Key Point: The Tomcat did prove itself to be one of the great American fighters of its era—in the hands of both the U.S. Navy and the Iranian Air Force.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Maverick. Iceman. Charlie. Are you done swooning yet? For many, the 1988 film Top Gun caused the F-14 to embody everything cool about fighter jets and the pilots that flew them.
And the Tomcat was cool—entering service in 1975, it was arguably the first operational fourth-generation jet fighter that successfully combined the characteristics of high speed, high maneuverability, and sophisticated avionics and armament that are now standard today.
However, there’s a profound irony in the Tomcat story. The Tomcat is one of the U.S. fighters that has seen the most sustained and intense air-to-air combat of its generation. And yet, American F-14s only shot down five hostile aircraft.
The Tomcat, however, chalked up its extraordinary combat record in the service of one of the United States’ bitterest rivals, Iran.
Defending the Fleet
To understand why the Tomcat was so revolutionary, one must consider the context of its time. The U.S. Navy then operated the F-4 Phantom—a heavy aircraft powerful engines and sophisticated electronics for the time, but a bit of a clunker in a dogfight. The Navy was forced by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara into pursuing the troubled TFX program to create a plane that would serve both the Air Force and Navy. While the Air Force was able to adapt the TFX into the F-111 bomber, Navy Admiral Thomas “Tomcat” Connelly testified before Congress that the TFX was a disaster for carrier operations. The TFX carrier fighter was cancelled, and the Navy got to pursue its own design.
The Navy’s number one priority was to have a “fleet defense fighter.” While the U.S. Navy outgunned its Soviet counterpart, experience in World War II had demonstrated aircraft were a greater threat than opposing ships. Were the Cold War to have gone hot, formations of Soviet bombers would have descended on U.S. carrier task forces and unleashed enormous volleys of long-range cruise missiles from more than a hundred miles away.
A naval task force’s air defenses could shoot down only so many aircraft and cruise missiles. The Navy needed fast-moving interceptors to range ahead and take out as many of the bombers as possible, preferably at long distances using sophisticated missiles of their own. Such a conflict would have been a brutal contest of attritional arithmetic.
However, recent combat experience in Vietnam had shown that U.S. Navy fighters also needed to be capable of winning air superiority—that is, defeating an opponent’s fighter planes. Dogfights between American F-4 Phantoms and North Vietnamese MiG-21s had demonstrated that high speed and long-range missiles were not enough—an air superiority fighter needed to be maneuverable as well. While the U.S. Navy Top Gun school demonstrated that using proper Air Combat Maneuvering tactics made a big difference, having a more agile plane than the F-4 was still desirable.
In 1969, the Navy selected the design proposed by Grumman Aerospace Corporation—a two-seat “heavy” fighter which owed a number of designs features to the TFX, including the engines, radar and swing wings. Let’s look at what came together to make the Tomcat revolutionary.
The Tomcat variable-geometry wings could automatically swing from a twenty-degree angle up to sixty-eight degrees while in flight. An aircraft with less wing surface can attain higher speeds, but to take off from short runways—such as carrier runway—requires more wing surface to generate lift. Thus, Tomcat kept its wing extended while landing and flying at low speeds, and tucked them in when going fast. The Tomcat’s wide fuselage also contributed a lot to lift, and it was possible but dangerous to land with the wings tucked in. Additionally, the Tomcat’s wings could be tucked up to seventy-five degrees when parked to make them easier to stow under the carrier’s deck.
The Tomcat’s twin TF30 turbofans allowed them to attain speeds of Mach 2.34. However, they provided inferior thrust to the F-15, which came into service shortly after the Tomcat, and the fan blades and compressors were prone to catastrophic breakdowns. Thus, later-model Tomcats were refitted with the F110 engines used in the F-16, causing a dramatic improvement in the Tomcat’s thrust-to-weight ratio.
The Tomcat’s nose held an AWG-9 X-band pulse-doppler radar with one of the first microprocessors ever, one of the most powerful fighter-mounted radars at the time. The AWG-9 could detected bombers up to one hundred miles away, was still effective against targets flying at low altitude, and was capable of tracking twenty-four contacts at a time. The AWG-9 also had sufficient resolution to track cruise missiles and shoot them down. The Tomcat was also the only Western fighter of its generation to have an internal Infrared Search and Track sensor, the ALR-23. This was later replaced by an electro-optical sensor with a sixty-mile range that integrated its data with the AWG-9.
