From an Israeli point of view, the Tomcat could not match the three principal virtues of the Eagle — the F-14 had a framed rather than a bubble canopy, its thrust-to-weight ratio was significantly inferior to the F-15’s and the Grumman jet’s weapon system was optimised for BVR scenarios.
Bought in the mid-1970s to secure air superiority for Israel in the Middle East for decades to come, the F-15 Eagle has indeed been the unrivalled master of the skies since its arrival in December 1976.
In 1974 the IDF/AF had a requirement for 50 next generation fighters, and in June of that same year Israeli Ministry of Defence Shimon Peres forwarded a request to evaluate the two main candidates. A large Israeli delegation, including IDF/AF and IAI test pilots and engineers, arrived in the US in September. The delegation’s mandate was simple — to evaluate and then recommend which fighter (the F-14 or the F-15) was more suited to fulfil the IDF/AF requirement.
As told by Shlomo Aloni in his book Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat, Israeli pilots had flown both fighter types prior to the official evaluation. Indeed, IDF/AF commander (from 1973 to 1977) Beni Peled had been one of the first non-Americans to fly an Eagle when he piloted a pre-production TF-15 from the front seat during a visit to Edwards AFB in 1974. Peled had been impressed with the visibility on offer from the jet’s cockpit, but otherwise he could not rate the combat potential of the F-15, as the aircraft he was flying was still very much a development airframe that lacked operational mission equipment.
David Ivry, who headed up the IDF/AF’s Air Department/Group from 1973 to 1975, had flown an F-14 from Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar during a visit to the US in early 1974. The sortie involved several Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) scenarios against an A-4 Skyhawk flown by an adversary squadron. Ivry later recalled;
`I was impressed with the F-14, even though it was heavy on the controls. The aircraft’s engines were also sensitive, which meant that it was impossible to fly the Tomcat as aggressively as we would our jets.’
By the time Ivry made his flight in the F-14, the jet had already been chosen by Iran instead of the F-15. At this time Iran was an Israeli ally that was faced with the same threats from neighbouring Iraq and the USSR — including overflights by MiG-25R/RBs. The Iranians had evaluated the F-14 and the F-15 in 1973, and had duly become the first export customer for a US ‘teen’ series fighter when it signed a contract for the Tomcat in June 1974. Three months later it was the turn of the Israelis to evaluate the two air superiority fighters.
Amnon Arad headed up the team sent to test the aircraft. An ex-F-4 squadron CO, he was in fact heading Team Hadish when he was given the opportunity to evaluate the F-14 and F-15. Arad was, at that time, the only fighter pilot in the team, so three more joined just prior to the mission leaving Israel. Israel Baharav represented the Mirage III/ Nesher community, Omri Afek, like Arad, was an F-4 pilot and Assaf Ben-Nun was IAI’s Kfir Project Test Pilot.
These four pilots had a combined total of 24 victories between them, with Baharav and Ben-Nun being aces with twelve and five credited kills, respectively. Other members of the team included F-4 navigator Aharon Katz and IAI and IDF/AF engineers. Included amongst the latter was Moshe Keret, who was IAI’s Lahav Plant managing director in charge of fighter production — he later became IAI President and Chief Executive Officer from 1985 to 2006.
The purpose of the evaluation was to examine the merits of the two new generation fighters in three scenarios based on lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War. The team would test how the jets went about achieving air superiority over the battlefield, as well as evaluating their ability to intercept a wide variety of targets from low and slow helicopters to high and fast MiG-25s, as well as high-speed attack aircraft flying at low altitude and Tu-16 bombers armed with long-range air-to-surface missiles. Finally, the fighters’ ability to escort IDF/AF formations on long-range missions would also be examined.
Although the F-14 and F-15 had been developed over a similar timeframe, they differed in concept. The Tomcat was designed to defend US Navy carrier battlegroups, while the Eagle had been built specifically to challenge enemy aircraft over the battlefield. The F-14 was a two-seat weapon system, while the F-15 was a single-seat fighter.
The latter machine appeared to address the IDF/AF’s principal operational requirements, and the Israelis therefore expected the F-15 to be the better air superiority platform — the F-14 had been developed almost exclusively as an interceptor. Nevertheless, both jets could fly far and fight with minimal ground control unit (GCU) inputs.
This performance came at a high price, however, and aside from reporting on the aircrafts’ mission capabilities, the evaluation team was also to submit recommendations in respect to the economics of purchase, and the long term costs involved in operating the rival jets.
The IDF/AF requested a head-to-head evaluation in order to compare the F-14 and F-15, but US government approval was not granted for such a fly-off. Instead, the evaluation team prepared a series of mission profiles that saw the aircraft up against the A-4 and the F-4.
Israeli pilots flew the Eagle first in a series of nine flights from the McDonnell Douglas plant in St Louis, Missouri. A different scenario was evaluated in each sortie, and all were flown in a two-seat TF-15A Full-Scale Development (FSD) airframe that had an Israeli pilot strapped into the front seat and a US test pilot in the back. One of the flights simulated the interception of a high and fast MiG-25, whilst in another the TF-15 easily ‘shot down’ an F-4 flown by Omri Afek.
