By Billy Mitchell
Yes, it’s me. Billy Mitchell, Army officer, airpower advocate, and Father of the U.S. Air Force. I am writing today because I am finally confident enough to reveal the details of my long-term plan to integrate naval aviation into the U.S. Air Force. I know it’s time to buzz the tower because Top Gun: Maverick is finally in theaters and reviews are in – it’s a hit!
What’s that you say? You never heard that the Top Gun franchise is an Air Force info-operation to render the U.S. naval aviation community ineffective by failing to change its culture or adopt unmanned technology? What I’m about to tell you is classified. It could end my career – and no, this isn’t the worst dogfight you’ve ever dreamed of….
Given the hopes that Top Gun: Maverick will inspire a similar recruiting boom as its 1986 predecessor, I know that Congress and naval aviators will never get rid of their carriers or the people in their strike fighters. So once the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Rocket Forces render your community and service impotent with “Great Balls of Fire,” just remember boys, there’s no points for second place in service parochialism or great power conflict.
Back When I Was the Top Gun
If you look at the Wikipedia page of 1986’s Top Gun, some people might have you believe it’s a Paramount Pictures production at the height of the Cold War and Reagan/Lehman-era 600-ship Navy build-up. But the history goes back way further to the interwar period. And me? I didn’t feel the need for speed, only victory.
You see, I fought in the Spanish-American War and World War One (as you all seem to call it). I was an Army aerial observer in France and saw what aviation could become, so when I got back to the U.S. in January 1919, I was appointed the Director of Military Aeronautics. I knew that airpower would become the predominant force of war, so our country would need an independent air force equal to the Army and Navy.
I was the maverick in 1919 who wanted floating bases of aircraft to defend the country, but your senior naval aviators thought I’d never understand sea-based aviation requirements, so used Assistant SECNAV Franklin Delano Roosevelt to block me. FDR can thank me later for projecting forward the technology that won World War Two. But as I’m sure you historians remember, I got the Navy to commit to demonstrations of aviation against battleships by working the press like I am today. “1,000 bomber aircraft could be built and operated for the cost of one dreadnought and my airplanes could sink that battleship,” which is something you still seem to have forgotten today with your Ford-class carrier embarking F-35s compared to the B-21 Raider…But I digress.
As we remember now, SECNAV Josephus Daniels rigged the initial demonstrations in an attempt to show battleships could survive the bombing attempts. But in July 1921 with bombs I personally oversaw in designing, we sunk the old German warship Ostfriedland with a total of six bombs. Thankfully for the Navy, this exercise gave Bill Moffat enough authority to start building the carriers you would use to win in the Pacific in World War Two. But the only reason you used them was because the Japanese were so successful at sinking your battleships in Pearl Harbor (using airplanes).
There was some real genius in their flying – from the development of the Thach weave, to Dick Best sinking two Japanese carriers at Midway, or Pappy Boyington’s exploits throughout the Pacific – but I couldn’t say that here, to my Army Air Corps and Air Force brethren. I’d be afraid that everyone reading this would see right through me – but I know after World War Two, everyone had fallen for manned carrier aviation.
I never got to see it in person though. After a September 1925 crash of the helium-filled rigid airship Shenandoah that killed 14 and destroyed three seaplanes, I issued a statement accusing Army and Navy senior leaders of “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” And to think I could have saved that line for your post-Cold War shipbuilding policies! Anyway, that statement got me court-martialed, and I resigned from the Army as a colonel. In short, how did I end up here? Well, the list of people I pissed off is long, but distinguished.
“Here” is the ‘Wild Blue Beyonder,’ the Aviator Afterlife I came to after my coronary occlusion in 1936. It’s here that I’ve been able to watch, far above you all, the advancements of aviation and try to help the Air Force absorb naval aviation. How can I do this, if I’m directly above you? Because I’m inverted. And it’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
After World War Two and the Need for a Movie
I watched as your admirals and SECNAV James Forrestal opposed unification to create a separate Air Force after World War Two. Their fitness reports said it all – they led by the seats of their pants, totally unpredictable. But it takes a lot more than just fancy grandstanding to win a long-term interservice rivalry. Despite the innovation of nuclear weapons and the B-36 Peacemaker, the admirals whined about the cancellation of the USS United States, and justified carrier-based strike-fighter-launched nuclear weapons to stave off the budget cuts you’d actually enact 50 years later.