Most importantly, the AWG-9 could provide guidance for the Tomcat’s powerful AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, up to four of which were normally mounted under the belly. These were central to the F-14’s ability to defend the fleet. One of the most sophisticated and expensive air-to-air missiles fielded by the United States, the Phoenix could hit targets over 120 miles distant traveling at speeds up to Mach 5. The sophisticated radar and missiles were operated by the backseater on the F-14, known as the Radio Intercept Officer (RIO).
The Tomcat could theoretically fire up to six Phoenix missiles in rapid succession at different targets—an ability that was actually tested once. The result? Four hits out of six launches.
Tomcats usually carried larger numbers of more conventional AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and medium-range AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles. The F-14 also had a twenty-millimeter cannon, a feature Navy Phantom fighters lacked. However, like the early models of the F-15 entering in service at the time, the F-14 was a pure air-to-air platform and was not built to carry air-to-ground munitions.
All in all, the Tomcat was fast enough to intercept Soviet bombers, had radar and missiles capable of detecting and shooting them down over long distances, and the maneuverability to dogfight and defeat agile enemy fighters. This combination of capabilities became the gold standard of a new generation of aircraft including the F-15 and Su-27. Additionally, the Tomcat of course had the reinforced landing gear and arrestor hook necessary for carrier operations.
U.S. Navy Service: From Tomcats to Bombcats
The Navy chose to skip the prototype phase, so production of the F-14 began in 1969 in Bethpage, in Long Island, New York. A total of 712 were ultimately produced through 1991.
The Tomcat entered operational service in 1974 with the VF-1 and VF-2 squadrons on the USS Enterprise. Some even flew cover for the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, though none actually saw combat during the Vietnam War. Over the course of the Cold War, Navy F-14s routinely intercepted Soviet bombers and maritime patrol planes shadowing U.S. carrier groups, and frequently posed for photo ops with their Communist counterparts.
Frequent cat-and-mouse games between Libyan aircraft and Tomcats on freedom-of-navigation missions proved considerably tenser, with numerous near launches of weapons—and several incidents in which they were released.
In August 19, 1981, two F-14s flying with VF-41 on board the USS Nimitz were escorting an S-3 Viking patrol plane that had crossed into contested airspace when they were intercepted by two Libyan Air Force Su-22s. One of the Su-22s fired an AA-2 heat-seeking missile at the lead Tomcat, which successfully evaded. The Tomcats then returned fire with Sidewinders and splashed both Libyan fighters, in what became known as the Gulf of Sidra incident.
Eight years later in January 1989, two Libyan MiG-23s confronted F-14s from the USS Kennedy, again over Sidra. This time, the American fighters fired first, and after missing with several Sparrow missiles, shot down both Libyan aircraft with a Sparrow and a Sidewinder.
Navy F-14s also provided air cover for the many air strikes undertaken by the U.S. Navy in the Gulf during the 1980s, and also were involved in forcing down an Egyptian airliner carrying PLO agents that had earlier hijacked the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro and murdered an elderly Jewish man.
Back in 1987, the Navy began received thirty-eight F-14B Tomcats, and also upgraded forty-eight F-14As to the new standard. The F-14B featured the same F110 engines as on the F-15, which significantly improved the Tomcat’s thrust-to-weight ratio. The AWG-9 radar was replaced with a superior digital version, the APG-70. New ALR-67 countermeasure systems enhanced the F-14’s ability to evade hostile missiles.
GPS was included to supplement the inertial navigation systems formerly relied upon. In 1991 the last variant of the Tomcat, the F-14D came into service with a digital “glass” cockpit and APG-71 radars and better integration of air-to-ground munitions. Over the opposition of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, thirty-seven of the new type were manufactured and eighteen refitted from F-14As.
