Why the Navy Chose the F/A-18E Hornet over the F-14 Tomcat
The Tomcat is one of the U.S. fighters that has seen the most sustained and intense air-to-air combat of its generation.
Sixty-five F-14s were upgraded to use Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod Systems (TARPS), transforming them into capable photo reconnaissance platforms that replaced the RF-8 and RA-3 recon aircraft then retiring from service. Tomcats with TARPS played a central in Navy reconnaissance gathering in the 1980s and 1990s. On several occasions they had to dodge surface-to-air missiles lobbed at them, the first of which involved a Somali SA-2 mistakenly fired in 1983.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Navy Tomcats largely missed out on the combat. Relegated to patrol duties, the F-14s lacked systems to definitively confirm the identity of hostile aircraft at long range and were hampered by a lack of coordination between the Navy and Central Command. Iraqi fighters also shied away from engagements with Tomcats. The Tomcat’s only aerial victory in the war, and the last it achieved in U.S. service, was a hapless Iraqi Mi-8 transport helicopter. One Tomcat did get shot down by an old Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile, however; one of the crew was rescued and other was captured and released at the end of the conflict.
With the passing of the Cold War, massive aerial battles no longer seemed to be on the table, and a pure air-superiority airplane was suddenly short on stuff to do. Tomcats did patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq and Yugoslavia and escorted bombers during Operation Desert Fox. However, the Navy began modifying Tomcats to serve in the ground-attack role by mounting LANTIRN pods equipped with a targeting laser. Tomcats performed their first bombing mission over Bosnia to in 1995, and later made additional airstrikes over Iraq and Yugoslavia.
In their final two wars, the intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Navy Tomcats dropped hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs, including GPS-guided JDAMs. In the latter conflict, Tomcats provided air support for a mixed force of Kurdish peshmerga fighters and U.S. Special Forces that defeated a company of Iraqi armor in the Battle of Debecka Pass—though tragically, a target misidentified from the ground led the F-14s to accidentally kill many peshmerga fighters. Other targets hit by F-14s included the Salman Pak radio relay transmitter facility used by the Iraqi propaganda ministry and Saddam Hussein’s personal yacht.
An F-14 flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt flew the Tomcat’s last combat mission in 2006, striking a target in Iraq with a laser-guided bomb. That September, the Tomcat was retired from U.S. service in favor of FA-18E/F Super Hornet.
As for the Tomcat’s Phoenix missile, only three were ever fired in combat by the American F-14s—against Iraqi MiG-25s violating the no-fly zone in 1999. All of them missed. Five years later, the potent but expensive weapon was withdrawn from service, as the threat posed by massive armadas of Soviet bombers had long passed away and the cheaper AIM-120 can largely fulfill the same role. Besides, these days, the U.S. Navy’s carrier nightmare comes most of all from land-based missiles.
Iran’s Top Fighter
Reading the Tomcat’s American service record would suggest the plane was only involved in a modest number of aerial clashes. In fact, the opposite is true.
Let’s rewind back to the 1970s. The American government is best buddies with the oppressive shah ruling Iran. The shah sees a demonstration of the F-14 and the F-15 Eagle—and decides the Tomcats are awesome, especially as pesky Iraqi MiG-25s are regularly overflying the country on reconnaissance missions and outrunning everything thrown at them. A total of seventy-eight state-of-art fighters are delivered to Iran between 1976 and 1979, as well as a hundred Phoenix Missiles.
Of course, American-Iranian relations get very awkward after the shah is overthrown, with harsh words such as “Great Satan” being spoken and hostages taken in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But the Tomcats remained—except for one the U.S. never delivered—even if the advanced fighters no longer received spare parts and technical support from the United States and fell into disrepair.
Canada even attempted to buy them all back from Iran at bargain price. But remember the movie Argo about how Canada helped some of the U.S. embassy staff slip out of Iran? Yeah . . . the Iranians got wind of that, and that’s why you don’t have Canadian Tomcats.
Tehran soon had cause to be relieved that the Argo incident nixed the sale, because shortly thereafter they were invaded by Iraq in a massive war that lasted nine years and is estimated to have caused one million military and civilian deaths on both sides. The Iranian Tomcats were deployed to defend Iranian airspace, and proved vastly superior to Iraqi MiGs, Su-20s and Mirages.
