History of the F-14 Tomcat
The history of the F-14 Tomcat is long and complicated, starting with the development of very long range air-to-air missiles in the late-1950s, to the evolution of the modern air superiority fighter, touching the paths of many famous and infamous aircraft designs from the 1950s to the 2000s and United States defense policy.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Design History
- 3 Development
- 4 Combat
- 5 In U.S. Navy Service
- 5.1 The 1970s
- 5.2 The 1980s
- 5.3 The 1990s
- 5.4 The 2000s
- 6 Iranian Service
- 7 References
- 8 External links
- 9 See also
In the 1960s, U.S. Navy doctrine for fleet defense against nuclear missile-armed Soviet bombers, was defense in depth. As originally envisioned, the outer ring of this defense consisted of interceptors armed with long range missiles. This was originally to be fulfilled by the F6D Missileer, a slow, straight-winged jet, armed with eight Bendix AAM-N-10 Eagle missiles, but both projects were canceled. A supersonic alternative would have to accommodate the contradictory demands of high speed, long range, and low landing speeds for carrier operations. Variable geometry wings offered a solution to this conundrum.
TFX / F-111
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed commonality would save money over buying several specialized fighters for different services and roles. After successfully directing the Air Force to adopt the Navy's F-4 Phantom II and A-7 Corsair II, the Navy's new interceptor would be based on the Air Force's new strike fighter the TFX (Tactical Fighter Experimental), later denoted the F-111. In popular media, the F-111 was proclaimed to be the most versatile fighter ever, slow enough to land on dirt fields, faster than almost any other fighter, delivering massive bomb loads, and clearing the skies of enemy fighters. That vision would not come to fruition. The F-4, the plane that the F-111 was intended to replace that did not have the range, payload, maneuverability and long-ranged missiles to suit planners like McNamara, would be remembered as one of the most successful fighter designs of all time. It would be the last US fighter to fly in all three American air arms, excelling in all fighter and bomber roles. It would ironically be replaced by several specialized fighters roughly equivalent to the F-4 in speed and payload. In particular, the F-15E Strike Eagle would even eventually replace the bomber variant of the F-111.
The F-111's versatility did not exist in one airframe. The navalized F-111B had a single mission of fleet air defense (FADF). Its outstretched wings would allow a long time on station, then swept back, it would dash to meet oncoming targets and clear the sky with its 6 heavy AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. It was never meant for combat air patrol or escort. Whoever had written up the requirements never fitted it with armament as basic as a gun or even the simple AIM-9 Sidewinder fielded by the F-8 Crusader. Neither would it be equipped to deliver bombs, even though the nearly identical F-111A had a prodigious range, payload and low level navigation capabilities far exceeding either the A-6 Intruder or A-5 Vigilante. Similarly, the F-111A was not equipped to fire missiles like the Phantom's AIM-7 Sparrow. The winning contractor General Dynamics chose Grumman to apply their carrier aircraft expertise to the F-111B. However adapting what was really a medium low-level bomber meant compromises such as a smaller radar than the Navy required, it was drastically overweight at nearly 80,000 lb at takeoff. It was judged underpowered, as agile as a Greyhound bus, and its visibility was judged ill-suited to carrier operations.
Return of the dogfighter
Maneuverability in a daylight dogfight had been one of the most decisive factors in every previous air war, yet it had been thought to be obsolete by the missile age. The same year that the F-111B made its first flight, US Navy Phantom pilots encountered old but nimble MiG-17s and MiG-19s in 1965, similar to those that had shocked the fighter community by shooting down advanced supersonic F-105s over Vietnam. The Sparrow even to a lesser degree, the short range Sidewinder, was unreliable and ineffective at close ranges or while pulling gs. Yet guns, which had been deleted as excess weight from the F-4 because it was tasked as the medium range interceptor complement to the F-8 Crusader, were often as effective as early Sidewinders or better.
