NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY KEDAR KARMARKAR
With TOP GUN: MAVERICK hitting the movie theaters, and with Pixelsniper’s recent visit to NAS Fallon – the home of TOPGUN – notice the different layout of the words – yeah it is important – we thought it is a good time to write an article on “a day at Fallon”.
NAS Fallon is located an hour east of Reno, in the high desert region of Nevada. It is the only US Navy facility capable of training the complete assets in a carrier air wing exercising the various elements of the Wing in realistic combat scenarios. It is the home of VFC-13 “The Fighting Saints”, and Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center or NAWDC in short. Not many know the real name of NAS Fallon – it is Van Voorhis Airfield. It is named after WW-II naval aviation hero and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Avery Van Voorhis. The Air Station was dedicated in his name on 1st November 1959. NAS Fallon also boasts of a 14,000-foot-long runway which is the US Navy’s longest and highest runway today.
TOPGUN has a less glamorous official name: Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program. It was born as US Navy Fighter Weapons School on 3rd March 1969 at NAS Miramar in San Diego. It was a result of the famous Ault report that highlighted the lackluster performance in the arena of air-to-air combat during the early years of the Vietnam war. A decision was taken to form a school to train and impart the skills of air combat maneuvering (ACM) to the fleet. After its rapid growth and success in the following years, TOPGUN was moved to NAS Fallon in 1996 since NAS Miramar was allocated to the US Marines and became Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar. TOPGUN was made a part of Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) – now called NAWDC – along with Naval Strike Warfare Center (called STRIKE U) which was based there since 1984, and Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School (TOPDOME).
TOPGUN class and students.
The students are JOs (Junior Officers) selected from the various fleet squadrons and have completed their first deployment on the boat. SFTI is graduate level training as opposed to flight training. The course consists of 12-14 weeks of intense flying and academics. There are three courses run in a year beginning in January, then in May, and the final class is in August. It takes the students from the basic 1v1 Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) in close quarters, to the next phase which is air-to-surface teaching them how to use the platform and its sensors to attack surface targets and perform Close Air Support (CAS). The next phase is a section phase (2-ship operation) where the students brush-up on how to use the radar, keep a visual lookout and executing 2v1 (two friendlies vs one enemy) within visual range (WVR). Finally, the students learn how to operate in a division where typically three students and one instructor participate to face the high-end threat both from a numbers and capabilities perspective. Recently fighter integration has been included in this final phase where the 4.5th generation Super Hornets learn how to include the picture provided by the sensor capabilities of the 5th generation F-35Cs, to the fight.
TOPGUN also conducts courses for Adversary Instructors and Air Intercept Controllers (AICs). The adversary students receive instruction about the near-peer threats, adversary tactics, and how to best simulate the adversary platforms with their known capabilities. The AIC students are OS1s or OSCs (Operational Specialists Petty Officers 1st Class or Chiefs) who train to enhance their skills as effective fighter controllers to provide the radar and various other sensory picture to the fighters. All these students work together where the adversary students fly sorties against the fighters while the AIC students provide the full picture gleaned from radar and other sensors to the fighters for a successful outcome. A typical course consists of 8-10 Super Hornet crews (as there are single seat Echo models and two seat Foxtrot models of the Super Hornet), 3-5 adversary students and a similar number of AIC students. The day in the life during SFTI starts at 0500 with the briefing which is very detailed. The first takeoffs start around 0730. A typical hop is around 45 minutes since they fly at tactical speeds and are not carrying tanks or air-refueling. The students land from the hop around 0815-0830.
The first thing carried out is their SHOTVAL (shot evaluation) – review of the shots called during the hop were valid or otherwise. This is followed by the mass debrief where the whole hop is re-run over the display, shots are validated again, the aircraft are kill-removed. After this is the “comm-debrief” – review of communications during the hop. This is important because sometimes folks are listening on two or four radios and talking on one of them and relaying precise information is important at the right time. This requires maintaining “comm” discipline as well. After this the students go through their recordings and map the debriefs to the point in time when they were in the fight and record actions they want to improve upon in the next flight. There is also a debrief of the way they briefed for that hop. Depending upon the length of the debrief, the day could be almost 9-10 hours long. There is continuous learning and evolution. Right from being invited to TOPGUN from a fleet squadron and then graduating from it is a challenge. Not everyone gets a shot at TOPGUN, and not everyone who does get a shot, graduates from TOPGUN.
The TOPGUN graduate patch has a very high reputation, and it represents a standard of excellence, and experience throughout the armed forces and even worldwide. When a crew graduates from TOPGUN, they either go back to their fleet squadrons and become Training Officers in that squadron to disseminate the training to the fleet; or they go to one of the East or West coast FRS (Fleet Replacement Squadrons) to teach new air crew; or a few of them remain on the TOPGUN staff to become Instructors.