Sixty-five F-14s were upgraded to use Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod Systems (TARPS), transforming them into capable photo reconnaissance platforms that replaced the RF-8 and RA-3 recon aircraft then retiring from service. Tomcats with TARPS played a central in Navy reconnaissance gathering in the 1980s and 1990s. On several occasions they had to dodge surface-to-air missiles lobbed at them, the first of which involved a Somali SA-2 mistakenly fired in 1983.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Navy Tomcats largely missed out on the combat. Relegated to patrol duties, the F-14s lacked systems to definitively confirm the identity of hostile aircraft at long range and were hampered by a lack of coordination between the Navy and Central Command. Iraqi fighters also shied away from engagements with Tomcats. The Tomcat’s only aerial victory in the war, and the last it achieved in U.S. service, was a hapless Iraqi Mi-8 transport helicopter. One Tomcat did get shot down by an old Iraqi SA-2 surface-to-air missile, however; one of the crew was rescued and other was captured and released at the end of the conflict.
With the passing of the Cold War, massive aerial battles no longer seemed to be on the table, and a pure air-superiority airplane was suddenly short on stuff to do. Tomcats did patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq and Yugoslavia and escorted bombers during Operation Desert Fox. However, the Navy began modifying Tomcats to serve in the ground-attack role by mounting LANTIRN pods equipped with a targeting laser. Tomcats performed their first bombing mission over Bosnia to in 1995, and later made additional airstrikes over Iraq and Yugoslavia.
In their final two wars, the intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Navy Tomcats dropped hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs, including GPS-guided JDAMs. In the latter conflict, Tomcats provided air support for a mixed force of Kurdish peshmerga fighters and U.S. Special Forces that defeated a company of Iraqi armor in the Battle of Debecka Pass—though tragically, a target misidentified from the ground led the F-14s to accidentally kill many peshmerga fighters. Other targets hit by F-14s included the Salman Pak radio relay transmitter facility used by the Iraqi propaganda ministry and Saddam Hussein’s personal yacht.
An F-14 flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt flew the Tomcat’s last combat mission in 2006, striking a target in Iraq with a laser-guided bomb. That September, the Tomcat was retired from U.S. service in favor of FA-18E/F Super Hornet.
As for the Tomcat’s Phoenix missile, only three were ever fired in combat by the American F-14s—against Iraqi MiG-25s violating the no-fly zone in 1999. All of them missed. Five years later, the potent but expensive weapon was withdrawn from service, as the threat posed by massive armadas of Soviet bombers had long passed away and the cheaper AIM-120 can largely fulfill the same role. Besides, these days, the U.S. Navy’s carrier nightmare comes most of all from land-based missiles.
Iran’s Top Fighter
Reading the Tomcat’s American service record would suggest the plane was only involved in a modest number of aerial clashes. In fact, the opposite is true.
Let’s rewind back to the 1970s. The American government is best buddies with the oppressive shah ruling Iran. The shah sees a demonstration of the F-14 and the F-15 Eagle—and decides the Tomcats are awesome, especially as pesky Iraqi MiG-25s are regularly overflying the country on reconnaissance missions and outrunning everything thrown at them. A total of seventy-eight state-of-art fighters are delivered to Iran between 1976 and 1979, as well as a hundred Phoenix Missiles.
Of course, American-Iranian relations get very awkward after the shah is overthrown, with harsh words such as “Great Satan” being spoken and hostages taken in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But the Tomcats remained—except for one the U.S. never delivered—even if the advanced fighters no longer received spare parts and technical support from the United States and fell into disrepair.
Canada even attempted to buy them all back from Iran at bargain price. But remember the movie Argo about how Canada helped some of the U.S. embassy staff slip out of Iran? Yeah . . . the Iranians got wind of that, and that’s why you don’t have Canadian Tomcats.
Tehran soon had cause to be relieved that the Argo incident nixed the sale, because shortly thereafter they were invaded by Iraq in a massive war that lasted nine years and is estimated to have caused one million military and civilian deaths on both sides. The Iranian Tomcats were deployed to defend Iranian airspace, and proved vastly superior to Iraqi MiGs, Su-20s and Mirages.
The Tomcat’s radar proved so powerful that the Iranian Air Force actually used it as a sort of improvised AWACs plane in the backfield that identified hostile attackers and directed friendly aircraft to intercept them—while contributing its own long-range missiles into the mix. At first the Iranian Air Force could only get a dozen or so of its F-14s into the air, and was forced to cannibalize the remaining aircraft for spare parts. However, during the infamous Iran-Contra Affair, the U.S. secretly funneled additional spare parts for Tomcats to Iran in exchange for promises from Iran to help release U.S. hostages, leading to an increase in the number of operational Tomcats.