That “Revolt of the Admirals” really taught me something though – I can’t get the Air Force to beat you at your culture, so I needed to let you beat yourself. It wasn’t until Howard Hughes, the Aviator-actual, arrived in the Wild Blue Beyonder, and we chatted about his film directing experiences, and how disappointed he was the Spruce Goose never made it to use in World War Two. That’s how I gave him his callsign “Goose” after the kangaroo court. He hated carrier aviation just as much as I did, given that the U.S. Navy gave up on seaplanes 60 years ago at the time of this writing.
As we were writing the movie, we got nervous. We thought for sure that the 1982 Falklands War would teach the U.S. Navy the enduring need for long-range strike capabilities, given how even small numbers of Argentine fighters carrying Exocets could sink ships and push carriers out of effective range. I turned to Howard and said, “Talk to me Goose – will this movie even work?” He nonchalantly responded, “Oh yeah, these bro-culture aviators will lap it up. Just a walk in the park for us.” So we worked through the traditional Hollywood seances to pitch Tony Scott, Don Simpson, and Jerry Bruckheimer. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse, we can now just plug into the internet, but thankfully Paramount loved the idea.
They did think it was a little on the nose to have our two main characters be a maverick aviator named Mitchell who doesn’t fit into the system and a lovable and awkward counterpart with the name Goose who disappears from life halfway through. I remember Jerry Bruckheimer screaming at the Ouija Board: “You don’t own this movie! Paramount does! Mitchell, your ego is writing checks your lack of a body can’t cash!” Which was fair – but the movie was a huge success!
Over $350 million at the box office; cemented Tom Cruise as a star; convinced people across the country that being shirtless with jeans was a legitimate volleyball uniform, and led a whole generation of naval aviators to join the community just as the Soviet Union collapsed. Without that threat requiring them to innovate, they could just live off the vapors of Maverick, Goose, Viper, and Ice Man at Tailhook, while occasionally bombing Eastern Europe or the Middle East. That was some of the best flying I’ve seen to date – right up to the part where their cultural inertia ensured they’ll get killed in this century. And thanks to the Navy pulling all non-strategic nuclear weapons off non-SSBNs by 1991, that whole argument for carriers from the Revolt of the Admirals went right out the window!
Heck, the original Top Gun was so impactful over so many decades that Goose and I finally were able to convince John Paul Jones and Willis “Ching” Lee as a practical joke that the SWOs needed their own movie. They pitched Hollywood on what became 2012’s Battleship. It was a box-office bomb, but it helped take Navy surface forces out of the Air Force’s long-range strike game in three ways:
- It validated that toxic leadership should be maintained through nepotism or special privileges, and that the fire of battle will ultimately fix these cultural issues.
- Rihanna’s character served as an operations specialist, gunner’s mate, and various other roles, validating the optimal (minimal) manning constructs that were so successful with the Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt-class destroyers.
- And lastly, the climactic battle is premised on the USS Missouri, a museum battleship, getting underway in mere hours through the capabilities of septuagenarian veteran maintainers with limited financial investment or detailed explanation. I believe this is the current NAVSEA policy for leaving American shipyards, as I’ve seen it explained in the Balisle Report, Comprehensive Review, and the regular pictures of rusty combatants traversing the world’s oceans.
This is what the Chinese call a “Target-Rich Environment” – the Need for a Sequel
Even after the PLA lost that lovin’ feelin’ during the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, those reckless U.S. carrier aviators put their crew and their plane first. The PLA on the other hand couldn’t live down having multiple American aircraft carriers nearby and interfering in the China/Taiwan issue. In the following generation, they “fielded, and [are] further developing, capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or if ordered, defeat third-party intervention during a large-scale theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency.” And look, I get it – you don’t have time to think up there in the Pentagon, developing the future of carrier aviation over a generation. If you think, you’re dead. People know the F-35 works just like the F/A-18 works just like the F-14 worked.