When the Navy ordered Grumman to study the effectiveness of the F-111B in such a scenario, they concluded it was much less maneuverable than the F-4, and would not survive in a dogfight. The silver lining was that the F-111B's performance was so abysmal, and the penny wise approach to fighter design was so discredited, that both the Navy and USAF embarked on studies on what would become a generation of 4 new air superiority fighters. The Navy's counterpart to FX was VFAX (Navy Fighter Attack Experimental). It called for a lightweight fighter that would complement the F-111B. It would be a more agile fighter than the F-4 and a more effective bomber than the A-7.
Grumman 303 VFAX
In 1967, seeing the writing on the wall for the F-111B, Grumman began preparing an advanced design, the G-303 as their answer to the VFAX.The basic goals were to make a plane superior to the McDonnell F-4 Phantom, "particularly in the air superiority, escort fighter, and deck-launched interception role". According to Charlie Brown, an original Grumman F-14 test pilot, to meet the air superiority requirement, it would have to be designed to be a nimble and agile dogfighter.. If the F-111 was proof that it was difficult to turn a medium bomber into a fighter, Grumman's solution demonstrated again how simple it can be to make a large agile fighter carry heavy loads like the Phoenix.
The design history of the F-14 is extensive. After its big brother, the F-111B was determined to be overweight and combat-ineffective, Congress cancelled the program and allowed the U.S. Navy to request bids to create a new swing-wing fighter. Grumman won the bid with overwhelming support. Those that have been credited with the winning design include chief engineers Bill Gunston, Bob Kress, David Roberts (the chief mechanic for Pratt & Whitney), two prototype mechanics: Robert Hynes and a fellow worker of his, who Kress later admitted sparked him with the design concept. Congressman Thomas Andrews also played a role in the decision.. F-14 engineering manager Bob Kress insisted that the aircraft's wing sweep would be under computer control in a dogfight. Titanium, which was not mature enough to be used in the F-111, is about 35% of the structural weight of the F-14, and 100% of the wing box to increase strength and lower weight. Widely spaced engines increased survivability. A tall tandem crew canopy with ejection seats lowered drag and weight, also providing 360 degree vision compared to the F-111's side-by-side escape crew capsule with zero rear visibility. As a result of NASA windtunnel tests of the F-111 design, Grumman moved the wing pivots far outboard relative to the F-111's near centerline location to reduce transonic and supersonic trim drag. The F-14 was the first US supersonic fighter to incorporate twin tails. Twin tails have since become common on fighter aircraft including the F-15, F/A-18, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. Twin tails are valued for enhanced stability, and also reduce overall height (important on a carrier's hangar deck).
The F-14 has often been called "underpowered", but using the Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines from the cancelled F-111B reduced weight and gave it a better thrust to weight ratio than any previous US fighter. Increased thrust to weight ratio improves sustained turn rates. While the F-14 was designed to accommodate future engines to provide a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1.0, the versions which would rival the F-15 Eagle in power would not appear until late in its career. Rather than the F-111B's single Phoenix load out, the F-14 would be able to carry and deliver everything larger than a 20mm shell to almost anything smaller than the B-52's massive AGM-28 Hound Dog strategic missile. The 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling gun, previously fitted to the USAF F-4E variant of the F-4 Phantom II was incorporated to destroy maneuvering targets at very close range.
According to Bill Gunston, the F-14 would employ essentially swinging versions of the same wings used by Grumman's A-6 Intruder subsonic bomber. It had not only a large wing area, but a wide, flat pancake body to increase lift and lower drag. Flaps and slats could be deployed at full forward sweep for full maneuverability even at combat speeds, while special maneuvering flaps were designed, though later disabled after tests showing reduced stability. This gives an edge to the F-14 at very slow and supersonic speeds compared to fixed wings optimized for low supersonic speeds. Engineering manager Bob Kress says that the wings gave very good turning performance. Maneuverability was predicted to be twice that of the F-4, especially at high speed and altitude, later verified in tests against F-4Js.
The F-14 with wings at full forward sweep resembles a huge bat. Since the adoption of the F-14, the fighter slang term "bat turn" has been used to describe a maximum G 180 degree turn in full afterburner, a signature tactic of Tomcat crews. Aviation writer Bill Gunston, however notes that opposing pilots have learned to read the F-14's wings to judge its energy status and speed.
