The prospect of an RAF F-14 Tomcat buy was discussed. One method of lowering the bill might have been to buy second-hand examples from the US Navy or even from Iran.
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.
By the late 1970s, several nations had evaluated the F-14 Tomcat, but none of these evaluations resulted in a sale. Israel, Saudia Arabia and Japan considered the aircraft as an alternative to the F-15 Eagle, but all opted for the single-seat McDonnell Douglas fighter.
With the F-14 in widespread US Navy service, and in at least limited Iranian service, the Grumman fighter’s story seemed likely to be a dull one, with none of the variants or spectacular sales associated with the F-4 Phantom.
As told by Doug Richardson in his book Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) was at one time seen as a potential customer. Faced with rising costs of the planned Tornado Air Defence Variant (ADV) the British MoD looked at the F-14, F-15 and F-16. It concluded that only the F-14 would meet Britain’s defence needs; the F-15 lacked the two-seat cockpit and facilities required for interception in the face of massive ECM, and the F-16 was simply too small. Given the prospective price tag of Tomcat, Tornado seemed the best bet.
The slow timescale of the ADV project was another problem. ‘The Few have never been fewer’ was how one newspaper summed up the fact that in the late 1970s the UK was defended by less than 100 fighters. The British Press actually seemed surprised by the miniscule size of the UK’s run-down defences—perhaps they thought that the long series of defence `reviews’ (polite euphemism for ‘cuts’) which Governments of all political persuasions had inflicted on the British armed forces were theoretical exercises.
Once again, the prospect of an RAF Tomcat buy was discussed. One method of lowering the bill might have been to buy second-hand examples from the US Navy or even from Iran. Enquiries were in fact made, but the MoD was keen to dismiss these as unauthorized and the work of low-level officers once the story the pages of the daily newspapers. At an air show several weeks later, Grumman asked the defence editor of the British weekly magazine Flight International if in his opinion the RAF was really interested in Tomcat. The company was faced with the decision on whether it should invest significant time and effort in chasing a possible sale. ‘It’s funny you should ask me that—I was about to ask you the same question!’ he replied. ‘The fact that you are asking me answers it, I think.’
For a while the run-down state of the RAF was considered headline news, but eventually it sank into obscurity. Tornado ADV would be in service by 1982, perhaps 1983, so the ‘fighter gap’ would only last for a few more years. No slippage in ADV timescale would be tolerated, Richardson was assured in 1979 by a Conservative politician. If Panavia could not deliver the goods on time, the Government would consider buying US fighters. He may have believed that the threat to ‘buy US’ could be used to keep the ADV programme up to speed, but that was not the case. Maintaining timescales is not something that Europe’s ailing aircraft manufacturers are very good at.
By June 1985 Tornado was still not in squadron service and the only US fighters ordered in the interim were a batch of ex-US Navy F-4J Phantoms taken into service to make up for the stationing of Spey-engined Phantoms in the Falklands after the 1982 conflict with Argentina.
Photo credit: Digital Combat Simulator and Cpl Paul Saxby Crown Copyright