Air Wing Fallon comprises of VFC-13, and flying assets of NAWDC. Their slogan is “train the way you fight; fight the way you train”. One of the trainings they provide is the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) also known as “work-ups”. Carrier Air Wings (CVW) must complete this training before they can deploy aboard carriers for their regular deployments out to their respective AoRs (Area of Responsibility). The syllabus focuses on improved inter-operability and unit cohesion across various elements comprising an Air Wing. This quote from Adm. Nimitz stands true even today -“Having confronted the Imperial Japanese Navy’s skill, energy, persistence, and courage, Nimitz identified the key to victory: ‘training, TRAINING and M-O-R-E T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G.’ as quoted in Neptune’s Inferno, The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (James D. Hornfischer)”
Typically, an Air Wing has strike elements, early airborne warning and control element, electronic attack, helicopter assets and fleet logistics assets. The work-up is a phase where all the elements come together to execute a set of missions effectively and efficiently. The Air Wings come on a detachment to NAS Fallon that involves an intense flying period of 5 weeks. CVW-7 nicknamed “Freedom Fighters” was on a similar work-up detachment when Pixelsnipers visited NAS Fallon. CVW-7 is currently assigned to USS George H. W. Bush (CVNN-77) aircraft carrier and has the Atlantic region as the AoR.
CVW-7 comprises of the below units at present –
VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’ flying the F/A-18F Rhino;
VFA-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’ flying the F/A-18E Rhino;
VFA-136 ‘Knighthawks’ flying the F/A-18E Rhino;
VFA-86 ‘Sidewinders’ flying the F/A-18E Rhino;
VAQ-140 ‘Patriots’ flying the EA-18G Grizzly;
VAW-121 ‘Bluetails’ flying the E-2D Hawkeye;
HSC-5 ‘Nightdippers’ flying the MH-60S Seahawk;
HSM-46 ‘Grandmasters’ flying the MH-60R Seahawk;
VRC-40 ‘Rawhides’Det.3 flying the C-2 Provider.
Pilots and crew keep cycling through the deployment tours and it is the job of the Training Officer of the squadron to integrate them into the squadron’s process of planning and executing their missions. Before coming to Fallon for the workups, all the respective Squadrons go through Strike Fighter Advanced Readiness Program or SFARP that is conducted by the Fighter Weapons School that are based at NAS Lemoore (West coast), and NAS Oceana (East coast). The entire Wing then deploys to Fallon for what is called as an “Air Wing Fallon detachment”.
This is the last chance for the Air Wing to come together and execute missions as a cohesive team before they head out for their deployment. The five-week program is divided into phases. The first and second phase is about evaluating how the Air Wing integrates to perform day-to-day missions. The last two phases are about specific scenarios they might encounter in their AoR, once deployed. These scenarios are built on the current intelligence on the situation in their AoR and gleaned from various sources including the current Air Wing that is out deployed already in that AoR. Feedback from the first two phases is evaluated on finding out areas where the Air Wing is effective and deficient. The lessons learnt are incorporated into the last two phases to further improve the areas of deficiency.
A phase debrief is given to the CAG (Commander, Air Group), and DCAG (Deputy CAG), NAWDC Commander, COs (Commanding Officers), and XOs (Executive Officers) of all squadrons after every phase. At the completion of Air Wing Fallon detachment, the Air Wing has one further training opportunity in the form of Composite Unit Training Exercise known as COMPUTEX to improve on the deficiencies that they might still have after the workups. It is bringing up the complete Carrier Battle Group up to speed – not just the Air Wing – on developing integrated response to scenarios they might face in their AoR. It is a 2–3-week exercise that happens around a month or two before the actual deployment and certifies the Battle Group for open ocean operations.
The Navy adversary support structure is also undergoing re-organization. The F-5N Tiger IIs of VFC-13 are being transferred to VFC-204 ‘River Rattlers’. The F-5Ns will be replaced with F-16Cs refurbished from Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group or AMARG. The first three F-16s – that were previously with Arizona Air National Guard (AzANG) – landed the day with an accompanying NAWDC F-16B.
NAWDC has 3-4 F-35Cs now and they are currently using them to create TTPs (Tactics Techniques and Procedures) based on the capabilities of the various sensors on the F-35s. They also use them to teach fighter integration tactics to integrate the 5th generation fighter with the 4th and 4.5th generation F/A-18E/Fs.
Pixelsnipers thanks the Public Affairs office at NAS Fallon for their hospitality and support in creating this article and pictures.