Grumman F-14 Tomcat (1970)

An F-14A of Fighter Squadron (VF) 111 ‘Sundowners’, assigned to the carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet, in the mid-1980s. The unit’s ‘sharkmouth’ motif is worn on the nose and the external fuel tanks, albeit in a toned-down format.

The early days of U.S. Navy Tomcat operations saw units wear flamboyant markings. Typical was this F-14A of VF-1 ‘Wolfpack’, on board USS Enterprise (CVN 65) in the mid-1970s.

The Tomcat’s variable-geometry outer wings are equipped with full-span leading edge slats and almost full-span trailing edge flaps. Front-section spoilers provide roll control.

The F-14 entered service as a dedicated carrier-based interceptor, built around a powerful fire-control system and long-range missiles. Following the end of the Cold War, the Tomcat was reborn as a multi-role fighter-bomber, and in this form saw out its career with combat duty over Afghanistan and Iraq.

The F-14 was born from the same specification that led to the abortive F-111B fleet defence fighter, and – like the General Dynamics product – the Tomcat included variable-geometry wings as well as the same powerplant and weapons system. However, the F-14 also made use of aerodynamic innovations tailored to ship-borne operations, including retractable foreplanes in the fixed portion of the wing leading edges, which served to prevent pitching when the wings were swept back.

The centrepiece of the F-14 was the Hughes AWG-9 radar and fire-control system, allied to 200km (125 mile) range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles (AAMs). As well as an internal 20mm (0.79in) rotary cannon, the Tomcat could be armed with short- and medium-range AAMs in the form of the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow, respectively. In the ‘Bombcat’ role that latterly became so important, the F-14 could lift a total of 6577kg (14,500lb) of ordnance, ultimately including laser- and satellite-guided bombs.

The first of a dozen YF-14A development aircraft took to the air in December 1970. The initial F-14A version entered service in 1972 and saw its first combat in U.S. Navy hands in August 1981 when examples shot down a pair of Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Mediterranean. In another action in January 1989, U.S. Navy Tomcats downed a pair of Libyan MiG-23s over the Gulf of Sidra.

Military operations directed at Libya using F-14s (1980–1989)

F-14s were involved in multiple U.S. military operations directed at Libya between 1980 and 1989. During this period, F-14s shot down four Libyan Air Force aircraft in two aerial engagements over the Mediterranean Sea.

On 21 September 1980, three F-14s from the Kennedy challenged eight Libyan fighters attempting to intercept a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane two hundred miles from the Libyan coast. The Libyans disengaged once confronted by the U.S. fighters.

In the summer of 1981, F-14s from VF-41 and VF-84 performed combat air patrols in support of Freedom of Navigation operations in the Gulf of Sidra. Thirty-five pairs of Libyan Air Force fighters and fighter-bombers were intercepted and driven away from the U.S. fleet by F-14s from the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and F-4 “Phantom IIs” from the USS Forrestal (CV-59) on the first day of operations. The following day, on 19 August 1981, two Libyan Su-22 “Fitters” opened fire on two VF-41 F-14As with an AA-2 “Atoll” missile. The missile failed to hit either of the F-14s and the American pilots destroyed both Libyan aircraft with AIM-9L “Sidewinder” missiles. These were the first aerial combat victories in U.S. Navy F-14s and the first for the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

From 24 July to 14 August 1983, F-14s assigned to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower were involved in Operation Arid Farmer, the code-name for U.S. military assistance to Sudan, Egypt and the government of Hissène Habré of Chad during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. F-14s performed combat air patrols over waters in and near the Gulf of Sidra during the operation. Several flights of Libyan fighters were intercepted with neither side opening fire.

F-14As from VF-102 came under fire from Libyan SA-5 surface-to-air missiles over the Gulf of Sidra during Freedom of Navigation exercises as part of Operation Attain Document on 24 March 1986. The missiles did not hit the F-14s. Later the same day, F-14As from VF-33 intercepted two Libyan MiG-25 “Foxbats” heading toward the U.S. naval force. The Libyans were outmaneuvered by the Tomcats, which got behind the MiG-25s, but the Americans did not receive permission to open fire. These events and several more surface-to-air missile launches prompted the U.S. Navy to initiate Operation Prairie Fire. F-14 Tomcats provided fighter cover during the operation.

