Hollywood is going back to "Top Gun" school with its upcoming sequel to the 1986 film, but hotshot pilot Maverick won't be flying any killer robot drones. Instead, Tom Cruise is set to return in the starring role as a test pilot for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a plane that could well be the last manned fighter aircraft made in the West.
The news slipped from the lips of the Lockheed Martin's F-35 program manager during a National Aeronautics Association luncheon last week, according to FlightGlobal's military aviation blog The DEW Line. If that plot decision shapes the final "Top Gun 2" film, the choice to feature a manned aircraft stands out in a time when U.S. military drone pilots can see far more action in a week than most fighter pilots see in months.
While Tom Cruise may jump into the seat of an F-35, entire squadrons of real U.S. military fighter pilots have already switched over from manned aircraft to remote-controlled drones such as the Predator or Reaper. Many of the best test pilots from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School now graduate having extensive flight time with drones.
Maverick's own U.S. Navy has begun testing the sleek, futuristic X-47B drone that could take off from aircraft carriers as soon as 2013. That drone could end up flying alongside manned fighter jets such as the F-18 Super Hornet — the F-14 Tomcats flown by Maverick and Iceman in the original "Top Gun" retired from operational service in 2006.
The "Top Gun 2" choice of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may also prove controversial based on the aircraft's own merits — both outside experts and government reports have cited years of delays and technical issues leading to an estimated lifetime cost of $1 trillion. When Foreign Policy recently asked 76 defense experts to list three programs that they would cut immediately from the U.S. defense budget, the most popular No. 1 choice was the F-35.
"We have had only one fighter jet shot down by an enemy fighter jet in the last 40 years," said one expert interviewed by Foreign Policy. "We simply don't need to spend over a trillion on a new fighter at this point."
Even military supporters who insist that the F-35 JSF is a necessary sixth-generation aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps admit that it may prove the last manned fighter aircraft for the U.S. and its allies. They include past Pentagon leaders such as Mike Mullen, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter — or fighter-bomber, or jet," Mullen said during a Senate Armed Service Committee testimony in 2009. "I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
"Top Gun 2" could still end up taking moviegoers on a wild cinematic ride when it comes out, and perhaps even showcase the challenges faced by human pilots in the era of robotic drones. But if the film merely echoes the original "Top Gun" parade of aerial combat and fighter jock culture, it risks losing itself in a Hollywood fantasy far removed from the futuristic reality of modern warfare.