The Tomcat’s radar proved so powerful that the Iranian Air Force actually used it as a sort of improvised AWACs plane in the backfield that identified hostile attackers and directed friendly aircraft to intercept them—while contributing its own long-range missiles into the mix. At first the Iranian Air Force could only get a dozen or so of its F-14s into the air, and was forced to cannibalize the remaining aircraft for spare parts. However, during the infamous Iran-Contra Affair, the U.S. secretly funneled additional spare parts for Tomcats to Iran in exchange for promises from Iran to help release U.S. hostages, leading to an increase in the number of operational Tomcats.
Aviation historian Tom Cooper attributes over 160 aerial victories to Iranian F-14s in his definitive book, which is based on interviews with Iranian pilots. Unsurprisingly, Iraqi sources claim their losses were much lower, and the actual kill totals remain mired in controversy.
However, it is clear that the Iranian Tomcats scored at a minimum dozens of aerial victories and far outclassed their opponents. Iranian Tomcats even appear to have shot down several super-fast MiG-25s, which could fly up to Mach 3, and speedy Tu-22 bombers. Iraqi fighters were even instructed to disengage if confronted by Iranian F-14s. Iran’s top ace from the war, Jalil Zandi, reportedly scored eleven kills.
Iran also used Phoenix missiles during the conflict—in fact, at the beginning, the Iranian F-14s were only capable of using the advanced missiles. The U.S. Navy, concerned about potential conflict with Iran, scrambled to develop countermeasures against its own Phoenix missiles. Iran resorted to clandestine black-market purchases to acquire additional batteries for the missiles and later hotwired their F-14s to use Sidewinders and Sparrows.
Iran also attempted to mount Russian R-27 missiles on the Tomcat, though that didn’t work out. Four Iranian Tomcats were converted to drop bombs, however. Once, one even dropped an enormous seven-thousand-pound bomb on Iraqi troops—though it missed.
Cooper’s book maintains only seven Tomcats were lost in action—several of them from friendly fire. (Iraq initially claimed more than seventy shot down!) An eighth plane defected to Iraq and was shipped to the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, Iraq acquired more capable MiG-29 and Mirage F-1EQ fighters armed with Magic 2 missiles. Though Iranian F-14s never encountered the former, they did duel frequently with the latter. The Mirages reportedly shot down three F-14s, while thirty-three of the F.1s were shot down in return.
Iran still flies Tomcats today, despite the immense challenge of maintaining them in serviceable condition without spare parts. Iran has had to rely on black-market purchases to circumvent the U.S. arms embargo, and continues to succeed in obtaining parts despite U.S. legislation drafted in 2008 specifically intended to bring a halt to the trade. Iran has also developed its own domestic technologies to keep their F-14s operational, including wiring them to use new radars and deadly Russian R-73 missiles. Heck, Iran even has its own Top Gun miniseries!
How many Iranian F-14s in flyable condition is unclear, with figures offered ranging from a few dozen to as many as forty. For years, F-14s played a major role in intercepting and chasing off U.S. drones spying on Iranian nuclear facilities such as Bushehr. Recently, an Iranian F-14 was filmed escorting a Russian Tu-95 bomber as it flew on its way to bomb targets in Syria.
Tomcats in Retirement
This brings us to the sad fate of the retired Navy F-14s. Initially placed in storage, the Tomcats were literally shredded and crushed so as to prevent them from serving as a source of spare parts for Iran.
The Tomcat entered service shortly before the F-15 Eagle, an aircraft poised to remain in service for years to come. Did the Tomcat need to go so early?
In fact, several different “Super Tomcats” were proposed to the Navy that would have thoroughly modernized the aging avionics and made it fully capable as a multirole fighter. One variant, the Attack Super Tomcat 21, would even have featured an advanced AESA radar, vector-thrust engines (the engines nozzles could change pitch to improve maneuverability), and the ability to supercruise at Mach 1.2—that is, sustain flight speeds over the speed of sound without using the afterburner.
However, the Navy chose instead to field the F-18E/F Super Hornet. The Hornet airframe was not quite as optimized for air-to-air combat, but still delivered excellent performance, was based on fly-by-wire technology, and cost less money and time to fly and maintain. The choice between investing in a Super Tomcat or fielding the Super Hornet inevitably involved a trade-off, and the Super Hornet simply came out ahead in the Navy’s calculus.