When the Navy saw Grumman's design that combined the capabilities of the F-111B and the VFAX in a single airframe, plans would be dropped to adopt a mixed fleet of F-111B interceptors and small agile VFAX planes. The Navy hastily rewrote the VFX(Navy Fighter Experimental) specification in July 1968 evidently around Grumman's innovative proposal for an agile VFAX air superiority and strike fighter that could also carry the AWG-9/Phoenix for a fleet air defense in a single type in a form of commonality quite different from that promoted by the TFX. Though later offered to the Air Force, their FX would become a single seat, fixed wing fighter unburdened by heavy Phoenix missiles, the F-15 Eagle which would be delayed until the development of new technology engines, though planners designed in interchangeability between core engine design parameters.
When the late Vice Admiral Thomas F. Connolly testified before Congress: "There isn't enough power in all Christendom to make that airplane what we want!",  that was the death knell for the General Dynamics F-111B. The "Tomcat" name is often attributed to Connolly's call sign "Tomcat", which also conformed with the Navy's tradition of giving feline names to Grumman fighters. Also citing weight and carrier suitability issues, the F-111B was canceled in 1968. The F-14 would enter service too late to serve in the Vietnam War, but the Navy would soon start realistic air combat training that would become Top Gun that gave the F-14 its fame. The F-14 would be the first of the famous teen-series fighters that embraced a new philosophy that placed a renewed emphasis on agility in U.S. fighter design. The curse of commonality would be so extensive that planners effectively bar any active ground attack role for the F-14 until the 1990s. The F-111A would prove to be an excellent single-role bomber, and the Royal Australian Air Force will be flying their F-111s long after the retirement of the F-14 in 2006.
On January 14, 1969, the Navy announced the award of the contract for the VFX fighter, now designated F-14, to Grumman. It would be introduced in a brief captioned photo of an aircraft with canards in Flight Magazine International as the "VFX air superiority fighter". The F-14 would inherit not only the F-111B's radar / missile system and TF30 engines, but also adapt the subsonic wings, landing gear, and inlets of the A-6 Intruder, which lowered costs. Upon being granted the contract for the F-14, Grumman greatly expanded its Calverton, Long Island, New York facility to test and evaluate the new swing-wing interceptor. Much of the testing was in the air of the Long Island Sound as well as the first few in-flight accidents, including the first of many compressor stalls and ejections.
The Navy planned a series of upgrades, with F-14A assigned to the first airframe equipped with updated TF30 engines and the AN/AWG-9 weapons system from the F-111B. Its first flight took place on December 21, 1970. The original plan was to only build a few F-14As, as the TF30 was known to be a troublesome engine. In addition, the engine was not designed for rapid thrust changes or a wide flight envelope and only supplied 74% of the intended thrust for the F-14. An F-14B would follow in November 1987 using the engine from the advanced technology engine competition. The F-14C was intended to denote a variant implementing a replacement for the AN/AWG-9. However, it was delayed, and this variant was never produced. When it finally arrived as the AN/APG-71, the designation assigned to the new aircraft was F-14D, which first flew November 24, 1987. Though the Marine Corps initially sent pilots to VF-124 to train as instructors, the Corps pulled out of the program in 1976, after deciding the F-14 was too expensive for their needs.
Since its inception, the F-14 has been widely used in action by both the US Navy and the Iranian Air Force, although knowledge about the combat service with the Iranians is disputed. Even though the F-14 did not see a lot of aerial combat as it was first envisioned to do by the Navy and Grumman (due to lack of opportunities), the F-14 morphed into a long range strike fighter in the 1990's due to budget cuts and the early retirement of the A-6 Intruder, the F-14 saw a upswing of action, and were used successfully as a strike platform over the skies of Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq right up to it's final deployment in 2006.
In air to air combat, the F-14 (with the US Navy) have shot down five enemy aircraft (including one friendly aircraft) for no losses, and one has been lost to a surface-to-air missile.
