August 27, 2004
Adios Tomcat

Fark linked up news that the F-14 is officially on its way out. Aviation Week has noted its days were numbered for quite some time now... the development of the "bomb cat" -D sub-model was all that has kept it in service this long.

Notwithstanding the ra-ra tone of the article, the F-14 was not without its flaws. Initially designed for an engine that never materialized, it was forced to make do with the substandard TF-30 for nearly twenty years. This engine, initially designed for the F-111, would cause constant and dangerous problems, as well as leave the fighter with a less-than-ideal thrust-to-weight ratio.

While the swing-wings provided definite improvements over its predecessor, the F-4, this weapon system's primary reason for existence was fleet defense against hordes of Soviet bombers. It was larger than many WWII medium bombers, and should be seen more as a maneuverable interceptor than a furball-winning dogfighter. Until the F-18 came along, it was the pilot skills provided by the superior Top-Gun school that netted the Navy air combat kills, not the superior ACM (Air Combat Maneuverability) of the Tomcat

The legendary Phoenix missile system (with an unclassified range in excess of 100 miles) was also geared to knock down bombers, and to date has never had a successful combat intercept. As popular as it is in the armchair air-combat crowd, the F-14 has never been modeled in a single-craft simulation, not because of a "blue" bias in the community, but because the F-14 is mostly manual and has poorly laid out controls. It really does take two people to fly and fight it.

This is not to say it's a bad aircraft. Far from it. Mach-2 capability and truly massive range combined with acceptable maneuverability and leading-edge avionics to create what is probably the most successful interceptor* the Navy has ever fielded. We learned to fight small, cheap Soviet fighters in the "brick-with-engines" F-4, and the F-14 outperformed the Phantom in every respect. When it was finally re-engined with B-1 bomber derivatives in the early 90s, the Navy finally had what the Tomcat should have been all along... a big, fast, maneuverable energy fighter that when flown skillfully could hold its own against all comers.

Unfortunately "hold its own" is not good enough in today's high-threat world. The design is now over 30 years old, and came from an era when dials with needles were required to figure out what was going on with the airplane. They are already the most expensive aircraft to maintain in the Navy's inventory, and this is only getting worse. The last airframe to roll off the line was manufactured in 1992, but most are far older, and in the harsh environment of a blue-water aircraft carrier they are wearing fast. The F/A-18D, while also flawed in its own way, is still a far more flexible and capable weapon system, and requires half the (expensive and hard to train) crew.

It's hard to believe sometimes, but Top Gun was filmed nearly 20 years ago, and the F-14 was more than a decade old even then. Time and technology have turned what was once an innovative combat system into yesterday's news. Interesting news, but old nonetheless. As with the F-4 twenty years ago, a skillful F-14 crew can still bounce an unwary next generation fighter, but we shouldn't be relying on surprise as the only way to get the job done. It was a good platform, but its time has come and gone. I'll be sad to see them mothballed and eventually turned into razorblades, but I'd rather that happen than have nostalgia risk the lives of our pilots in combat.

* In modern air combat "conventional wisdom", an interceptor is a heavy, fast design that is primarily meant to take out opponents at a distance. A fighter is a much lighter and more maneuverable aircraft meant to close and "mix it up" with the bad guys. Sixth generation jet fighters, some of which are already in service (Saab's Gripen comes to mind) are so capable they can actually do both... intercept at a distance and jump in a furball, whichever is required.

Posted by scott at August 27, 2004 08:34 AM

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