The F-14 Tomcat is the most well-known aircraft ever operated by the US Navy. Its sleek design and swing wings made it the ultimate cool fighter of its generation. Last month, I tracked the Origin and Evolution of the Su-27 in detail. Here, I will track the origin of the F-14 Tomcat, its development, the hurdles it faced during the Cold War and how it evolved into one of the most iconic fighters of its era.
It was 1960, and the Soviets were developing a family of long range cruise missiles which could be launched from ships, submarines and aircraft. These missiles flew quickly and at low altitudes which made them ideal for targeting US Navy carriers. A sufficiently large number of these missiles could overwhelm the most advanced air defenses of that time. The US navy also lacked a long range fighter with a sufficiently large weapon load to intercept and destroy Soviet missiles and aircraft before they got too close to the carrier group. This made them realize the need for a fighter which can fly hundreds of km from the carrier and intercept Soviet bombers and missiles before it was too late.
In 1962, the existing long range F-111 of the USAF, re-designated as the F-111B was evaluated to be a possible naval fighter to fulfil this role due to its long range and heavy weapons load. But it was just too heavy at over 85,000 pounds to be a naval fighter. It was too clumsy as a fighter and its test flights failed, killing several pilots. Hence it was canceled in 1968 and the US Navy proceeded to obtain a specifically designed new fighter for their carriers. So in 1968, Grumman won the tender to build a next-generation air superiority fighter for the US Navy. It was required to fly at speeds greater than Mach 2.2, have excellent agility and be able to perform secondary strike roles. It would deploy the AIM-154 Phoenix ultra-long range Air to Air missile in conjunction with the long range AWG-9 radar.
Grumman engineers tested hundreds of wind tunnel models in various configurations and finally the model which was chosen had a swing wing and twin turbojet engines. The unique feature of these turbojets was that each of the 20,000 pound thrust producing engines were separated by several feet physically. This proved to be an ideal layout as the space between the engines under the fuselage was employed for carrying the massive AIM-54 Phoenix missile and 2000 lb. bombs. This design required a tall tail stabilizer which would hamper movement in the hangars of aircraft carriers. So Grumman opted for a twin tail configuration which allowed the use of short tail stabilizers. Unlike the side by side seating used by the pilot and the radar intercept officer in the F-111, the F-14 featured tandem seating for its 2 man crew which resulted in further streamlining of the aircraft. The final design chosen was the Design 303E which is shown below.
The one feature which made the Tomcat so popular was its unique swing wing design. All the swing wing fighters of that era required the pilot to manually adjust the degree of sweep of the wings. But for the F-14, Grumman engineers decided to install an automatic swing wing system which would collect airspeed data from external sensors and adjust the degree of sweep accordingly. This freed up the pilot from an unnecessary task and allowed him to concentrate on flying the aircraft. The swept wing was however not for show, and it performed a very important aerodynamic function. When swept fully forward, it provided maximum surface area of wings necessary to generate lift during takeoff. This was very essentially as the F-14 was the heaviest US Navy fighter to be operated from carriers and the additional lift generated by forward swept wings would greatly aid in takeoff. Forward swept wings were also essential during landings. The wings automatically swept back fully as the F-14 approached supersonic speeds. This helped to reduce drag greatly and gave the Tomcat its iconic look.
The F-14 needed to be light enough for carrier takeoff, yet strong enough to land on a carrier (which is basically a controlled crash). So it needed to be made from a combination of materials which would impart strength, corrosion resistance, carry a huge payload and be light enough at the same time. Hence one of the main materials used was Titanium along with aluminum. This enables it to be 40,000 pounds lighter than the F-111B which made it ideal for carrier ops. The maximum weight of the F-14 when fully loaded with fuel and weapons exceeded 70,000 pounds, making it the heaviest carrier-borne fighter of its time.
The Navy wanted a working prototype within 2 years of the project commencement and announced massive penalties which Grumman had to pay if the Navy requirements were not met in time. Here are the list of penalties I obtained from the F-14 Tomcats association, which would be imposed if parameters were not met.
