Warplanes: China Goes Top Gun


June 5, 2006: Another example of how serious China is about creating world class armed forces, is their establishing a "Top Gun" school. That means some of their Su-27 aircraft would have their pilots trained to use fly and fight like F-16's (in particular, Taiwanese F-16s). The 28 ton Su-27 is actually a larger aircraft than the 17 ton F-16. But the only F-16 class aircraft China has is the new JF17. There are not enough JF17s available to serve in an "aggressor squadron", and the JF17 is actually only equal in performance to older model F-16s. The Su-27 can do the job, even if it's more similar in size to the F-15. The Chinese were encouraged to go this way when, during realistic training exercises, their Su-27 pilots were easily defeated when up against aircraft fighting like Taiwanese pilots in F-16s.

The original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school was established in 1969, by the U.S. Navy, in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft. It worked in World War II, because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on- the- job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with it's Red Flag school.

Over the last thirty years, the two training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare.) But after the Cold War ended. It became increasingly obvious that none of our potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not a crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused a cut in flying time. During that period, American pilots were actually getting more flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value. So in the late 1990s, Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. If we find that, say, China is continuing to improve it's combat aviation, gives it's fighter pilots more flying time and their politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S., there will be a need to increase American Top Gun training. Because of the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools may be restored to their former prominence. The Chinese move is certainly a very meaningful one, as it shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight, and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. Dissimilar training is how that is done.


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