Grumman F-14 Tomcat
Swing-Wing, Carrierborne Fleet Defense Fighter
Born from the aborted F-111B naval initiative, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat proved itself the naval interceptor-of-choice during the latter stages of the Cold War.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The Grumman F-14 "Tomcat" was the quintessential United States Navy (USN) fleet defense interceptor of the latter Cold War years. Its existence was brought about largely due to the demise of the failed F-111B initiative, a carrier-based version of the large General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" swing-wing fighter-bomber. The B-model was intended to succeed the storied (though aging) McDonnell Douglas F-4 "Phantom II" line but the ballooning endeavor fell to naught, leaving the USN without a suitable replacement. Grumman, already having worked under the General Dynamics banner on the F-111B project, took on a private venture role in developing a future fleet defense fighter for possible sale to the USN. One of the resulting designs became company model "G-303" and, when presented to the USN, beat out a competing submission from McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft fell under the new project acronym of "VFX" ("Naval Fighter Experimental").
VFX called for an aircraft platform with enhanced agility (when compared to the outgoing fleet of F-4 Phantoms). Additionally, it was to serve beyond the interception role and provide its crew with air combat capabilities that the F-111B was never going to match for it proved an overweight, underperforming system at its core. The aircraft would utilize a crew of two (as in the F-111) to help spread the workload and operate the powerful onboard radar, weapons, and general missions systems. The radar of choice became the AWG-9 X-band pulse Doppler radar system for very-long-range search and tracking functionality for engagement of aerial targets - aircraft or cruise missiles. The system offered a range out to 170 nautical miles which provided the aircraft a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) attack capability. In this way, the crew could fire on targets before the enemy ever registered the aircraft on radar. The radar itself was an in-development solution for the proposed, though ultimately abandoned, F-111B. The radar-guided Hughes AIM-54 "Phoenix" - the "Million Dollar Missile" - provided a new, long-range air-to-air missile threat and become the aircraft's primary weapon. It was also initially developed for the F-111B program. Power to the airframe would be served from a twin-engine, side-by-side arrangement through Pratt & Whitney TF30 afterburning turbofans - engines also slated for the failed F-111B. The Grumman product was granted the USN designation of "F-14" continuing the storied relationship between the service branch and the carrier-based fighter concern that stretched back to the days of World War 2 and the F4F "Wildcat" fighter.
Doing away with a typical prototype phase, the F-14 was placed into direct development as soon as possible to help avoid bureaucratic interference and stall eventual production. The United States Marine Corps (USMC) also took an interest in the program as they too showcased a fleet of aging F-4s that would also need replacement in the near-future. An initial flyable airframe recorded its first flight on December 21st, 1970.
The F-14 was designed from the outset as a carrier-based fighter - unlike the F-111B which was born from a land-based fighter-bomber airframe. The F-14 did, however, retain many of the qualities and components inherent in the F-111B such as the "swing-wing", variable geometry wing assemblies, radar system with long-range missile support, two-man crew, and twin-engine layout.
Externally, the aircraft proved one of the more elegant designs of the latter Cold War years with smooth contours and a highly identifiable profile from any angle. The radar system sat under a traditional nose cone at front with the tandem, two-seat cockpit fitted just aft. The cockpit sat under a single-piece, rear-hinged canopy which provided excellent all-around vision. The pilot was seated in front with the radar operator (RIO - Radar Intercept Officer) at rear (flight control systems - namely the stick and throttle - were not duplicated in the rear cockpit). A broad fuselage surface shrouded the complex swing-wing control systems seated above the twin intake ducts. The ductwork aspirated the well-spaced twin-engine configuration which saw a pair of vertical fins fitted to each engine nacelle at rear ahead of the jet pipes. The swing-wings could be fully extended for low-speed, low-altitude flight and "tucked in" when high-speed flight was the order of the day. Standard horizontal tail-planes (all-moving) were fitted at each engine housing side. The undercarriage was of a reinforced design for the rigors of carrier operations and included two single-wheeled main legs and a dual-wheeled nose leg. A tail hook allowed the aircraft to snag a deck cable to shorten its landing run.