Operation Frequent Wind
The F-14 made its first combat debut flying cover during Operation Frequent Wind in April 1975. VF-1 and VF-2 deployed on board USS Enterprise (CVN-65) with Carrier Air Wing 14. The cruise began on September 17, 1974 and ended May 20, 1975. The two squadrons flew combat air patrols over South Vietnam during the operation but did not encounter any North Vietnamese MiGs, but they were fired upon by enemy anti-aircraft guns.
Soviet Intercepts and American Hostages In Iran
During the rest of the 1970’s the F-14 did not see any combat, F-14s primarily intercepted Soviet aircraft coming too close to the carrier groups, and VF-142 was the first Atlantic Fleet F-14 squadron to intercept a Soviet Tu-95 Bear bomber on April 23, 1976. In 1979, VF-111 and VF-51 participated in efforts to free the American hostages in Iran. VF-41 and VF-84 were on station during the crisis in 1980 as well.
It was not until 1981 that the F-14 would be part of actual combat. In the 1970s, Libya had claimed a 12-mile extension of its territorial waters in the Gulf of Sidra, which had prompted US naval forces to conduct Freedom of Navigation operations in that area. These operations increased when Ronald Reagan came to office; he authorized a large naval force, consisting of three aircraft carriers, to conduct naval operations in the area in the summer of 1981. The Libyan Air Force responded to this by sending its aircraft out over the Gulf to monitor American activity; there were several intercepts over the Gulf, in which both sides maneuvered aggressively, but fired no weapons. But this was to end just a few days later, on August 18, 1981. This time two VF-41 F-14s intercepted two Libyan Su-22’s. Only few seconds before the crossing, at an estimated distance of 300 m one of the two Lybians fired an AA-2 "Atoll" at one of the F-14s, which missed. The short range (well inside the gun's range) and the inability of AA-2 to engage in frontal engagements seems to indicate that this weapon was accidentally fired. Then the two Sukhois tried to escape. The American pilots fired AIM-9L Sidewinders, hitting both targets. Both Libyans ejected.
Less than an hour later, while the Libyans were conducting a Search and Rescue operation of their downed pilots, two fully armed MiG-25s entered the airspace over the Gulf and headed towards the US carriers at Mach 1.5 and conducted a mock attack in the direction of USS Nimitz. Two VF-41 Tomcats and one VF-84 Tomcat headed towards the Libyans, who then turned around. The Tomcats turned home but had to turn around again when the Libyans headed towards the US carriers once more. After being tracked by the F-14's radars, once again the MiGs finally headed home. One more Libyan formation ventured out into the Gulf towards the US forces later that day.
Libyan Fighters and Somali anti-aircraft artillery fire
In April 1983, two Tomcats operating from the carrier USS America (CV-66) were fired upon by Somali troops while flying over the port of Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. The F-14's were on a prearranged mission, but the Somali forces apparently mistook the Tomcats for Ethiopian attackers. No Tomcats were hit.
In late summer 1983, due to the Chadian-Libyan conflict, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) had entered the Gulf of Sidra. On August 1, two VF-142 F-14As encountered two MiG-23s heading towards the carrier group which were quickly intercepted and forced away. Four days later VF-143 intercepted five MiG-23s some 220 kilometers south of the battlegroup. No weapons were ever fired during these encounters but the situation was "very tense".
Operations In Grenada and Lebanon
Later that year, F-14s were heavily involved in combat once again. VF-14 and VF-32 flew TARPS-missions and combat air patrols in support of Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada. The US and a few Caribbean nations invaded the island due the execution of the islands Prime Minister, the US wanted to evacuate American tourists from the island after the communists took control and toppled the Marxist government. F-14s aided the effort by providing reconnaissance imagery as well as providing cover in the event Cuba decided to interfere, because communist forces on the island had ties with Cuba. In December USS Independence (CV-62) along with its air wing moved to the Mediterranean Sea to support the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon, a country shaken by civil war, VF-14 and VF-32 once again flew combat air patrols over Lebanon. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) with VF-142 and VF-143, and USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) with VF-11 and VF-31 also participated in the operation.
