I Miss Tom Clancy, the Author Who Provoked Me to Write

USS John F. Kennedy. Photo: US Navy.

The late bestselling author Tom Clancy had a fascination, some would say an obsession, with aircraft carriers, especially the really big ones operated by the USN. This was made plain in his 1999 book on the subject, Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier. The reason I miss Clancy is that he made so many over-the-top statements in his nonfiction, especially in this book, and they still both entertain me and encourage me to write rebuttals, like this article.

The first statement to catch my attention was in the beginning of the book as Clancy gloated about beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  He said: “Despite the best efforts of the former Soviet Union to develop a credible ‘blue-water’ fleet during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy never lost control of any ocean that it cared about. One of the big reasons for this was the regular presence of carrier battle groups, which took any sort of ‘home-court advantage’ away from a potential enemy. Armed with aircraft that were the match of anything flying from a land base, and flown by the best-trained aviators in the world, the American carriers and their escorts were the ‘eight-hundred-pound guerrillas’ of the Cold War naval world. This is a position that they still hold to this day. However, their contributions have taken on a deadly new relevance in the post-Cold War world.”

This flies right in the face of the late Admiral Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt, USN (Ret.) who was the Chief of Naval Operations from 1970 to 1974. Zumwalt openly admitted that the Soviet Navy had overtaken the USN and that the Americans “would lose” a naval war with the Soviets.  In my book Zumwalt opined that: “‘the United States has lost control of the sea lanes to the Soviet Union.’ He observed years later that ‘the odds are that we would have lost a war with the Soviet Union if we had to fight (during the mid-1970s); the navy dropped to about a 35% probability of victory.’” (p.103) Apparently the early 1970s didn’t count for Clancy, possibly because it might require humility and a willingness to face the ugly truth. This sort of thing didn’t matter to Clancy, who was more interested in boosterism and telling the American public only good things in order to sell books and make him rich.

In Clancy’s poorly informed view, USN pilots were the best in the world, which will come as a surprise to the British, Australians, Israelis, and Canadians, all of whom regularly outperform the USN in air combat competitions and exercises. Even the USAF has better pilots than the USN, with its Fighter Weapons Instructor Course (FWIC) taking a whopping six months whilst the Navy’s Topgun is only 12.5 weeks. According to Colonel Steve Ladd, USAF (Ret.): “Don’t let Maverick, Goose and that Hollywood crowd hoodwink you; I have no doubt the Navy’s Top Gun course is challenging and extremely valuable to those who spent a short stint at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. The Navy course was four weeks long in the 1970s, five weeks in the 1980s, and all about air-to-air stick and rudder work with a similarly focused academics program in between; IMHO not nearly as grueling or fulfilling as the six-month Air Force version. The FWIC Academic program was – and there’s no other way to put it – a bitch.” (p.124)

Another quick note and I’ll let you get on with your day. In his acknowledgements, Clancy thanked his friend the late Jeff Ethell, but apparently didn’t read all of Ethell’s work on fighter combat. In 1989, Ethell published an article in Air Combat magazine about how the Chilean Air Force had clobbered a USN carrier air wing in exercises. He offered the following: “In the US pilots are limited to 10,000 foot ceilings and clear air for dog fighting. In the Chilean Air Force these limits would be considered unrealistic.” (p. 33) According to Ethell, the outcome of simulated combat between USN F-14s and F-18s against Chilean F-5s was ”…astonishing: 56 USN aircraft shot down for 16 [Chilean] aircraft. After some mutual rehashing of the gun camera assessments and pilot debriefings that could be reduced to 36 USN aircraft lost for 20 {Chilean] aircraft depending on who is counting.” (p. 56) For some bizarre reason, Clancy missed this when he wrote about how invincible US naval aviators are. Now that he has gone, at least he will not be forgotten. Although his nationalism and militarism may appeal to some even now, I miss Clancy for a different reason. He provoked me into writing my second book and for that I am grateful.


Tom Clancy. Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier. Berkley Books. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson. Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture. Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Steve Ladd. From F-4 Phantom to A-10 Warthog: Memoirs of a Cold War Fighter Pilot (p. 124). Pen & Sword Books. Kindle Edition.

Jeff Ethell, “Chilean Knife Fight” Air Combat, August 1989, pp. 28-36, 56-57.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.