Variable geometry wings have been used in several notable designs throughout modern military aviation history and were being actively researched as far back as World War 2. Primary examples became the aforementioned F-111, the European consortium Panavia Tornado strike platform, and the Soviet Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23/27 "Flogger" fighter-bomber. This feature would allow an in-flight aircraft to adjust its wing angle on-the-fly to suit the desired action. The F-14 adopted a swing-wing feature that gave it sweeps of 20-degrees to 68-degrees and primarily managed by an onboard computer (with manual override possible). The wing design made the F-14 an iconic fighter of the Cold War years - further popularized by its featured role in the Tom Cruise motion picture "Top Gun" which also served as a great USN recruiting tool.
Initial Tomcat production models became the F-14A, first flying on December 21st, 1970. The line formally began to replace F-4s on September 22nd, 1974 though the initial dozen aircraft were classified as pre-production models more akin to prototypes than production quality forms. USN squadrons VF-1 and VF-2 were the first F-14 operators and served on USS Enterprise (CVN-65). In all, 557 F-14As were delivered with 478 to USN ownership. The remaining seventy-nine were shipped to then-ally Iran at a time when the two nations maintained something of a working relationship.
Power to these early aircraft was from 2 x Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-412 turbofan engines providing for a maximum speed of Mach 2.4, a rate-of-climb of 30,000 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, and a combat radius of 665 nautical miles with full missile load. The last 102 F-14A models were instead fitted with the newer TF30-P-414A model engines.
In service, F-14s were charged with the broad role of fleet defense and its missions generally centered around Combat Air Patrol (CAP) - the seeking out and engagement of incoming enemy aerial threats at range before they could do damage to the fleet. To deal with the threat, the F-14 could manage a full combat load of up to six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles for long-range work, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles for short-range work, and a 20mm M61 Vulcan internal cannon for extreme-close range service. The AIM-7 Sparrow could also be carried as a medium-range solution to better balance the attack potential of the aircraft. There proved ten hardpoints in play - six under the fuselage mass, two under the engine nacelles, and two under the wing "gloves". Two hardpoints supported external fuel tanks for even more extended operational ranges. Performance, agility, and the onboard radar coupled to this armament and support from Command-and-Control aircraft made the F-14 the preeminent interceptor of its day while its carrier-based nature gave it access to all points on the globe. As the ground-attack functionality of the F-14 did not materialize in time, the USMC moved away from its interest in the aircraft as its F-4 replacement.
The F-14A was to be improved with the proposed "F-14B" model and its Pratt & Whitney F401-P-400 turbofan engines but this mark was cancelled due to budget constraints. Instead, work progressed on the "F-14A+" (also "F-14 Plus") of 1987 in which the original Pratt & Whitney engines were dropped in favor of the better-performing General Electric GE F110-GE400 series turbofan. The original P&W engines held a penchant for blade failures and were generally regarded as underpowered for the aircraft and its carrier-based nature, requiring much power on take-off and climb-to-altitude. The F-14+ first went airborne in September of 1986 and the USN took on a new-build stock of 38 of the type and added a further 48 F-14A variants modified to the new standard. To add confusion, the USN eventually updated the F-14A+ designation to become "F-14B". Other changes to the mark included an all-new threat receiver system and lengthened jet pipes. The changes produced a much-improved carrier interceptor with added range.
The F-14C was a proposed multi-mission platform but this initiative fell to naught. This led the improved F-14D production models instead - the definitive mark of the line though limited mainly in the numbers procured. The aircraft appeared in 1991 and were given the General Electric GE F110-400 series turbofan engines as in the F-14B but bettering the previous mark by adoption of digital cockpits, digital avionics, and radar processing. The digital form of the original AWG-9 radar now became the AN/APG-71 series. A pair of Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) pods were added under the nose and the Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) unit was improved. Ejection seats were updated to the "Naval Aircrew Common Ejection Seat" (NACES) standard. Thirty-seven F-14D models were manufactured by Grumman and 18 more were updated to the standard from existing F-14A airframes - again due to budget constraints as 127 D-models were originally sought by the USN). In 2005, F-14D models were given the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) system which provided ground commanders an "eye-in-the-sky" capability for improved Close-Air Support (CAS) work.