The multi-national peacekeeping force was threatened by both Lebanese military groups as well as Syrian forces resulted in the deployment of these carrier groups. During these missions US aircraft, including F-14s, were under fire from Syrian Surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. VF-11 even engaged eight MiGs over Lebanon. The section flew cover for a TARPS F-14 and was ready to open fire at four MiGs but the MiGs did a split S and ran for Syria. Four more MiGs emerged and blew through without engaging. These incidents resulted in US air strikes against Syrian positions near Hammana. During the attacks one A-7 Corsair and one A-6 Intruder were shot down. The A-6 pilot was killed and his Bombardier/Navigator taken prisoner and released a year later. The A-7 pilot ejected and was recovered by friendly forces.
The Achille Lauro Incident
In 1985, F-14’s once again made the headlines of newspapers around the world. On October 7, 1985 the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, with some 100 passengers on board, was hijacked off the coast of Egypt by terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front. The ship’s captain was ordered to sail for Tartus in Syria and soon the hijackers informed Egyptian authorities of their action by radio and stated their demand for release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The ship was eventually denied docking in Syria, so the terrorists responded by killing one of their hostages. They pushed the elderly, wheelchair-bound, Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer to the side of the ship and the terrorist leader then shot him in the head and chest, and threw his body overboard. The Syrians still denied the ship to dock in Tartus; the terrorists intended to execute a second passenger, but the terrorists received a radio message from PLF leaders instructing them to leave the passengers unharmed and head to Port Said in Egypt. Once there the Egyptian government, unaware that Klinghoffer had been murdered, provided the hijackers with safe passage in exchange for freeing the ship and its passengers.
Soon the murder was discovered and the US Ambassador to Egypt demanded that the Egyptian government prosecute the terrorists, but the Egyptians stated that it was too late as the hijackers had already left the country. But through clever intelligence work the National Security Council determined that the terrorists were still in Egypt and were about to be flown to Tunisia on an Egypt Air 737. A plan was devised where the USS Saratoga (CV-60) would launch F-14’s to intercept the 737 before it would reach Tunisia. The carrier group was steaming northward through the Adriatic Sea for a port call at Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, on the afternoon of October 10, 1985 after the completion of a major NATO exercise in the central Mediterranean. The carrier received orders from Sixth Fleet headquarters to reverse course and to launch alert combat air patrols. F-14s from VF-74 and VF-103 along with an E-2C Hawkeye were airborne and it was soon known that they were after the hijackers, although the 737’s exact takeoff time from Egypt, its route and altitude were unknown. The plan was for F-14’s to make night intercepts and identifications of air contacts in the skies crisscrossing the central Mediterranean as they flew east toward a common airway intersection point south of Crete. After four interceptions, following two hair-raising, lights-out intercepts of darkened transport planes, the F-14s found the correct aircraft. At about 2230, 30 miles southeast of Crete the formed up on a 737 airliner with the tail number 2843. A Navy air controller aboard the E-2C spoke with the airliner’s pilot; the F-14s' presence and the controller's implied threat of a shoot-down convinced the 737's pilot to land at the NATO base in Sigonella, Sicily. Upon landing, the airliner was quickly surrounded by American soldiers. The terrorists were ultimately taken into Italian custody.
Operations Against Libya
1986 was also a very busy year for the F-14. On March 24, 1986, F-14s came under fire from Libyan SA-5’s over the Gulf of Sidra but the missiles fell harmlessly into the water. Later the same day, F-14’s from VF-33 encountered Libyan MiG-25's, who were ordered to shoot down at least one of the F-14s. The Libyans were outmaneuvred by the Tomcats who ended behind the Libyan fighters, but the Americans did not have permission to open fire..
These and other incidents prompted the US Navy in the region to conduct air strikes under Operation Attain Document against Libyan air defences and naval vessels. F-14 Tomcats from VF-33 and VF-102 on board USS America (CV-66) provided air cover during these strikes.