- Empty Weight: $440,000 for each 100 lbs overweight
- Acceleration: $440,000 for each second slow
- Escort Radius: $1 million for each 10 nautical miles short
- Approach Speed: $1.056 million for each knot fast
- Maintainability: $450,000 for each extra maintenance man-hour per flight hour
- Delivery to Navy Board of Inspection and Survey: $5,000 for each day late
These tough ‘incentives’ ensured that there was no delays from Grumman’s side. On a side note, what If these incentives were issued to Lockheed Martin for the F-35? On December 21st 1970, the first F-14A prototype took off. It was a successful flight in which the basic handling of the aircraft was tested. The happiness ended right there as the first prototype crashed during its 2nd flight, 9 days later due to a hydraulic pump failure. However both the test pilots ejected safely and the program continued smoothly afterward. 12 prototypes were built in total to test various parameters and systems.
However during intense testing carried out before weapons integration, 2 Tomcats were lost in extreme tests. But this didn’t impede the progress of the program and it successfully reached the final stages. The crucial weapons testing was a challenge as it required the large and heavy AIM-54 Phoenix missiles to be successfully fired. The challenge was that an F-14 carrying 6 Phoenix missiles must fire them continuously in a salvo to intercept 6 target drones from an altitude just above sea level to 100,000 ft. The powerful AWG-9 had to track 6 targets and guide all 6 missiles to their targets. This test was declared a success after 5 drones were successfully shot down and the 6th drone was narrowly missed by the last Phoenix. The Navy was happy with the performance parameters and approved the F-14 for production.
Finally after almost 2 years of testing, serial production began in 1972 and the first F-14A was handed to the US navy on 8th October 1972. This shows the incredible efficiency of Grumman as the transition from project commissioning to full scale production of such a complex aircraft took just 4 years! Their Cold War rivals in contrast took 12 years for a similar achievement. Grumman was again given a tough task of producing around 700 fighters. It was deployed across the world in the US Navy’s massive supercarriers to project power unlike any other naval fighter of its time. It entered service on US carriers in 1974 and gradually replaced F-4 Phantoms. It was widely feared by its enemies and proved to be a success in the combat operations in took part later in its life.
TOMCATS IN COMBAT
The US Navy first deployed the Tomcat in Vietnam in 1975 to provide air cover during the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. Their earliest aerial successes were in combat against the Libyans in the early 1980s. Operating from the USS Nimitz, it managed to notch up several air to air victories against the Russian aircraft operated by the Libyan Air Force. The common weapon load combinations of the F-14 were
- 2 Sidewinder + 2 Phoenix + 2 Sparrow AAMs
- 2 Sidewinder + 4 Phoenix
- 2 Sidewinder + 6 Sparrow
- 4 Sidewinder + 4 Phoenix
There was also an option to carry 6 Phoenix missiles along with 2 Sidewinders, but this option was rarely used when operating from carriers as such a load made it impossible to land on a carrier unless the missiles were expended as it exceeded the carrier weight limitations during landing. So in an ideal combat mission, one of the above mentioned combination of AAMs were carried. The Phoenix missile had a speed of Mach 4+, a range of 200 km and a flight ceiling of 10-100,000 ft. This was very essential as it was the only AAM in the US inventory capable of dealing with hi-speed Russian cruise missiles. The F-14 also routinely did what every NATO aircraft type has done from the past 50 years, intercepting and escorting the nosy Russian Tu-95 bomber/recon aircraft which approached US carriers on a regular basis.
From 1981, the Tomcat was assigned another role in addition to fleet defense. It was to become the main reconnaissance platform of the US Navy and was fitted with the advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS). Armed with these pods and their usual missiles, they carried out missions over Somalia, Libya, Iran, and Lebanon with great success. The first major combat event for the Tomcat was the 1991 Gulf War. Throughout the war, Combat Air Patrol, Reconnaissance and Aerial Escort was the main role of the F-14. But the long range radar and missiles of the F-14 was widely feared by the Iraqis. The Iraqi MiGs used to flee from the scene immediately after they were locked on by an F-14s radar and were usually shot down by USAF fighters. The TARPS was extensively utilized to carry out Recon and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). But the F-14 didn’t taste any real blood and the only kill during the war for the Tomcat was an Iraqi Mi-8 helicopter.