Power for D-models were from 2 x General Electric F110-GE-400 turbofan engines which provided 13,810lb thrust on dry and 27,800lb thrust with afterburner engaged. Performance included a top speed of Mach 2.34 with a combat radius out to 500 nautical miles and a ferry range of 1,600 nautical miles. Rate-of-climb was 45,000 feet per minute with a service ceiling just above 50,000 feet.
Despite the various modernization initiatives, the F-14 was an interceptor born from work begun in the 1960s. By 2006, it had seen its best days as battlefield technology surpassed its design and enemy tactics shifted the focus away from thoroughbred interceptors to missile defense instead. As such, the F-14 was retired from USN service in 2006, ending the stellar career of the one of the finest naval interceptors to ever grace the skies. The F-14 was formally replaced by the McDonnell Douglas / Boeing F/A-18 "Super Hornet" in the same fleet defense role - though this platform also added a proven air-to-ground attack capability that the F-14 lacked.
The F-14B was eventually modernized in the latter half of the 1990s to support air-to-ground strike work and this produced the working nickname of "Bombcat". The move was brought about to tighten the gap created by the retirement of the Grumman A-6 Intruder strike fleet. Bombcats were cleared to carry the LANTIRN ("Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night") low-altitude/low-light/all-weather laser designator pod (under the right wing unit) to be used in conjunction with precision-guided drop ordnance and saw only limited combat use by the end of the aircraft's service tenure.
Iran became the only foreign operator of the F-14 and continues its support to this day (2014). These represent F-14A models and serve across the 81st and 82nd Tactical Fighter Squadrons of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). As Iran does not have a carrier fleet, the F-14s are used in a land-based, air defense role. The aircraft were obtained by the Islamist regional power through the relationship held between the last "Shah" and the United States (under then-President Richard Nixon) prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which severely soured the partnership. Iran was offered access to current American military equipment of the time and selected the F-14 to shore up its interceptor fleet for possible use against neighboring Iraqi marauders and Soviet spy flights - the model was selected ahead of the competing McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, engines, support, and training were all also part of the U.S.-Iran agreement (though sensitive avionics components were not). The first F-14 was delivered to the Iranians in January of 1976.
Despite the F-14 being a largely American weapons platform, the highest scoring Tomcat ace became Iranian Jalil Zandi who served during the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and managed eleven kills. Iranian authorities have hinted that their F-14s have been modernized with Iranian equipment to keep them viable after all of these decades and a refusal by Washington to sell any support hardware to the Iranians (an 80th F-14A Tomcat was originally scheduled for delivery to Iran but absorbed into the USN fleet after the fall of the Shah).
In combat service, the F-14 did not disappoint. Early use in American hands saw it claim a pair of Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter aircraft in 1981 (the "Gulf of Sidra Incident") and, later, two more Libyan Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger fighters in 1989. Iranian Tomcats netted an Iraqi Mil Mi-25 helicopter in 1980 to earn their first Tomcat-based kill and managed the downing of several Soviet-originated aircraft against Iraq in their decades-long war of attrition. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, USN F-14s split the CAP role with USAF F-15 fighters in the grand campaign that reduced the "Fourth Largest Army in the World" to ashes and ultimate retreat - also marked as the world's first "Digital War". They also undertook reconnaissance sorties to aid incoming waves of allied strike fighters and bombers. USN Tomcats then served under the NATO banner over the Balkans (Bosnia) in the tumultuous regional conflicts there where Bombcats could lay down precision munitions upon enemy targets for the first time. Its last operational sorties were conducted during the early stages of the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq before retirement in 2006.
Total F-14 production by Grumman yielded 712 aircraft and these were manufactured from the period of 1969 to 1991. Non-combat attrition proved relatively high for the series in that some 160 were lost in accidents alone. Many preserved F-14 Tomcats are showcased at outdoor and indoor displays across the United States today.
In May of 2015, an Iranian military parade revealed the Fakour-90 long-range air-to-air missile based highly on the Raytheon AIM-54A Phoenix. These missiles will be operated from the active Iranian F-14 stock. The AIM-23 Sejil is another weapon based on an American product (the MIM-23) that is slated for use on the F-14 fleet.