Blue on Blue Engagement
According to the magazine AIR International, the F-14 have not just shot down Libyan and Iraqi aircraft, but also an USAF F-4 Phantom over the Mediterranean Sea in 1987. Former F-14 pilot, Dave "Hey Joe" Parsons, gives an account of the incident, that during an exercise a young F-14 pilot from VF-74 The Bedevilers received the call "Warning Red, Weapons Free", the young pilot was alarmed and asked his seasoned RIO if he was supposed to shoot, and the RIO replied "Yeah, go ahead and shoot 'em". The RIO of course meant to do a simulated attack, but the pilot misunderstood, armed an AIM-9 Sidewinder and fired at the RF-4C Phantom. The USAF crew did not know what hit them because there was no explosion when the Sidewinder hit the Phantom. The F-4 crew was picked up, and was quite demoralized before they were told what had actually happened as now they would not have the burden of losing a jet to unknown causes.
Joke cartoons quickly emerged such as, "USN 1 USAF 0" being faxed to the USAF. There was some retribution for the Navy because a few years earlier, a USAF exchange pilot flying with the same squadron that shot down the RF-4C in 1987 shot down his flight leader with a Sidewinder, so fax responses back to the USAF started "Now, we're even!"
F-14s And The Tanker War
During the Tanker War between 1987 and 1989, several US Navy carrier groups deployed to the Persian Gulf to protect international shipping. On several occasions, F-14’s intercepted Iranian fighters over the Persain Gulf. In August 1987, an Iranian F-4 Phantom II engaged an US P-3 Orion, which provoked a VF-21 F-14 to open fire with AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, although these launches were all well out of parameters and scored no kills.
On April 18, 1988, the United States retaliated against Iran following the April 14, 1988 incident where USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck an Iranian mine in international waters. Air strikes was conducted by Carrier Air Wing 11 against Iranian oil platforms that had been identified as support bases for Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, VF-114 and VF-213 provided air cover and F-14s scared away an F-4 formation during the strike.
The Libyans Once Again
On January 4, 1989, two F-14As from VF-32 Swordsmen assigned to USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) shot down two Libyan MiG-23’s with two AIM-7M "Sparrows", that failed at distances of less than 30 km, then one other was fired by the second F-14 and this time shot down the MiG. The other was pursued and shot down by a AIM-9L or M Sidewinder. The MiG-23s were pursuing the F-14s in an attempt to get into a missile firing position for several minutes before the F-14s concluded that they were under attack and outmaneuvered the Floggers. Both of the Flogger pilots were seen to have ejected. The AIM-7s which failed was probably either a failure to track the target or a failure for the rocket motor to ignite, since the failure was noted almost immediately after launch and the second AIM-7 was launched about seven seconds later. A missile was launched at the F-14s just before the AIM-7 hit its target but they managed to avoid it. An audio recording of the engagement is available here
Operation Desert Storm
When Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait in early August 1990, the carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS Independence (CV-62) was the first carriers on station to support Operation Desert Shield. When Operation Desert Storm started, VF-1, VF-2, VF-14, VF-21, VF-32, VF-33, VF-41, VF-74, VF-84, VF-102, VF-103, VF-142, VF-143 and VF-154 all participated in either the build up to the war and/or the war itself. A total of 4,125 sorties were flown by the 99 F-14s present in the Gulf and during the war, F-14s provided escort protection for attack aircraft, long-range air defence of ships and combat air patrol missions. TARPS-capable F-14’s also flew photo intelligence missions. The Tomcat’s contribution to the war was quite minimal compared to other aircraft.
The F-14 did not have the needed systems and procedures required to integrate Navy aircraft as part of a joint air component as the Cold War tactics stated that the Navy would operate on its own, they did not expect to have allies fighting alongside any conflict with the Soviet Union. F-14’s were unable to solve the strict rules of engagement that would allow them to engage aerial targets using their onboard sensors, instead they relied on USAF E-3 Sentry to give them clearance to fire. Conversely, F-15 pilots could solve all the required ROE criteria for identifying an enemy aircraft.
