The saga of the development of the F-14 Tomcat out of the ashes of the Joint Service F-111B program is quite a tale.
The saga of the development of the F-14 Tomcat out of the ashes of the Joint Service F-111B program is quite a tale. Though widely derided for choosing the F-111 for commonality, Secretary of Defense McNamara was merely looking at platforms and ways to save money with his bean counter mentality. The REAL reason he chose to combine the Navy’s Fleet Defense Interceptor program with the Air Force’s Next Generation Strike platform lay in the nature of the Navy’s original specifications.
Though McNamara deserves criticism and condemnation for his Vietnam War policy decisions, his decision to combine programs was a direct result of what the Navy itself had decided would be the future of Fleet Air Defense. With Missile technology rapidly coming online and internal guns considered obsolete, in the late 1950s the Navy’s follow-on Interceptor design was meant to build maximum performance into the missile itself, while making the airplane a mere platform to carry a loadout of these wonder weapons…a “Missileer.” Thus did the Douglas F6D Missileer come into being, designed with straight wings to loiter over the fleet as a flying Surface to Air Missile site.
The Missileer concept was cancelled by the Eisenhower Administration in 1960, but elements continued. The Navy was enamored of missiles to the point where its new F4H-1 Phantom was designed without an internal gun, instead relying on its primary air to air armament of up to 4 AIM-7 Radar Guided Sparrows and 4 Infrared-Heat Seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders. Guns were reduced to an afterthought carried in pods, something which unfortunately would take a hard point, especially the crucial centerline tank station on the F-4. Against Soviet Bombers operating at high altitude, such a missile armament was key in defeating the threat. Against highly maneuverable gun armed MiGs, however, Missiles didn’t work as advertised.
The fact that missiles weren’t quite up to snuff would be proven in Vietnam, where the Sparrow Missile’s kill percentage would only be in the order of 10 percent, while the simpler infrared Sidewinder would achieve a 25 percent ratio. Thus, platforms designed to defend the fleet against Soviet Bombers found themselves engaged against “obsolete” but maneuverable and gun armed Soviet designed fighters. In the meantime, the F6D Missileer concept was folded into the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program, which would evolve into the F-111. McNamara, seeing the Navy’s Missileer concept, believed that by utilizing a version of TFX the combined program could save all services money.
This concept was actually proven by the adaptation of the F-4 Phantom by the Navy, Marines and USAF. One of the reasons this was successfully accomplished was that the Phantom had been designed for Carrier Operations from the outset, and thus designed, was easily adapted with minimal changes by the Air Force for land operations. The TFX program, however, was originally land based, with contract winner General Dynamics bringing in Grumman to assist with adapting land-based F-111A into the carrier capable F-111B.
Unfortunately for the program, the F-111B proved consistently overweight, and suffered carrier compatibility issues, although it was semi-successfully operated off even the USS Coral Sea. What bedevilled the F-111B most was the sense it was the wrong aircraft at the wrong time, as a Missileer coming online to replace the F-4 Phantom, which itself was having combat issues over Vietnam. The death knell of the program was sounded by Vice Admiral Tom Connolly, who testified in front of Congress that “Not all the Thrust in Christendom could make a fighter out of that airplane.” Thus sacrificing his career for the future of Naval Aviation, the fact that he and Admiral Thomas Moorer were both named Tom likely played a role in Tom’s Cat becoming the Tomcat.
With the program consistently butting against a host of issues, Grumman and the Navy hierarchy decided to salvage what they could from the program and proceed in a new direction. Using the swing-wing technology, engines and radar and missile armament of the F-111B, they began what would be a new program, one which would redesign the Missileer concept into something far more Versatile, a Dogfight Capable Missileer. This new aircraft would combine high maneuverability with an internal gun armament, along with Long Range Radar Guided Missiles with shorter ranged Radar Guided Sparrows and Heat Seeking Sidewinders for backup.
Thus out of the ashes of the F-111B would come the Mighty Tomcat. But that is another story.
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Photo credit: U.S. Navy