Aviation historian Tom Cooper attributes over 160 aerial victories to Iranian F-14s in his definitive book, which is based on interviews with Iranian pilots. Unsurprisingly, Iraqi sources claim their losses were much lower, and the actual kill totals remain mired in controversy.
However, it is clear that the Iranian Tomcats scored at a minimum dozens of aerial victories and far outclassed their opponents. Iranian Tomcats even appear to have shot down several super-fast MiG-25s, which could fly up to Mach 3, and speedy Tu-22 bombers. Iraqi fighters were even instructed to disengage if confronted by Iranian F-14s. Iran’s top ace from the war, Jalil Zandi, reportedly scored eleven kills.
Iran also used Phoenix missiles during the conflict—in fact, at the beginning, the Iranian F-14s were only capable of using the advanced missiles. The U.S. Navy, concerned about potential conflict with Iran, scrambled to develop countermeasures against its own Phoenix missiles. Iran resorted to clandestine black-market purchases to acquire additional batteries for the missiles and later hotwired their F-14s to use Sidewinders and Sparrows.
Iran also attempted to mount Russian R-27 missiles on the Tomcat, though that didn’t work out. Four Iranian Tomcats were converted to drop bombs, however. Once, one even dropped an enormous seven-thousand-pound bomb on Iraqi troops—though it missed.
Cooper’s book maintains only seven Tomcats were lost in action—several of them from friendly fire. (Iraq initially claimed more than seventy shot down!) An eighth plane defected to Iraq and was shipped to the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, Iraq acquired more capable MiG-29 and Mirage F-1EQ fighters armed with Magic 2 missiles. Though Iranian F-14s never encountered the former, they did duel frequently with the latter. The Mirages reportedly shot down three F-14s, while thirty-three of the F.1s were shot down in return.
Iran still flies Tomcats today, despite the immense challenge of maintaining them in serviceable condition without spare parts. Iran has had to rely on black-market purchases to circumvent the U.S. arms embargo, and continues to succeed in obtaining parts despite U.S. legislation drafted in 2008 specifically intended to bring a halt to the trade. Iran has also developed its own domestic technologies to keep their F-14s operational, including wiring them to use new radars and deadly Russian R-73 missiles. Heck, Iran even has its own Top Gun miniseries!
How many Iranian F-14s in flyable condition is unclear, with figures offered ranging from a few dozen to as many as forty. For years, F-14s played a major role in intercepting and chasing off U.S. drones spying on Iranian nuclear facilities such as Bushehr. Recently, an Iranian F-14 was filmed escorting a Russian Tu-95 bomber as it flew on its way to bomb targets in Syria.
Tomcats in Retirement
This brings us to the sad fate of the retired Navy F-14s. Initially placed in storage, the Tomcats were literally shredded and crushed so as to prevent them from serving as a source of spare parts for Iran.
The Tomcat entered service shortly before the F-15 Eagle, an aircraft poised to remain in service for years to come. Did the Tomcat need to go so early?
In fact, several different “Super Tomcats” were proposed to the Navy that would have thoroughly modernized the aging avionics and made it fully capable as a multirole fighter. One variant, the Attack Super Tomcat 21, would even have featured an advanced AESA radar, vector-thrust engines (the engines nozzles could change pitch to improve maneuverability), and the ability to supercruise at Mach 1.2—that is, sustain flight speeds over the speed of sound without using the afterburner.
However, the Navy chose instead to field the F-18E/F Super Hornet. The Hornet airframe was not quite as optimized for air-to-air combat, but still delivered excellent performance, was based on fly-by-wire technology, and cost less money and time to fly and maintain. The choice between investing in a Super Tomcat or fielding the Super Hornet inevitably involved a trade-off, and the Super Hornet simply came out ahead in the Navy’s calculus.
Nonetheless, the Tomcat did prove itself to be one of the great American fighters of its era—in the hands of both the U.S. Navy and the Iranian Air Force.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This piece was originally featured in October 2016 and is being republished due to reader's interest.