Gone, But Not Forgotten – A Comeback for the F-14 Tomcat?

 
 
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The United States Navy retired the popular F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft in 2006. TheTomcat was the product of a Navy initiative in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War to find a more effective long-range interceptor to combat Soviet Union jet bombers.

The United States Navy needed to find an effective fighter jet with offensive capabilities to protect and defends its carrier battle groups. Although the Navy was working on the F-111B carrier aircraft, it was not suited to perform combat duties due to its heavy weight and inability to perform high-end stealth maneuvers.

In 1974, the F-14 was used for the first time in combat. The F-14 still used the same TF30 twin engines as the F-111B, but the F-14 was more maneuverable and became the world’s best air defense fighter, eventually phasing out the F-4 Phantom II fighter in 1986.

A U.S. Navy General Dynamics/Grumman F-111B fighter in flight.

The F-14 was designed specifically to defend, address, and combat specific threats from the Soviet Union, such as a massive attack from Soviet Tupolev Tu-22M bombers equipped with cruise missiles.

It was able to engage multiple targets simultaneously and neutralize targets over 90 miles away. As the Soviet threat was diminished by the fall of the Berlin wall, the Navy became more comfortable transitioning away from the F-14 and seeking new alternatives to the aging aircraft.

Military spending dropped significantly with the end of the Cold War, and the F-14’s high repair and upkeep costs encouraged the creation and development of a new generation of fighter jets that would be far more cost-effective.

As the threat of an attack against its carrier fleet was much less of a concern, the Navy was willing to sacrifice the Tomcat’s offensive capabilities and speed for the more well-rounded Super Hornet.

A Grumman F-14A Tomcat of fighter squadron VF-84 Jolly Rogers.

In 1989, production of new F-14s ended, and in 1991, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney canceled the production of the F-14D, calling the F-14“outdated” 1960s technology. The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet were first ordered by the Navy in 1992, tested until 1999, and approved for combat use by the Navy in 2000.

Although the F-14 was still a superior offensive attack aircraft, the The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet were more versatile, more economical, and had the more modern technology.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet.

The newer aircraft featured APG 73 radar, AN/ASQ-228 ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking InfraRed), AN/ALR-67(V)3 radar warning receiver, the AN/ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser, the AN/ALE-50 towed decoy, the AN/ALQ-165 Airborne Self-Protect Jammer (ASPJ), and the AN/ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures (IDECM) system. Boeing continued to create and retrofit new upgrades to enhance the Super Hornet’s combat effectiveness.

F-14B Tomcat from VF-102.

Now with more recent threats arising from China and Russia, and with both countries developing greater offensive capabilities, the Navy is considering bringing back the F-14. A senior Navy official stated that the Navy is “looking towards the future of fighter aviation in the Navy, and the future is in the past. That’s why we want to bring back the Tomcat. Those armchair generals… err.. excuse me, admirals, on the internet clearly know more about the needs of the Navy than the Navy itself.”

Sailors prepare an F-14 Tomcat for a flight.

The advent of the Russian PAK-FA combat fighter and the Chinese J-11 are forcing the United States to reconsider developing better fighter jets and consider bringing the F-14 out of retirement.  With new threats emerging, military and public support is growing for a return of the F-14 until the United States can produce a new fighter jet superior to those produced by Russia and China.

With the F-14 able to accurately complete long-range strikes, some believe it is practical for the Navy to consider recommissioning the F-14 or at least utilizing the F-14 until a newer fighter jet is fully tested and combat ready. Currently, the United States has a contract with Boeing to produce 134 brand new Super Hornets over the next several years.

A US Navy (USN) F-14B Tomcat.

The Navy is looking to further develop the F-35C as the future stalwart fighter jet. The F-35 features stealth technology, speed, and durability. Additionally, the Navy has updated the Block III Super Hornet to include conformable (low-drag, external) fuel tanks, which will allow the Block III to carry more missiles and have a longer strike range.

Although appreciation still exists for the classic F-14 and its commendable service history, the Navy will likely continue upgrades to the Super Hornet to make it more combat effective and rely on the newer aircraft to meet its future needs.