Except Goose and I started to get worried again. When the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile reached initial operating capability in 2010, we thought, “Surely these naval aviators will clamor for the aircraft ranges necessary to operate from beyond that missile’s danger zone.” But ride into the danger zone they did, continuing to do ineffective presence while the South China Sea was militarized, and providing free OPFOR training to the Chinese. Within three years naval aviation was landing the X-47B drone aboard a carrier – an unmanned reconnaissance system with such accuracy it would dent the carrier deck with its consistency. Surely you Cruise-wannabes would acknowledge the future and transition it to a program of record for an unmanned strike fighter, enabling far longer ranges and time-on-station than manned fighters. Right?
Even in the think tank world, experts started asking: Is the carrier obsolete? Why has the air wing’s range diminished dangerously? How could air wings transform to do long-range sea denial in support of a Taiwan counter-intervention scenario, now seen as the pacing challenge for American geopolitics this century? And all of this while the Chinese fielded the DF-26 “Guam Killer,” DF-17 Hypersonic Missile, and tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)/Hypersonic Glide Vehicle hybrid with potentially global conventional strike range? It was as if senior aviators were screaming at future wars, “I will adapt to new technologies when I’m god$%& good and ready! You got that?”
We knew it was time for a sequel. If the U.S. naval aviation community could once again fall in love with manned carrier aviation, they would never adopt the unmanned systems at the speed or scale needed for modern threats. A sequel, loved by all, would pave the way for a single service with conventional and strategic long-range maritime strike capabilities able to take it right into China’s danger zone: The U.S. Air Force. Will thousands of sailors die and billions of dollars of American treasure sink for these facts to be realized? Probably. The defense department will regret to inform many that their sons and daughters are dead because their predecessors were shortsighted.
So yeah – we got Top Gun: Maverick made. It’s great. Was it a bold, ironic move to open the movie with Tom Cruise shredding a government boondoggle manned aircraft trying to fly at Mach 10 when that could very easily be unmanned? Sure – but goodness that anthem is iconic, so don’t think about the force structure implications. And you know what the best part is? We probably didn’t even need the sequel. The Winged Luddites of carrier aviation ensured that X-47B was killed in 2015. The replacement MQ-25 Stingray won’t reach IOC until 2025 and is slated to provide only tanking to the long held-dreams of putting Top Gun’s finest right to the edge of the envelope – not even going Mach 2 with their hair on fire. Probably going Mach .9 max conserve to make the whole trip for blue water ops.
All this while my Air Force actually is succeeding with multiple autonomous drones and developing greater autonomy so that as DARPA’s AlphaDogfight trials showed, drones never get too close for missiles to switch to guns. They just always win. But the Air Force’s airfields don’t move– so they’re easy to target right? Sure – but the Navy’s newest moving airfield was bought in 2008, and will deploy in 2022. So are you going to tell me that your crippled maritime industrial base will replace a carrier during the length of the entire world war? It’s like Meg Ryan once said, “Take me to war and lose me forever!”
Where does this leave carrier aviation? You want to say this is fine. But really, it’s so bad it would take my breath away. If I were in fact a corporeal junior naval aviator looking at the long-term direction of my community in the face of growing threats, I’d want to find anyone – Congress, senior community leaders, or acquisition professionals from the past three decades and just scream: “Guys, it’s not your leadership, it’s your attitude and acquisition execution. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s enabling airpower with you, but whose side are you on?”
So as I sit up here in the Wild Blue Beyonder, all I can say is: The Air Force will be your wingman anytime. Mostly because you can’t stay out at these ranges anyway. Looking forward to taking your aircraft and dollars next POM cycle. Watch the birdie!
Colonel William (Billy) Mitchell, US Army, Retired, is an incorporeal spirit, airpower advocate, and unlisted executive producer of military films in Hollywood. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or Department of Defense.
Featured Image: Top Gun: Maverick movie poster by Paramount Pictures.