On January 21, 1991 an F-14B from VF-103 was shot down, piloted by pilot Lt. Devon Jones and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Lawrence Slade, possibly by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile. Lt. Jones was recovered the following day. Lt. Slade was captured and held as a prisoner of war until released on March 4, 1991.
The years after Desert Storm were bleak for the F-14. It was on the verge on early retirement due to budget cuts, and ten F-14 units were decommissioned due to its limited ground-attack capabilities. But due to the accelerated retirement of the A-6 Intruder, the US Navy noted that they lacked long-range strike capabilities, and the F-14 was soon converted into a long-range multi-role strike fighter.
Operation Deliberate Force
In August and September 1995, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and its airwing supported the operation. F-14s from VF-14 and VF-41 participated in strikes. VF-41 is credited with being the first F-14 unit to drop laser guided bombs in anger when on September 5, 1995, two F-14As attacked an ammunition dump in eastern Bosnia. The bombs were buddy lased by F/A-18s because the F-14 was not yet cleared to carry the LANTIRN pod. VF-41 alone logged 600 combat hours and 530 sorties during this cruise.
Operation Desert Fox and a Close Kill
With Iraq’s failure to cooperate with United Nations inspections, Operation Desert Fox was launched on December 16, 1998. F-14Bs from VF-32 took part in a 33-aircraft strike package on December 16. The first night of the four day operation was conducted by the US Navy only. VF-32 dropped 111,054 pounds of munitions during 16 strike missions and 38 sorties. During Desert Fox many Tomcat firsts were achieved which included the first GBU-24s dropped in combat by the US Navy, the first multiple GBU-24 drop by any platform in combat, the first combat use of the LANTIRN, the first autonomous F-14 delivery of a GBU-10/16/24 and the first use of Night Vision Devices in combat. On December 19, 1998, the last day of the operation, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) arrived in the Persian Gulf, and VF-213 joined the air strikes, taking the F-14D into combat for the first time. During the 1998-1999 cruise, VF-213 executed 19 strikes, dropping 20 laser-guided bombs with a 64% success rate, supporting 11 combined strikes, flying 70 missions, logging 230 sorties and over 615 combat hours, as well as 45 reconnaissance missions imaging more than 580 targets. On January 5, 1999, two F-14Ds on patrol over Iraq encountered two Iraqi MiG-25s. The Tomcats fired two AIM-54 Phoenix missiles (one each), the first ever combat Phoenix launch by the US Navy. The Iraqi jets turned back north and the missiles failed to hit their targets..
Operation Allied Force and a Second Close Kill
VF-14 and VF-41 took part in Operation Allied Force, NATO’s aerial campaign against Serbia due to the Serbs' massive displacement of the population in Kosovo, between April 9, 1999 and June 9, 1999. F-14s of VF-14 dropped 350 laser-guided 1000 pound (454 kg) bombs in addition to other air-to-ground ordnance. F-14s flew combat air patrol, escort, strike, acted as Forward Air Controllers, and performed TARPS missions. VF-41 dropped the last bombs of the war on an SA-9 inside the Kosovo border near the peace-signing site on June 9, 1999.
Operation Enduring Freedom
F-14s from VF-11, VF-14, VF-41, VF-102, VF-103, VF-143, VF-211, and VF-213 participated in Operation Enduring Freedom. They flew long-range missions from their carrier in the Indian Ocean to strike targets in Afghanistan. VF-41 spearheaded strikes for Carrier Air Wing 8 and were given some of the toughest targets at the start of the campaign, such as Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban airfields, air defences, and bunkers. The first target hit was the Shindand airbase in western Afghanistan where the Taliban were storing a lot of aircraft, radar, and vehicles. VF-41 hit 82% of their targets during the month they participated in the war, dropping over 200 bombs. VF-11 and VF-143 dropped JDAM bombs from the F-14 for the first time during the war. VF-102 flew 3,346 combat hours and dropped 645 bombs. F-14s from VF-213 carried out long-range attacks from the Indian Ocean from USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on October 7 2001. VF-213 was the first F-14 Tomcat on station after the September 11 attacks and led the initial attacks, carrying out over 500 combat sorties. VF-213 was instrumental in their reconnaissance role, utilizing their TARPS pods, and also provided laser weapon guidance for F/A-18 Hornets and GPS weapons coordinates for Hornets and USAF B-52s and F-16s..
