Key Point: A top expert gives us his take.
What if the F-14 Tomcat had never happened? The iconic fighter served the U.S. Navy for more than thirty years before finally (and some say prematurely) being retired in 2006. Over time, the F-14 shifted from its initial long-range fleet air-defense role to a ground-attack mission. But what if the problems that plagued the program in the 1960s and 1970s had proved insoluble? How would the Navy have filled the gap?
The F-14 grew out of the F-111 project, pushed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as a fighter that could serve in both the Navy and the Air Force. USN and USAF needs differed, however; the Navy wanted for a long-range carrier-based interceptor came from concern over Soviet air-launched cruise missiles. Soviet bombers could strike American carrier battle groups from great distance, without entering the envelope either of ship-based SAMs, or short-range fighters. This disrupted the layered missile, interceptor, and gun systems that the Navy had developed for air defense since World War II.
Unfortunately, the F-111 did not work out; too many capabilities were pushed into the frame, resulting in a fighter too large for the Navy’s needs, and not particularly well-suited to the air-superiority mission. By the mid-1960s the Navy began work on an alternative project, which eventually became the F-14. The Tomcat contributed to solving the Soviet bomber problem by combining long range and high speed with the Phoenix missile, which could kill targets at extreme BVR.
But in its early years the Tomcat itself faced problems. The engines were temperamental, and the fighter was both heavy and costly. Design decisions, including swept-wings, made the Tomcat a complex beast to manage. Congress complained, comparing the performance of the Tomcat unfavorably with the Air Force’s new heavy fighter, the F-15 Eagle. With the general post-Vietnam drawdown in full swing, the Tomcat’s journey to operability was touch and go; a decision at several points could have ended the project.