The A-6 intruder was the backbone of the USN attack missions. When the A-6 intruder was retired, the Navy urgently needed an aircraft to fill the attack role and the F-14s were upgraded with Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) for ground attack. These Tomcats were nicknamed ‘Bombcats’ as they carried out bombing operations when their intended role was a pure fighter. They carried out bombing missions using Laser Guided Bombs and Gravity bombs, but the days of the Tomcat was becoming numbered and the US Navy wanted a more economical and smaller multi-role aircraft. The 21st century was the beginning of the end of the F-14 Tomcat era.
The shocking part in the history of the F-14 is its export to Iran in the 1970s! Iran is currently viewed as a hostile nation by the US, but in the early 1970s it was a very close ally. This meant that the US offered full support to them including supplying hi-tech military equipment to counter Iraq and the Soviet Union. The Shah wanted the latest American fighter and he was offered a choice of the F-14 or F-15. After a specially arranged air display demonstration, the F-14 was chosen. In 1974, Iran received 80 F-14s along with a shipment of 714 AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The F-14s had critical mission software and hardware removed, but yet it was superior to any other fighter at that time and was the only one which could counter the Mach 3 MiG-25 with its Phoenix missiles.
But Iran was a big gamble and in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown, the nation fell into disarray and the relationship with the US was strained. Iran was suddenly a hostile nation which possessed the most advanced American fighters and hundreds of Hi-tech missiles. Support for these F-14s was cutoff and the Iranians had to ground these fighters for lack of essential spares. However, they overcame the hurdle by depending on their local industry for spares and the Tomcats were flying combat missions against Iraq starting in 1980. Tomcats gradually increased their operational tempo and by the end of the war, it is estimated that the Iranian F-14s had shot down around 160 Iraqi combat aircraft (many with the Phoenix missile) and only 1 F-14 was lost in return. The Phoenix missile armed Tomcats conducted long range patrols near the Iran-Iraq border and this combination terrified the Iraqis as they had no counter against the long range radar and missiles of the F-14 Tomcat. It is interesting to note that the Iranians obtained more aerial kills with the Tomcat than the US Navy.
Currently Iran operates a depleted fleet of around 28 F-14s which have locally made spares, radars and other systems. This has allowed them to operationally fly the F14 to an extent although its unknown if they are combat worthy. But as of now, they possess the only flying F-14s in the world.
By the 1980s, it was thought that the Tomcat was reaching the end of its useful life and becoming obsolete. But major upgrades ensured that it stayed at the top of its game for 2 more decades. But meanwhile, heavily modified F-14s called Super Tomcats with advanced avionics and improvements in performance were proposed by Grumman. But these projects were rejected for being too expensive and the US Navy decided to go with the F/A-18 to replace their F-14 fleet. The F/A-18 did the job of the Tomcat at about one third of the cost and was easier to maintain. The retirement of the F-14 started in the 90s and all of them were retired by 2006 and replaced by the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.
I have very often encountered the statement “The US Navy made a huge mistake by retiring the Tomcat”. But in fact there are several valid reasons. One being, Naval aircraft are subject to immense forces during take-off and landings on carriers which places immense stress on their airframe. This limits their service life to just 20 years when compared to Air Force fighters which easily serve for 30 years. The Cold war ended and the US Navy was looking for cheaper alternatives that could get the job done with more versatility. The Super Tomcat offerings were very high performance aircraft, but the Super Hornets outclassed them in operational and acquisition costs and offered better multi-role capabilities. Being considerably smaller, more number of Super Hornets could be carried on a carrier when compared to the Tomcat.
So what happened to the 400 odd F-14s that were retired? All of them weren’t scrapped of course. A large portion of these aircraft were stripped of sensitive equipment and displayed in museums, memorials and military bases around the US. A portion of them were scrapped and their parts were recycled. A small number are stripped and kept in reserve storage in case an emergency forces them to bring the F-14s back to life. But if you want to see an F-14 in action, Iran is your only option for now. This is how the most famous fighter of the US Navy ended its glorious service life and now lives on as static models and in the hearts of its pilots and its die-hard fans.
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