The Israelis were very impressed by the view from the TF-15’s cockpit, as well as the jet’s thrust-to-weight ratio. Its harmonised weapon system, which enabled both within visual range (WVR) and beyond visual range (BVR) engagements to be conducted with ease, also drew praise.
Assaf Ben-Nun flew two sorties in TF-15A 71-0290, the first lasting 55 minutes (he had McDonnell Douglas test pilot J E Krings in the back seat) and the second 45 minutes (flown with company test pilot D D Behm). Ben-Nun recalled;
`I was an IAI employee and an IDF/AF reserve pilot when I joined the evaluation team as a test pilot following a direct request by IDF/AF commander Beni Peled. We initially “flew” the two F-15 simulators — the cockpit simulator and the air combat simulator, the two domes — and they were both exceptionally realistic.
`In my first TF-15 flight, I successfully practised a BVR interception scenario with a semi-active radar-homed (SARH) air-to-air missile (AAM), then a WVR scenario with both an infrared (IR) AAM and the cannon. Both attacks were successfully made during a solitary pass against my opponent. Performance-wise, the F-15 was a revelation, with superb acceleration and manoeuvrability. My only reservation centred on its large size, as I preferred smaller fighters for air combat.’
The IDF/AF’s evaluation of the F-14 at NAS Miramar was undertaken in such a way as to check whether the aircraft could match the F-15’s performance, rather than better it. From an Israeli point of view, the Tomcat could not match the three principal virtues of the Eagle — the F-14 had a framed rather than a bubble canopy, its thrust-to-weight ratio was significantly inferior to the F-15’s and the Grumman jet’s weapon system was optimised for BVR scenarios.
Israel Baharav was intimately involved in the evaluation of the F-14, and he later recalled;
`The IDF/AF has always labelled its most modern fighter “superior” and the previous generation jet “inferior”. For example, the Super Mystere was superior to the Mystere up until the Mirage IIIC entered service, when both became inferior to the Dassault delta. Typically, the IDF/AF usually found that although the superior fighter had a better thrust-to-weight ratio, the inferior fighter was more agile. When performing DACT between superior and inferior fighters, the pilot flying the latter must strive to make the fight a turning engagement, while his opponent has to preserve a high-energy state.
`During our evaluation of the F-14 and F-15 against the F-4 and A-4, we stuck firmly to the principles of the superior fighter versus the inferior jet. We prepared ourselves accordingly, and were thoroughly familiar with the performance statistics associated with all four aircraft. We instinctively figured that the F-14 and F-15 would carry more energy coming into the fight, but that they would turn more slowly than the A-4 in particular.
`Despite our preparations, we were simply amazed when we flew the F-15 against the F-4. The Eagle maintained it thrust-to-weight advantage and turned much quicker than the F-4. Here we had a superior fighter that was also more manoeuvrable than the inferior jet!
`When we evaluated the F-14, the US Navy pilots at NAS Miramar told us that the Tomcat could perform equally as well in a dogfight with an A-4. This did not prove to be the case, however, for when I flew the TA-4 against the F-14, the end result of the engagement was embarrassment for the Tomcat. Not only could the TA-4 out-turn the F-14, but during the turn itself, the Tomcat’s energy state dropped so low that I was able to fly the TA-4 in the vertical as though the Skyhawk was the superior fighter and the F-14 the inferior!’
Assaf Ben-Nun also flew a two-hour sortie in a TA-4F that included DACT against the F-14, and he too was disappointed to discover that the Skyhawk was superior to the F-14 in the WVR air combat scenario. He then flew a one-hour Tomcat mission from Naval Air Facility El Centro, in California, with US Navy pilot Keith Sheehan in the back seat. Ben-Nun remembered;
‘The F-14 lacked thrust, was complex and not user-friendly and was not aerodynamically clean — indeed, the jet shuddered every time I pulled high-G or high angle-of-attack. During my sortie, I flew DACT against Amnon Arad in a Skyhawk, and although we finished with honours even at the end of the session, I found it hard to believe that the F-14 had no edge whatsoever over the A-4 in WVR air combat.’
The Israelis acknowledged that cockpit teamwork between the pilot and his Radar Intercept Officer might go some way to narrowing the gap between the two jets. Conversely, the evaluation team stated that the Tomcat’s ability to simultaneously intercept several targets at very long range was mostly irrelevant to Middle East air warfare scenarios.
Overall, the F-15 clearly emerged as the better fighter for the IDF/AF. Technologically, it was judged to be the more advanced jet, and it was also expected to have better growth potential. The latter view has proven to have been the correct one, for 30 years later the F-15 is still in low-rate production, but the F-14 has now been withdrawn from US Navy service. Furthermore, the Tomcat was more expensive than the Eagle, and it was expected to project significantly higher service life costs. The purchase of 50 F-14s would have cost the Israeli government $870 million, as opposed to $628 million for an identical number of F-15s. The evaluation team estimated the direct operating costs at $1689 per flight hour for the F-14 and $1073 for the F-15. The F-15 emerged as the clear winner both on the grounds of performance and cost, and the IDF/AF happily accepted the verdict.
Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Israeli Air Force and U.S. Navy