US Naval Aviators explain why "a mixed division of F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets was devastating in aerial engagements"

US Naval Aviators explain why “a mixed division of F-14 Tomcats and F/A-18 Hornets was devastating in aerial engagements”

By Dario Leone
Jan 21 2022
Sponsored by: Schiffer Military
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With its excellent fighter and self-defense capabilities, the F/A-18 at the same time increased strike mission survivability and supplemented the F-14 Tomcat in fleet air defense.

During the mid-1970s, TOPGUN welcomed the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Roughly ten years later, the NFWS again introduced a new fighter, this time the dual-mission McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.

Perhaps the most widely recognized Navy fighter thanks to its starring role in the original Top Gun, the F-14 Tomcat served as an advanced interceptor and air superiority fighter.

Equipped with a weapon control system that enabled the aircraft’s crew to track 24 hostile targets at a range of 195 miles and attack six simultaneously with AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, deliveries to the Navy began in June 1972 with deployment of operational carrier squadrons in 1975. The F-14 made a brief appearance over Vietnam, flying protective patrols for helicopters effecting the final evacuation of American personnel and foreign nationals from Saigon with no opposition from enemy fighters. The Middle East was destined to become the scene of the Tomcat’s combat initiation during encounters with Libyan fighters during the 1980s. The aircraft also proved an outstanding air-to-ground platform employing a capability present from the initial design work, but rarely employed. At peak employment, thirty Navy squadrons operated F-14s. Tomcats flew combat missions during the Gulf War and in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 until the F-14’s retirement in 2006.

Did you know in the early 1990s US Navy F/A-18 pilots lost every 1v1 dogfight against the F-14 because they flew the Hornet like a “supersonic A-7?”

The F/A-18 Hornet instead is US first strike-fighter. It was designed for traditional strike applications such as interdiction and close air support without compromising its fighter capabilities.

“The F-14 was designed for fleet defense during the Cold-War scenario of Soviet bombers attacking the carrier strike group,” says Vincent Aiello (call sign: Jell-O), the host of the Fighter Pilot Podcast and a former F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet pilot and TOPGUN instructor. The F/A-18, on the other hand, was designed to “be good at a myriad of things.”

While the Tomcat was powerful, the Hornet was more agile.

VFA-34 F/A-18C Print
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With its excellent fighter and self-defense capabilities, the F/A-18 at the same time increased strike mission survivability and supplemented the F-14 Tomcat in fleet air defense.

As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, when the first F/A-18s arrived at TOPGUN in fact, “new mixed-section tactics were experimented with that saw a Hornet and Tomcat flying together.” Elward explained, “ The first dedicated mixed Tomcat/Hornet section came through TOPGUN in Class 03-84, said Tom Trotter, who later served as TOPGUN’s commanding officer. Trotter, a former Tomcat pilot who had gone through the Power Projection course while flying the F/A-18A with VFA-113, had been paired with a Tomcat crew from VX-4. Flying what were called “T-bone Tactics; the Tomcat/Hornet mix allowed each aircraft to use the advantages of their respective radars to provide even-better coverage against air-to-air threats, and reflected the fact that there were only a limited number of aircraft on the carrier deck and that Tomcats and Hornets would need to learn to fly together.”

Elward’s book continues:

TOPGUN Cover
TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to ORDER HERE.

“Dave Martin, who was in Class 03-84 with Trotter, said, “When we moved on to multiple engagements with three F/A-18s and the F-14 in a multiaircraft engagement, I think it was an eye-opening experience for all of us to see just how devastating a mixed division could be using the capabilities of both of those airplanes.” Martin added, “We were seeing things that had never been seen before. We had never mixed divisions of F-14s with any other aircraft.” Martin said that the Tomcat “had been the air superiority aircraft of all time up to that point, and it was still number one for my ‘reach out long distances and kill something’ aircraft. But once we got engaged in a closer environment, say 25 miles and in, the F/A-18 really showed its capabilities.””

According to Elward, who spoke with The Aviation Geek Club for this article, “The Tomcat and Hornet were also effective team players during the 1990s, when the F/A-18C Hornets frequently flew in mixed sections with F-14s on strike missions. The F-14s provided target illumination using the Tomcat’s LANTIRN laser designators, which were superior to the Hornet’s AAS-38A/B Nite Hawk pods. Hornets would carry a mix of laser-guided munitions such as the GBU-12 (500-lb) and GBU-16 (1,000-lb), while the Tomcat served as a Forward Air Controller-Airborne (FAC(A)) and located and designated targets.” This utilization continued into the 2000s during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, until sufficient numbers of the more advanced (and reliable) ASQ-228 became available.

Photo credit: Lt. Cmdr. Donald Breen / U.S. Navy

F-14 model
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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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