I Liked 'Top Gun: Maverick' So Here Is My Four-Star Review Of Everything Wrong With It
A military revolution critique
I finally got to watch the new Top Gun film. Maverick is a solid action flick that manages to do its bookend namesake justice. I can see Tom Cruise doing one more of these movies some day, but I hope not, because this contemporary Hollywood machine would probably make him step down from the cockpit and hand the franchise off to an intersectionalized clone instead of Miles Teller. Don’t think they wouldn’t. Kelly McGillis was not asked to return from the original and equity matters, after all.
So no. Let Maverick fly off into the sun with Bradley in that classic P-51 Mustang. Which, by the way, must have cost Pete Mitchell millions of dollars. No wonder his card gets declined in Penny’s bar. No, I didn’t give you a spoiler alert, dear reader, because I waited until I could see this film for the cost of an airline ticket, so you have no room to complain if I give away a few things in the course of critiquing the way air combat is portrayed in it.
An example of what I mean: the mission portrayed in the film requires an elaborate, compressed training program, led by the titular character, who shows the kids how it is done, but all by himself, with this demonstration being the final exercise before flying into real danger. Hollywood must do this. There are only 90-odd minutes in a blockbuster film and we must get to know every character who is going to matter so that we care about them the way Maverick does so that there are stakes. Drama. Conflict.
With this mission accomplished in the middle reel of the film, the mission makes up the entire rest of the story, followed by the aforementioned flight into the sunset, roll credits. Team squabbling and then a party sports montage and then an accident and then a return to duty. This foreshortening to get the plot it is no surprise to me. I accept it as part of the cinematic art. Real combat incursions into enemy airspace require a team-building, planning, and training process — in fact, think of it as production work for a movie.
Whenever a film portrays military events, the biases of film itself often reduce big parts of a battle to brief glimpses or incomprehensible blurs of action. Ensemble casts introduce themselves, then live and die, or eject from grizzled veteran airplanes, then escape close range autocannon fire to steal an F-14 Tomcat that Richard Nixon gave the Shah of Iran for a birthday present. (Which, as far as toyetic fanservice goes, fricking awesome, Paramount. Five stars. Oscar.)
Electronic battle is chaos. Also, every electronic warrior uses an electronic order of battle (EOB). Like the term “military intelligence,” the EOB is an oxymoron, but also a necessary attempt to organize chaos, in this case within the electromagnetic spectrum of some battlespace or other. Both sides are communicating and both sides are using radar. Radio waves abound.
If we could see radio waves and gaze down from orbit over the earth, an aircraft carrier launching a mission would make the surrounding ionosphere light up and flicker like a bulb. Maverick telling his team to dive below radar level would make radio noise. An alert, wary, mortal enemy would be listening. There are ways to cope with this problem, but detection is a certainty at some point. Top Gun makes no pretense of humanizing the enemy, and air combat is in fact pitiless.
But the film already has an airplane in the script that can give us a window into what is going on.
There is already a voice in the script that communicates information about what is going on during the battle in the film. It is flying onboard an E-2D Hawkeye. Top Gun: Maverick thus includes the spectrum battle, but incompletely.
I would add this voiceover snippet to the film if I could, laid over a shot of a monitor displaying a frequency scanner:
“Be advised coastal radar Echo Two callsign active, over”
I would then insert a two-second clip of the enemy radar — a phased-array antenna — tracking Tom Cruise inbound, and he would say “they know we’re here” before telling the team to dive for the deck.
This is not necessarily intrusive stuff. It simply gets left out of scripts written by people who have no idea how any of this works and have no interest in it, or else bean-counters coming up with ways to squeeze production. I accept that this is unavoidable. My point is that it is not hard to do right if you only know a little bit about, you know, the thing that creates all the drama in actual, real, not-imaginary air combat operations. They could try more.
I watched Maverick on the flight home from Rochester, New York, where I had spent the weekend burying a relative who could not be identified after he was killed in a World War II bombing mission. I say this not to get the reader’s sympathy but to illustrate my frustration.
