving joint operations. The US Army and Navy have demonstrated that the F-35 can act as a passive aerial sensor in support of long-range strike systems and missile defenses. In the near future, the joint force commander will likely equip the F-35 with long-range fire systems such as the US Army’s Precision Attack Missile or its medium-range capability. JSF weapons will be reserved for extremely high value targets or those that are only accessible for a fleeting period of time.
You don’t 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 more than thirty pilots with experience flying fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft made it clear that the JSF will fundamentally change air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. These pilots had already flown early variants of the JSF without much of the software and other advanced features that the current version has. 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 experience: Dr. Daniel Goure, a contributing editor from 1945, is senior vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. The Doctor. Goure has held senior positions in the US private sector and government. Most recently, he was a member of the Department of Defense Transition Team in 2001. Dr. Goure spent two years in the US government as director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues at the Center for Naval Analysis, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.