The RAF F-14 Tomcat Fighter Jets that Never Were

In late 1970s the British MoD concluded that the F-14 was the only fighter that could meet Britain’s defence needs but RAF never bought the Tomcat. Here’s why.

By Dario Leone
Jan 1 2023
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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.

RAF F-14s
RAF F-14B Tomcats (DCS)

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.

Tornado ADVs
RAF Tornado ADVs

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.’

VF-84 F-14 print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14A Tomcat VF-84 Jolly Rogers, AJ200 / 160393 / 1977

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

F-14 model
This Model is Available from AirModels! CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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Comments

  1. Blox says:

    That would have been a really wise purchase too and maybe we could’ve seen the tomcats around for longer.

  2. DavidR says:

    It is interesting to speculate if the RAF and/or the RN would have considered the Tomcat if delays and cost overruns had taken their toll on the Tornado program.
    By the late 1970s, the RAFand RN Phantoms were falling victim to age and attrition.
    Another question might be: Would the West Germans have considered the Tomcat for the Luftwaffe and the Marineflieger?

  3. KenRu says:

    No purchases were made likely because it was less costly to allow the US to establish a base or presence in the local and put US aircraft there at the US expense.

  4. F4phantom_nut says:

    If the RAF was in such bad shape at that time then it was surely due to underinvestment as the article suggests. Which means they wouldn’t have had the money to buy ANYTHING, let alone foreign fighters and their associated training and maintenance. That was definitely a dangerous gamble the UK government took. Too bad there wasn’t a RENT-A-FIGHTER program they could take advantage of to supply planes and associated maintenance while awaiting the Tornado.

  5. Geoff Chilton says:

    @KenRu the reason we “made no purchases” of the F-14 is because we neither wanted nor needed the F-14 – it was ludicrously overpriced and not fit for purpose. The only reason it got so much as a mention in Whitehall is because of the three modern fighters the US were pushing for export at the time, the F-15 and F-16 were entirely useless for our needs, which made the F-14 the least bad option because it was only mostly useless. What we needed at that point was the Tornado ADV fitted with our own uprated engines and avionics, which is exactly what we bought. As for the other thing (and you really do need a reality check on that “USA Global Hero” thing you’ve got going on), at that time the USAF had been paying billions of dollars to rent airfields in the UK for more than two decades as it was the only way for them to have a meaningful fast jet presence in Europe. Whilst I’m sure you believe that allied nations should gift reparations to the USAF just for existing, I’d be fascinated to hear more about these F-14s which you think were based here…

  6. Kevine says:

    The Tomcat was a carrier based aircraft with those limitations. The RAF had experienced the limitations of carrier aircraft with the accusation of the Phantom 1 from the Ark Royal. The Tornado ADV was actually pretty much on time , however the radar system had major problems. This did not stop the pilots getting experience in flying the ADV but not much to do for the weapons controllers in the back seat . The early ADVs were fitted with concrete ballast in place of the radar for weight and balance. The aircraft were called Blue Circle Airways after the name of a popular concrete company based in northern England. I was fortunate to work on Lightning Phantom Tornado ADV and Tornado GR aircraft.

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