As I have explained in a subscriber-only post, this is exactly how Operation Tidal Wave was detected. Germans decoded the alert signal for that mission in 1943, then tracked the American bombers over the Adriatic Sea with a network of coastal radars. The entire mission plan had been intended to fly under the radar at Ploesti, Romania, as the protagonists do in the film, and achieve surprise.
Portraying this failure is not hard. It does not spoil a story. It enhances the potential tragedy, raises the stakes, winds the viewer tighter, makes them look forward to seeing it at the summer drive-in.
This critique is magnified by the dangers to the protagonists that are portayed in the film. I will pause here for a content note that the mission is a variation on the Death Star, if Luke Skywalker had exited the trench at a high angle and then dove into the Death Star and back out of it again rather like the Millennium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. Which, to be clear, is fine. Hollywood does spectacle best of all things in film and the trope is well established in cinema. Terrific. Pass the popcorn.
However, the geography of the threat the protagonists face — a surfeit of enemy missile launchers positioned all along the canyon, as numerous as the turbo-laser towers on the Death Star — shows no sign of a radar dish. I did not see one. Perhaps I missed one, and if so then it was not memorable, which is my point. An entire Arleigh Burke-class Tomahawk missile payload gets fired to support the mission, obliterating an airfield, without a single missile aimed at any of these fixed, stationary surface-to-air missile launchers, or the radar that would be necessary to even use them and is the most vulnerable part of the whole air defense system.
Real air defense does not work as portrayed. The surest threat to the team in this film is not the necessity of barnstorming under a bridge, but some guys parked on that bridge with shoulder-fired MANPADS. Rather than immobile launchers that can be struck by cruise missiles, a wise enemy would have mobile systems ready to deploy on short notice, for example when an American carrier is detected parking just offshore the day before the nuclear supervillain volcano lair grand opening, forming an active defense.
Portraying this would not be more expensive or humanizing than what I saw on screen. Again, this sort of thing happened at Ploesti when my uncle’s squadron was savaged by the flak guns on the “Q-train,” a clever stratagem by the local German commander. Air-ground battle is inherently attritional, i.e. you will take losses in planes and people, a point that could have been made with just few words of dialogue.
Altitude, and electronic protection, reduce the rate of loss from ground fire. Which brings me to my next point, because I had to stifle my urge to annoy the other passengers by asking aloud: “Where are your jamming pods, Tom Cruise?”
Chaff and flares have limited, though real, utility. American pilots use them generously just like the team in Maverick. Likewise, “stealth technology” merely reduces the visiblity of the aircraft to radar. Risk reduction is the point, however, and electronic warfare is the proven risk-reducer.
As I noted, the spectrum battlefield is chaos. Drama. Radars may operate on one channel, in which case you will want to do “spot jamming.” Or they may use a range of channels, requiring “barrage jamming.” The enemy will know they are being jammed, and they will know what it means. Now on heightened alert, the enemy will attempt to work through the jamming. Team jamming works better than solo jamming. More to the point, the person flying in the back seat of the two-seater F-18 is supposed to be doing this exact mission, in real life. Right now, the F-18 Growler variant is in fact keeping the model in Navy service when it has been retired as a fighter!
Jamming effectiveness reports from the Hawkeye would also try to warn the team of real-time changes. Everything needed to portray the spectrum battle is present in this film, but it is not being used. Although parts of it are portrayed in lots of movies, and in this one, the spectrum battlefield has almost never been the focus of a film.
An exception would be Flight of the Intruder, a 1991 portrayal of the air war over Vietnam, when electronic battle came of age. Based on a novel by Stephen Coonts, a naval aviator in that conflict, it is my favorite depiction of electromagnetic warfare. Paramount producers remembering the Top Gun franchise in a few years should consider it a model for how to do this right, and adapt it for the world of AI and drones.
Leave Tom Cruise on the ground. Bring back Kelly McGillis as a contractor to explain that North Korea has obtained crucial chip technology for their new sixth-generation fighters and drones. Because contrary to the argument presented in the first reel, the drone will not replace the human in the sky. Instead, the humans will use drones to oppose enemy air defenses and counter enemy drones in combat. Spectrum battles are going to be bigger than ever before and if anything, they will become even more chaotic.
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