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As in the title. Ideally, I am looking for a study in the public domain that would summarize the US Navy's loss of capabilities with the disappearance of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I will also accept an answer that gives a justified list. Obviously, there's the AIM-54 Phoenix, of which the Tomcat could carry... six? There's also the performance of the F-14, top speed, though I am unsure how relevant this is.

As a bonus, had the F-14 still been around in significant numbers, would a Super Tomcat be all but inevitable? Not looking for guesses here. If someone can point to budget plans in the works or similar that would indicate that, yes, if the F-14 had not been retired, the Super Tomcat would have been a reality.

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  • $\begingroup$ If Tomcat has a successor then so must Phoenix, which IMO should have happened but didn't. An AIM-120 shot from the cat really isn't that much different from one shot from the bug. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2023 at 2:23

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The F-14 wasn't just an air defense fighter. Any multirole would work for a carrier-on-carrier fight, winning through numbers and training. The F-14 was designed to counter a specific threat: Tu-16s and later Tu-22Ms armed with long-range anti-ship missiles. The Soviets had dedicated an entire branch of the military to countering USN ships with aircraft and air-launched missiles.

Only the F-111B could patrol far enough out, intercept fast enough, and carry sufficiently long-ranged weapons to engage these bombers before they could release their payload. The technology of the 1960s (or even the 1970s-1990s) wasn't capable of intercepting such missiles once released.

The F-111 Aardvark had even more problems than the F-14A. It was too heavy, difficult to handle, and could barely fit on or operate from a carrier. Adopting the Tomcat was by far the lesser of three evils. The third, least desirable option would be to keep out of range of land-based aircraft. More on the F-14's design compromises in this question.

With the Tomcat's phase-out and retirement in the late 1990s-2000s, the USN has lost the capability to intercept missile-armed bombers at standoff range on its own. This capability has since been replaced by:

  • Ending the Cold War. At the time, it was believed the threat wouldn't be relevant for many decades. The rise of China had perhaps been underestimated.
  • Diplomatic treaties. START, SALT II, and CTR have targeted the Tu-22M for capability reduction, dismantling, and export restrictions. Only 66 out of the original 500 can fly today.
  • Improved AEW radars on the E-2D, increased E-3 coverage through allies, and more spy satellites give earlier warning against an incoming strike, giving slower fighters time to intercept.
  • The SM-3 and SM-6 missiles, which have anti-ballistic capabilities, and could intercept some, though not all, incoming anti-ship missiles.
  • The Meteor and to a lesser extent the AIM-120D approach the AIM-54's range, and their better guidance should compensate for smaller warheads.
  • Electronics export restrictions are being reintroduced, to slow down a re-emergence of the threat on the same comparative level that it was pre-1991.

While no one point is a complete replacement, they work together. Better avionics, improved C5I, more NATO-stationed forces can compensate for the loss of dedicated capabilities. The threat itself has also diminished greatly; it will be a while before China can catch up to the late Soviet capability level.

The Super Tomcat was an industry proposal. The Navy didn't ask for it by name; they weren't happy with the original. Even the boldest proposals still point at a maintenance-intensive, non-stealth aircraft, with a moderate air-to-ground payload compared to its weight.

The F-14 was indispensable against the Tu-22M, while also being a good general purpose interceptor. Swing wings aren't needed for simple bombing runs. At the same time, it's likely to be inadequate against the J-20, H-20, or a possible new J-20 or PAK FA/DA/etc derived naval strike bomber. These stealth aircraft can be countered by getting close through better stealth, where the US still has a lead, wide-cast UAV nets, SIGINT, and/or intercepting their payload with even better missiles.

Had the Tomcat still been around, it would've been modernized to some E, F or G variant. It's not likely that the USN would've chosen to spend more on it than necessary. Update the avionics to work with modern munitions, put in more glass, use a curved windscreen and a regular HUD so the pilot can see in front of them. The Super Hornet is 40% larger than the original; there's no room to enlarge the Tomcat, itself designed to only-just-fit on a carrier.

So a Super Tomcat wouldn't be inevitable. Even in absence of the Hornet, the Navy would remain very keen to get a further improved, faster, longer-ranged F-35C. They could even support a naval F-22, had the recent political escalations happened while the Raptor was still in production. Stealth has become the new speed, though it's still only one capability.


P.S.

While it's only a simulation, the sim group Grim Reapers has run through some scenarios of such a strike, and a full complement of F-14's came the closest to saving the carrier. Similar results have been replicated in Command: Modern Operations, and no doubt many times before by actual military researchers, prompting the Tomcat's development and then retirement. Per this simulation, the remaining Tu-22M fleet is only enough to take down one CSG. Even though the missiles have improved, the bombers haven't changed much.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is an excellent answer, enjoyable read. I do seem to recall that the Navy considered the YF-23, or am I mistaken? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2023 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ @AlphaCentauri Sorry for the delay, original reply didn't get sent. The USN did consider the YF-23, but there wasn't enough budget for two stealth fighters. The USAF picked the YF-22, and a naval version was requested, but didn't get accepted. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ Important to note that China had not emphasize its H6--K bomber fleet, able to strike with antiship cruise missiles, preferring to develop land-based balistic anti ship missiles (DF-21) because they thought they would be more difficult to intercept by, of course, aircrafts, but also by anti-air missiles $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 10:56
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The Range, speed and Radar size profile. Thou tomcat was a notorious hanger queen, The arrival of F18 Super Hornet and the AMRAAM missile sealed its fate. F14's Phoenix was extremely costly to service and had poor track record, except Iran where it performed... but little reliable data except reports on Iran Air force use.

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