On 15 April 1986, F-14s from VF-33, VF-102, VF-74 and VF-103 participated in Operation El Dorado Canyon, providing fighter cover for a series of air strikes against targets within Libya.

On 4 January 1989, two F-14As from VF-32 assigned to the USS John F. Kennedy shot down two Libyan MiG-23 “Floggers” off the coast of Libya. The Libyan fighters appeared to be maneuvering for a missile firing position when the Americans concluded they were under attack. The MiG-23s were shot down with AIM-7 “Sparrow” and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

Meanwhile, the only export operator, Iran, put its Tomcat fleet to good use during the Iran–Iraq War, in the course of which the type was credited with as many as 64 Iraqi aircraft confirmed destroyed. Even today, the F-14A remains the premier fighter in Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force service.

In addition to 80 aircraft built for Iran, the U.S. Navy took delivery of 556 Tomcats, the first of which was the F-14A that was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF30 turbofans. These initial engines were problematic, and the powerplant issue was addressed with the introduction of the General Electric F110-GE-400 turbofan. The first version with the new engines was the F-14A+, first deployed in 1988. The F-14A+ designation later gave way to F-14B, and this encompassed 32 F-14A rebuilds as well as 38 aircraft that were newly built.

While the F-14B featured a modernized fire-control system, new radios, upgraded radar warning receivers (RWR) and cockpit revisions, the F-14D of 1990 was notably more advanced, with digital avionics that extended to radar processing and cockpit displays. First flown in 1990, the F-14D’s revised AWG-9 radar received the new designation AN/APG-71 and other major changes included the addition of a combined TV/infra-red sensor under the nose, an on-board oxygen-generating system, new ejection seats and updated RWR. A total of 37 new F-14Ds were completed, complemented by 18 F-14A models that were upgraded to F-14D standard.

New Roles

The Tomcat first took on a role in addition to its primary air defence mission with the introduction of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS), and three aircraft so equipped were generally assigned to each squadron.

As mentioned previously, the F-14 always had a residual air-to-ground role, but this was not exploited until late in the type’s career. As a ‘Bombcat’, the F-14 was capable of delivering general-purpose and precision-guided bombs, while simultaneously carrying the AAMs. The F-14 also added the LANTIRN targeting system that allowed delivery of laser-guided bombs and could be used for battle damage assessment.

After service in Operation Desert Storm, in which an F-14 downed an Iraqi Mi-8 helicopter, and air policing missions over the same country in the years that followed, the U.S. Navy Tomcat switched to a primary ground support role, including strike, close air support, reconnaissance and forward air control (airborne), and as such took part in the campaign in Afghanistan beginning in 2001, before returning to the Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom that began in 2003.

With the continuing introduction of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the F-14 was finally withdrawn from U.S. Navy service. The last two squadrons, Fighter Squadron (VF) 31 ‘Tomcatters’ and VF-213 ‘Black Lions’, both flying F-14Ds, officially retired the type in September 2006.

Grumman F-14 Tomcat: Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF)

Iranian Survivors

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) is the only operator of the Tomcat in 2014, with three squadrons of F-14As still active. First delivered in 1976, Iran’s F-14s achieved much success in the war with Iraq, but ended the conflict with just 34 examples still airworthy. With Tehran frustrated in its attempts to acquire new fighter equipment, the Tomcats have been forced to soldier on, latterly with the aid of local refurbishment and upgrade, local manufacture of components and acquisition of spare parts via third-party sources, thereby avoiding the U.S. arms embargo. Efforts were made to integrate the MIM-23B HAWK surface-to-air missile with the Tomcat, as well as add an air-to-ground capability. More recently, Iran has made attempts to add Russian-made missiles, as well as a reverse-engineered version of the AIM-54. More than 40 examples are still flyable and the IRIAF has a programme under way to modernize its F-14 fleet by 2020.