Advancements during the Cold War in Soviet long-range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 Tomcat was Grumman’s answer. Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. Needing an interceptor’s high speed while carrying this heavy ordnance, Grumman produced the highly effective variable sweep wing of the F-14, enabling it to operate at a wide range of airspeeds.
The F-14 saw its first combat in August 1981, downing two Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. It saw considerable duty in the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. The last F-14D Super Tomcat retired from active service with in 2006, when it was replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an evolutionary upgrade to the F/A-18C/D.
Wouldn’t the F-14 have been more effective than the F/A-18 in Air-to-Air combat?
‘The F-14 was ultimately retired for a combination of reasons, but mostly due to post-Cold War budget constraints, which forced the Navy to make hard choices,’ Dave Andersen, former F-14 Tomcat RIO at US Navy (1983–1992), explains on Quora.
‘Among them was consolidating the carrier airwings into fewer different airframe types and multi-role aircraft. The Navy had not adequately funded F-14 upgrades and modernization throughout the 1980s and early 90s, to give the jet multi-mission capability as the Cold War ended, and the F-14D program was cancelled after only a few dozen airframes. Plus, given that NAVAIR in the late ’80s and 1990s was dominated by the so-called “light attack mafia” (lots of A-7 / F/A-18 drivers), the “jack of all trades” F/A-18 Hornet came out on top, at the expense of the F-14A/B/D, A-6E and (later on) EA-6B.
‘The need in the mid and late 90s, after the A-6E was retired, for long-range all-weather strike capability gave the Tomcat a temporary reprieve once it proved, with LANTIRN integration on a shoe-string budget, that it could perform well in the strike mission. But as more Tomcats were retired (and airframes, spare parts and test & calibration equipment destroyed to prevent them from ending up in Iran), and as remaining airframes aged and accumulated more flight hours, combat time and time at sea, the Navy deemed them too costly to maintain and support their shrinking numbers. So, they were retired from the fleet in 2006.’
‘As for which would have been a better air-to-air platform, it depends on what specific mission profiles you’re talking about, and which version of either jet carrying which AAMs. Broadly speaking, though, the Tomcat (A, B and D) had much better legs (range and endurance), speed and long-range AAM “stick length” than any Hornet (A, C, D, E/F). The Super Hornet with latest AESA/AIM-120D somewhat closed the long-range missile capability gap with the F-14/AIM-54C, but not completely in all scenarios.
‘The Hornet has better cockpit automation and better overland “look down/shoot down” thanks to medium PRF radar and AIM-120, which the Tomcat never had. In a high task load environment, the two seat Tomcat had some advantages over single seat legacy Hornets, but with single seat E and two seat F Super Hornets with AESA radar and modern integrated sensors /avionics, cockpit SA is much improved, so advantage there goes to Super Hornet. Hornets were/are also superior in the slow speed high-AOA maneuvering arena, although experienced Tomcat pilots who knew how to use the “Big Boys” (i.e., use full flaps during ACM, which was officially verboten) in a slow speed high-AOA fight, could out maneuver a Hornet.’
‘Today against China in the Westpac AOR, Super Hornets are all but worthless. Unfortunately, Big Navy didn’t have the foresight to require long legs and speed with the F/A-18 E/F. So, we’re now without an effective long-range, high-supersonic carrier-based air-to-air capability until presumably NGAD/F/A-XX hits the fleet, whatever and whenever that turns out to be.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy
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