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The F-14 Tomcat
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 that automatically shifted in flight from 28 to 60 degrees sweep for optimum performance at any speed and gave the Tomcat a combat maneuvering capability that could not have been achieved with a “standard” fixed planform wing.
Despite all these capabilities that made of the Tomcat a lethal dogfighter, the F-14 is usually remembered for having been the ultimate US Navy fleet defender.
More than “just a fleet defender”
But, as explained by Rear Admiral (USN, Ret.) Paul T. Gillcrist in his book Crusader! Last of the Gunfighters, the iconic F-14 Tomcat was much more than “just a fleet defender.”
‘As a flag officer in the Pentagon in the early 1980s I spent, it seems, an inordinate amount of time trying to ‘en convince people (principally Navy people) to stop using the expression “fleet air defense” when talking about Navy fighter airplanes. The expression, however accurate, invited the listener to draw the inference that the fleet needed protection before it could go about its business of sinking other ships, shooting down airplanes, wrecking things, killing people and, in general, punishing the enemy.
‘The next logical step in calling the expensive F-14 weapons system a “fleet air defense” fighter, is to question the logic of buying expensive battle groups if, in fact, they needed so much expensive protection before they can be put to use in serving the national interests of the United States. The U.S. Navy has had a running battle with certain elements in our government (DoD, the Congress and the other armed services) over the last twenty-five years or more over whether we need carrier battle forces in the first place.
‘So, as OP-50, I spent a great deal of my time entreating other senior naval officers to use instead, the expression “maritime air superiority.”
F-15 Vs F-14
‘That was before I learned about the incident with the Shah of Iran. It seems that in the early 1970s the Shah of Iran was shopping for a great many weapons systems for his own defense establishment. He bought brand new, gold-plated DD-963 class (Ayatollah Class as they came to be called later) destroyers and all sorts of airplanes. Included in his shopping list was a new fighter to replace their aging force of F-4 Phantom IIs. Naturally, the Navy was interested in showing him our new F-14 Tomcat; and the Air Force was interested in showing him their new F-15 Eagle.
‘Since the Imperial Iranian Air Force flew the U.S. Air Force version of the Phantom II; and since they were ha organized after the fashion of the U.S. Air Force, it is understandable that the IIAF would favor the F-15, over the F-14 … which they did. Furthermore, they made no in bones about it!
‘However, the Navy’s F-14 was just a little farther along in the development process than the F-15 which permitted the Navy to show their airplane be off a bit more. But, there was a showdown at Andrews Air Force Base where the two airplanes put on back-to-back flight demonstrations, observed, of course, by the Shah, himself. In all honesty, the F-14 aircrew outdid the F-15 pilot more in showmanship than in sheer airplane performance.
F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter, F-14 Tomcat air supremacy fighter
‘Of course, the Shah was a very intelligent man and knew the benefits which an F-14/AWG-9/PHOENIX system would provide in defending the borders of his over country from Soviet overflights by MiG-25s. He made his decision in a carefully crafted speech to the Navy and Air Force participants. He told them his country needed an air superiority fighter such as the F-15. (This, of course made the U.S. Air Force participants almost wet their pants). Then he deflated them by adding that his country also needed an air supremacy fighter such as the Navy’s F-14!
‘Ever since then I have used the expression “maritime air supremacy” in describing the mission of a Navy fighter. So, whether we are talking about the airspace over a battlefield, or deep behind enemy lines or even over the open ocean in the vicinity of a carrier battle force, the Navy fighter needs to achieve and maintain air supremacy for as long as is necessary to get the job done!
‘The Air Force’s mission is considerably different. It has the mechanism in place to replace its attrition fighter forces much more easily than the Navy can. The carrier battle force must be more autonomous and self-sustaining. Its attrition fighter forces may not be so easy to replace. Therefore, it needs to be so much better than any forecast enemy fighter force that the exchange ratios will be concomitantly high, negating the need to do any substantial turnover of replacement hardware during the brief prosecution of the mission. The Navy’s fighter force must consist of maritime air supremacy platforms.’
Crusader! Last of the Gunfighters is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force