Top Gun Cover

Top Gun

An American Story

Dan Pedersen

Hachette Books, New York, 2019, 320 pages

Book Review published on: July 19, 2019

Top Gun: An American Story is a popular history of the U.S. Navy fighter weapon school nicknamed Top Gun. Written similar to Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot, this is a story of the Department of the Defense’s concepts of how air battles would be fought, and how these concepts clashed with the realities of air warfare over Vietnam. As a result, the U.S. military went to Vietnam with air forces built and trained to fight a different kind of air war and, ultimately, was unprepared for the war it received.

Author Dan Pedersen was the first officer-in-charge of what was to become Top Gun. The Navy tasked him and eight other officers to study the air-to-air engagement problems coming out of the Vietnam conflict and to develop new training solutions. It was a time when dogfighting was no longer considered necessary, and the Department of the Defense leadership had put its faith in air-to-air missiles. A combination of factors—including immature missile technology, training deficiencies, U.S. Navy F-4 Phantom aircraft lacking guns, and restrictive theater rules of engagement—caused the kill ratios to be nearly equal for both sides. However, Top Gun changed that.

Top Gun is well written and logical, and does not require a detailed understanding of naval aviation to comprehend the challenges identified. The book’s structure follows a timeline approach. Pedersen intersperses some personal history throughout the book at appropriate locations to set the stage for what follows. He begins with entering the Navy, followed by flight school, and then assignments on the West Coast. Pedersen discusses fight club, which was an unsanctioned dogfight arena off the California coast where fighter pilots from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps would go to dogfight each other to hone their skills. The scene then shifts to 1968 in which he describes when he became the first officer-in-charge of Top Gun and the fighting conditions in Vietnam.

The task of starting Top Gun was daunting with little or no support from higher echelons. His fellow officers and he had to develop improved tactics, create a curriculum, and finally convince squadron commanders to send pilots to a school no one had ever heard of. In this part of the book, the scene shifts back to combat to show the impact of the training on air-to-air combat. Pedersen then discusses the transitions in the school as new airframes joined the fleet. His final discussions centered on the F-35C as a Navy aircraft in future combat.

Top Gun is for military/naval aviation history students as well as service acquisition personnel interested in the design of future forces. If your interest was piqued with Fighter Pilot, then this book will be right up your alley. Those interested in aviation or more focused on naval aviation will find this book of interest. Those who set policies or make broad assumptions about future wars and the weapons we procure to achieve our national aims may find this a cautionary tale. We went to Vietnam with air forces built and trained to fight a different kind of air war. Ultimately, we were unprepared for the war we received.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Terrance M. Portman, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas