The Tomcat has its early roots in the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. Seeking to cut development costs and to streamline production chains, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara laid plans to procure a joint fighter for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Against the wishes of the Navy, the TFX program produced the ill-fated General Dynamics F-111B attack aircraft, a long-range interceptor plagued by excessive weight and landing mechanism problems. The F-111B project was cut short by 1968 and the Navy was given the green light to develop a two-seat, twin-engine air superiority fighter better suited to its mission parameters.
The first of the prolific “teen series” fighters that also included the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, the F-14 Tomcat was designed to incorporate the air combat lessons learned from the poor service record of the F-4 Phantom II during the Vietnam War years, particularly against the fighters in the formidable Soviet MiG catalog (and to more effectively engage Soviet bombers like the Tu-22). As noted in a deeply insightful 2014 lecture by Northrop Grumman VP Mike Ciminera, the uphill struggles of the TFX program were not completely for naught—the F-111's many design deficiencies provided crucial engineering experience that helped mold the Tomcat into the well-rounded naval aviation fighter that it proved itself to be over its three decades of service.
The F-14 Tomcat was first deployed in 1974 aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, as part of the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon. The fighter featured a host of improvements over its F-4 predecessor, including an integrated M61 Vulcan cannon for additional flexibility in dogfights. At top speeds approaching Mach 2.4, the Tomcat could capably fulfill the Navy’s requirement for a fast-flying interceptor; it was also markedly more agile than the F-4, which, despite its massively powerful J79 twin engines, was not known for its stellar aerodynamic performance.
The F-14's versatile armament suite, spread across ten hardpoints, allowed it to perform both long-range interception and air superiority missions. The fighter's potent AN/AWG-9 radar complements its long-range Phoenix AIM-54A missiles, giving it the ability to threaten high-value aerial targets at a range over 100 miles. Meanwhile, its AIM-7 and AIM-9 medium and short-range missile loadout made it well-suited for an attack escort role.
The Tomcat drew its first blood during the Gulf of Sidra incident, in which two F-14's destroyed two Sukhoi Su-22s belonging to the Libyan Air Force. The F-14 continued to see regular use throughout the 1990s and 2000s as a strike escort, and reconnaissance and surveillance platform, taking part in Operation Desert Storm, the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, and the Iraq War. But the title of all-time most successful F-14 pilot goes to Iranian ace of aces Jalil Zandi, who is credited with downing as many as 11 Iraqi aircraft during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
The F-14B revision, introduced in 1987, brought an updated engine and partially enhanced avionics. The final F-14 variant, the F-14D, incorporated a glass cockpit as well as a slew of new and updated electronic warfare and targeting systems.
Upwards of seven hundred F-14 models were produced through the early 1990s. The Tomcat was formally retired in 2006 following a final strike mission over Iraq, capping off the career of one of the most iconic fighters in U.S. naval aviation history.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.