F-14 Super Tomcat: Why the US Navy Said “No”

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The box office boffo of Top Gun: Maverickthe long-awaited sequel to 1986 original blockbuster, sparked renewed public interest in the legendary F-14 Tomcat. This is understandable since – minor spoiler alert – the venerable Tomcat appears in the sequel.

What the movie doesn’t tell you, however, is that there could have been an even deadlier version of the F-14: the Super Tomcat, or more specifically the ST21 (Super Tomcat for the 21st century) and AST21 (Attack Super Tomcat for the 21st century).

What happened to the future Super Tomcat?

What Maverick Could Have Wanted

Cinematic exploits aside, the actual Tomcat certainly distinguished itself in air-to-air combat in the 1980s and 1990s, garnering a 5:0 kill ratio in the hands of US naval aviators, as well as 130 officially claimed victories against only 4 losses for Iranian Air Force pilots during the Iran-Iraq War.

However, as noted by aviation expert Tom Cooper in the Smithsonian magazine“It is impossible to calculate, for example, how many air-to-air victories were achieved by Iranian F-14s because Air Force records were repeatedly falsified during and after the war for political, religious or even personal reasons.”

Additionally, the F-14 did its fair share of air-to-ground work, dropping hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs, including GPS-guided JDAMs, on missions over Bosnia, Serbia, of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As movie buffs and military aviation experts know, the original Grumman F-14 Tomcat was officially replaced in 2006 by the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Meanwhile, the Iranian Air Force is still keep your tomcats operational after all these decades.

But the Super Tomcat could in theory have done for the original what the F-15EX does now for the original Eagle, what the F-16V does for the original Fighting Falcon, or what the Super Hornet did for the original hornet.

So how would the Super Tomcat have improved on the original?

For starters, the Super ‘Cat 21 eliminated the “glove vanes” that were located just outboard of each wing root. These were designed to create lift in front of the aircraft’s center of gravity at supersonic speeds above Mach 1.4, pressing down on the nose of the aircraft and unloading the tailplanes to allow greater maneuverability high speed. However, the vanes were a maintenance nightmare and they were eventually welded shut on most aircraft. The ST21 and AST21 improved upon the problematic functionality by incorporating enlarged aero gloves that offered significant advantages in supersonic handling and air combat performance, while simultaneously providing room for an additional 2,200 pounds of fuel storage in each wing, giving the aircraft even greater range.

In addition, in the 1990s, the Navy improved the famous Tomcat AIM-54 Phoenix missile, eliminating the need for the original missile’s oil cooling system. This allowed navigation and attack of forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, sensors in the rail fairings that previously housed the oil cooling system.

In turn, data from these systems would be fed into an all-glass cockpit with vastly improved avionics, a wide-angle head-up display that could project images from the upgraded FLIR navigation module. APG-71 Radar, and all-new mission computers. These advancements would be responsible for “making the Tomcat a dated-looking fighter with the most advanced avionics available at the time”, as stated by the Alex Hollings of Sandbox.

This new Tomcat could have flown further than ever at higher sustained speeds, with supercruise capability, or flown at supersonic speeds without the use of its afterburner, at an incredible Mach 1.3. As for maneuverability, to quote Hollings again, “Adding thrust vectoring would not only have improved that already impressive angle of attack figure, but would have probably made the Super Tomcat 21 the most aerobatic fighter and maneuverable, not just of its time, but probably for decades to come.

No nine lives for the Super Tomcat

Given all of these amazing capabilities, why did the US Navy finally abandon the Super Tomcat? It largely came down to money and common sense: the Navy had to balance capabilities with capabilities, mission demands with budgets, and public perception with military doctrine. The Super Hornet, while not as super sexy or impressive as the Tomcat, does fulfill the Navy’s need for a “jack of all trades, master of none”. It is reliable, efficient and battle-tested. In fact, America only kill air to air of the past two decades against a manned aircraft has been marked by a Super Hornet.

Alas, for now, the F-14 Super Tomcat will have to live on in the imaginations of wheelchair aviators and moviegoers. But who knows – if and when Hollywood moguls decide to make a third Superior gun movie (perhaps this time with Goose’s son Rooster as the protagonist), maybe the Super ‘Cat will be able to perform his first cinematic combat mission.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (Terrorism Studies Concentration) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity.

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