War Stories

A Quite Serious Military Analysis of Top Gun: Maverick’s Tactics

Tom Cruise in a fighter jet looking out to his right side as other jets scramble beside him.
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. Paramount Pictures Studios

Top Gun: Maverick is everything the critics say it is—entertaining, thrilling, a paean to individual courage, and, in a couple of spots, genuinely moving. But it’s also a deeply silly movie that, for all its solemn claims to realism (the actors are flying in actual airplanes!), lays out the most eye-rollingly unrealistic plotline of the season.

The movie’s thesis, as much as there is one, is that despite the fashionable prevalence of smart bombs and drones, there’s no substitute in a crisis for an insanely talented fighter pilot steering 30 tons of metal at hypersonic speed into a frightful zone of danger, dropping his bombs dead on target, and whooshing up and away at G-forces intense enough to rip the flesh off the face of mere mortals.

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And yet viewed seriously (admittedly not the way to go to this movie), the movie’s real, though probably unwitting message is the exact opposite. It’s that the days of cockpit wonders like Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise, reprising his star-making role of 36 years ago) truly are over. The actual wisdom in this film comes from its most snarlingly unappealing characters (the stuffy admirals played by Ed Harris and Jon Hamm), who bark at Mitchell that “the future’s coming, and you’re not in it.” Maverick manages to refute their technophilia only because the movie’s script is so preposterous.

The plot you may already know. Some rogue state (never named and not matching any real-world country, though Iran comes closest) has built a uranium enrichment plant in a deep valley surrounded by mountains. The U.S. has to destroy it before the uranium arrives. Maverick, who has long been relegated to the job of testing exotic R&D planes, is brought in to design the attack plan and train the new crop of Top Gun winners to carry it out. The plan is impossibly complex: They have to fly F/A-18 planes from an aircraft carrier into enemy airspace, coming in very fast and very low to evade air defense radar, then swoop up over the mountain’s edge, swoop down into the valley, drop their bombs, then swoop up again, somehow evading surface-to-air missiles, whose crews would by now know where the pilots are and what they’re doing. Everybody thinks that nobody can do this until Maverick demonstrates that he can, and then, through some form of inspirational osmosis, all of his teammates can do it too.

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The whole thing is crazy. Even if it’s in the national interest to prevent this rogue state from building an atom bomb, there’s no reason to destroy the uranium enrichment plant before it’s set up; it would take years to enrich enough uranium for a bomb, and there are many other ways to deal with the threat before then.

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On a technical level, the puzzles just multiply. F/A-18s don’t have the range to pull off this stunt, especially at fuel-draining high speeds. (The Navy didn’t want to use more modern F-35s, I’m told, because it would have involved revealing that plane’s highly classified tactics.) But more than that, it would have been much easier simply to send a couple of B-2 bombers at very high altitude—beyond the reach of the enemy’s surface-to-air missiles—and fire a handful of GPS-guided smart bombs. Or if there was a chance the SAMs could shoot down a B-2, their radars could be blinded or tricked in a cyberattack.

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Something like this happened in 2007, when, just past midnight on a moonless September night, four Israeli F-15 fighter jets flew over a nascent nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert and demolished it with a barrage of laser-guided bombs and missiles. The attack succeeded. The Syrians didn’t see the planes coming because Unit 8200, the Israeli cyberwarfare bureau, hacked their air defense radar systems with a computer program called Suter, which had been developed by a clandestine U.S. Air Force outfit called Big Safari. Suter disrupted the data link connecting the radar with the screens of the radar operators, so that the screens were blank.

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The screenwriters for Top Gun: Maverick could have followed a plotline like that. It could have been slick and suspenseful—sort of Top Gun meets Mission: Impossible. But Top Gun is a Navy franchise. You wouldn’t know from watching the original or its sequel that any other departments of the U.S. military—the Air Force, Army, Cyber Command, Special Operations Command, or Marines—even exist. This was somewhat understandable back in 1986, when the first Top Gun hit the screen. It was only that year that, in real life, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the military so that the various services had to plan and take part in joint operations; before then, the Navy—like the Air Force and the Army—behaved like autonomous services.

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Today, if a president ordered an attack on a foreign country’s uranium enrichment plant, the Pentagon would plan a joint operation; all the service chiefs would demand that they got a piece of the action. A single aircraft carrier would never be tasked with executing the entire mission, and any sensible attack plan would put the Air Force, with its high-flying bombers, and Cyber Command in the lead. A Navy ship might be asked to fire a bunch of cruise missiles to clear the path, but that’s about it. In fact, one strange thing about this movie is that Navy cruise missiles do pave the way, busting up a nearby airbase so enemy fighter jets can’t hassle our guys and gals in their (really quite old and vulnerable) F/A-18s. One might wonder, as I did: If cruise missiles could destroy the airbase, why couldn’t they also destroy the uranium enrichment plant?

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Then comes the twist. (Spoilers ahead.) Maverick and his wingman are shot down; they parachute into enemy territory and have to figure a way out. As they approach the enemy airbase, they spot an F-14 in a protected hangar. An F-14 is the plane that Maverick flew, in the original movie; he shot down three Russian-made MiGs from that plane back then. So, he and his young partner, who’s never seen anything this old, hop on board the F-14, take off, shoot down a couple of (much newer and more agile) enemy planes, and head back to the carrier.

This is rollicking stuff. However. If these bad guys ever had F-14s, it’s unlikely they’d still have them, given that they also have the most modern Russian jets. And it’s still more unlikely that the old planes would be maintained and fueled up. (This is the clearest argument for Iran as the rogue nation. When the shah still ruled Tehran, up until 1979, the U.S. sold him F-14s. But that was more than 40 years ago. The Iranian air force would have long ago used up all the planes’ spare parts and, owing to sanctions, couldn’t have bought them elsewhere.) Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith piloting the alien spacecraft in Independence Day is only somewhat less implausible.

Top Gun: Maverick is a lot better than the original. (I rewatched it, for the first time since 1986, the night before seeing the sequel, and was surprised by how bad it is in almost every way.) So go see the sequel! It’s fun, it’s even funny, and it’s extremely well-crafted moviemaking. Just leave your brains at home.

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