There is no doubt the Super Tomcat 21 would have been the better plane but it still would have likely been a bit more expensive and still require some more maintenance than the Super Hornet.
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.
Would the Super Tomcat outperform the Super Hornet assuming equivalent weapons technology?
‘The F-14D yes, it would in every area except reliability and turn performance (with equivalent combat loads the Tomcat was actually better than the F/A-18) but to truly understand what could have been you need to look at the Super Tomcat 21,’ explains Kevin Mason, former US Naval Test Pilot School and TOPGUN Graduate, on Quora.
‘This is a fairer comparison because the Tomcat’s contemporary was the F/A-18C while the F/A-18E/F is virtually a whole new aircraft in an F-18 skin. So, assuming the Tomcat would have had the same money thrown at it as the Hornet the actual aircraft to compare is the Super Tomcat 21.
‘The Super Tomcat 21, just like the Super Hornet, would have been a virtually complete redesign of the original with modern technology replacing the old and troublesome 1960’s tech. Included in that would have been fly-by-wire and reduced static stability (i.e., it would have turned even better than it already did) plus it would have had the F110–429 engines with even more thrust than the F-14D. Based on tests by Grumman, the Super Tomcat 21 would have been capable of super cruise with a full air-to-air load out.’
‘So, the Super Tomcat 21 would have been faster, accelerated faster, carried more, have longer range and longer loiter, more bring back of unexpended ordnance, and be more maneuverable (especially with a combat load.) As for avionics and weapons, it would have had everything the Super Hornet has and can carry but because of the F-14’s larger size it would have had a more powerful radar.
‘As for the AIM-54 it’s hard to say if it would have been continued and for how long. Undoubtedly the Super Tomcat 21 would have retained the AIM-54C capability and there had been some several proposed and early developments of a follow-on advanced Phoenix so it’s possible it would have continued but because of the end of the Cold War and the F-14 getting AMRAAM it’s unlikely.
‘Although the Super Tomcat 21 would have been considerably more reliable and easier to maintain than the F-14A/B/D it probably would have still required more maintenance man hours than the Super Hornet because it would still have the variable sweep wings (a system that the Super Hornet doesn’t have) but since the wing system would have been upgraded as well it’s hard to say what the man hour cost would have actually been. Undoubtedly it would have been much better than its predecessors. Everything else would have been at least on par with the Hornet.’
‘There are other things that were planned (some classified) and there is no doubt the Super Tomcat 21 would have been the better plane but it still would have likely been a bit more expensive and still require some more maintenance than the Super Hornet.’
Photo credit: Northrop Grumman, National Museum of Naval Aviation and Boeing