The United States Navy retired the venerable Grumman F-14 Tomcat in 2006 after more than three decades in service. However, the Tomcat’s demise has left gaps in the carrier air wing that are only now being felt.
With the end of the Cold War and declining budgets, the Navy simply could not afford to keep the incredibly maintenance intensive and unreliable Tomcat on the carrier flight deck. Moreover, with the demise of the Soviet threat, the Tomcat’s primary mission of fleet defense has fallen by the wayside and the venerable jet was increasingly used in the strike role. But while the F-14 proved to be a competent strike aircraft, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was superior in most respects to the aging Tomcat as a strike fighter in the post-Cold War era. Particularly, the Super Hornet was far more reliable and cost effective—and with its much more modern avionics, it was mostly a more capable aircraft. However, there are still some gaps that the Super Hornet could not fill.
While the Super Hornet with its exceptional Raytheon AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar, Harris AN/ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Electronic Countermeasures (IDECM) Block IV system, advanced datalinks and other systems is a potent war machine, the F/A-18E/F has two weaknesses that the Navy has to address for the future which the service divested with the retirement of the Tomcat. Those two factors are range and speed—both of which the Super Hornet falls short on as new threats emerge in Western Pacific and the North Atlantic.
The Navy gave up the sheer speed and the range of the Tomcat because the service did not have to contend with the prospect of fending off hordes of Soviet Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bombers and their cruise missiles in the post-Soviet era. The F-14, of course, was originally the linchpin of the Navy’s Outer Air Battle concept that was designed to prevent a Soviet bomber force from destroying a carrier battle group. While that threat more or less evaporated after 1991, it is starting to reemerge as China rises and Russia reasserts itself on the world stage.
China is building a potent air launched anti-ship cruise missiles along with aircraft to carry those weapons. Meanwhile, the once-dormant Russian bomber force is back —though not in the numbers of the Soviet era. Moreover, with the emergence of new adversary stealth aircraft —some of which have the capability to fly very high and very fast—which are also armed with cruise missiles, the Navy will need the range and speed that the Tomcat offered to fend off those threats. The F/A-18E/F can do the job—but only to an extent.
Indeed, the Navy is looking at a platform or platforms—potentially a family of systems—that will offer greatly increased speed and range compared to the Super Hornet for its Next Generation Air Dominance study to replace the F/A-18E/F after 2040. “I tend to think of it not only as range, but as reach; not only how far my airplane flies, but how far do my weapons go on top of that,” Capt. Richard Brophy, who heads the Chief of Naval Operations N98 air warfare division’s NGAD Analysis of Alternatives team, said last year during a panel at the Office of Naval Research’s science and technology expo. “Reach also gets into propulsion, and when we look at propulsion, I’m looking for efficiency. The longer I can fly without having to go get gas, the better.”
While speed and range are priorities, the Navy remains skeptical of stealth technology as it always has. “We certainly need survivability. Stealth is just one piece of the survivability equation,” Brophy said. “I kind of look at stealth as sort of like chaff and flares. It’s not going to defeat [the enemy] every time, but it will help. Stealth is part of what any future design — if you look at any country, they’re going that way. So yes, it would probably be part of it.”
Thus, the successor to the Super Hornet could have capabilities that resemble the F-14 Tomcat in terms of speed and range. However, the similarities will likely end there. The Tomcat was an antiquated and unreliable beast in the late 1980s and it simply was not up to par during the 1990s and the early 2000s in terms of its avionics. New sensor, data-link and propulsion technologies—along with developments such as artificial intelligence—means that while a future NGAD aircraft might fill some of the gaps left behind by the F-14, it will not be a Tomcat.