Operation Iraqi Freedom
F-14s from VF-2, VF-31, VF-32, VF-154, and VF-213 participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom with great success. The F-14s flew 2547 combat sorties and dropped 1452 GBU/JDAM/MK-82 bombs with just one lost jet due to engine failure. F-14s led strikes deep into Baghdad attacking targets such as the Iraqi Ministry of Information's Salman Pak radio relay transmitter facility at Al Hurriyah, southwest of central Baghdad with JDAM bombs. Another notable mission involved TARPS equipped F-14Ds dropping four Mark 82 bombs on Saddam Hussein's presidential yacht, Al-Mansur (The Victor). F-14s also supported ground troops during the war and acted as Forward Air Controllers for other aircraft. An aircrew from VF-32 was involved in the worst friendly fire incident in the war when the crew attacked a U.S. Special Forces convoy in northern Iraq, believing they were Iraqi forces.
The Final Years
During the F-14's last three years in service, the remaining units all deployed to the Persian Gulf region in support of US forces in Iraq. The final deployment for the F-14 was between September 2005 and March 2006 with VF-31 and VF-213. These two units collectively completed 1,163 combat sorties totaling 6,876 flight hours. They dropped 9,500 pounds of ordnance during reconnaissance, surveillance, and close air support missions in support of the war in Iraq.
There is limited information available about the service of F-14s in the Iran-Iraq War. Western intelligence indicates that the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) was in decline at the onset of the war in September 1980, and it is rumored that some level of sabotage was committed on the F-14's by either Americans or Iranians loyal to the Shah, during the Iranian Revolution. Following the overthrow of the Shah, most Iranian F-14 pilots and technicians trained in the U.S. fled from Iran, fearing their association with the Shah's regime, and their time in the U.S. would endanger them. Only two pilots out of the original flight class chose to remain in Iran. Their fears proved correct, and many of the original Iranian F-14 crews and technicians who remained were jailed or murdered by the new regime. Eventually several F-14 pilots who were jailed were released when war broke out with Iraq. It is widely believed in the west, that Iranian Tomcats and the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles were sabotaged when the breakdown of US-Iran relations took place. In reality, only 18 AIM-54 missiles stored at Khatami airbase were sabotaged, and the fleet was otherwise fully operational.
The U.S. estimated that the IRIAF was able to keep between 15 and 20 F-14's operational by cannibalizing parts from other planes. The IRIAF claims a higher figure, and was able to assemble 25 aircraft for an 11 February, 1985 fly-over of Tehran. Despite the embargo, Iran was able to acquire parts for its American aircraft, including the F-14, F-4, and F-5. Sources indicate these may have come via the Iran-Contra arms deal, collusion with Israel, or domestic production. Iran has claimed that they have been able to produce all of the parts required, though U.S. intelligence indicates that value is about 70%. Several individuals have been implicated in efforts to smuggle parts to Iran - 2 men were charged in 2000, and Houshang Amir Bagheri is listed on the U.S. Customs Most Wanted list for his efforts to purchase classified F-14 components.
GlobalSecurity indicates that the F-14 was flown in a mini AWACS role. To counter, Iraqi Mirage F1-EQ flew low-altitude profiles, popping up briefly to illuminate and launch missiles against the F-14s; several Tomcats were lost in this manner. GlobalSecurity also reports that less than 20 aircraft were still airworthy as of 2000 and cited one report that only seven can be airborne at one time.
It was thought for many years that Iran used the fighter primarily as an airborne radar controller, escorted and protected by other fighters, but later information indicates this was incorrect. While IRIAF did indeed husband their fleet of F-14s, the planes were used aggressively when needed, even escorting strike packages deep into Iraqi airspace. Initially the IRIAF F-14s flew intensive CAP patrols, some lasting even nine hours, over main bases. IRIAF F-14s often escorted tankers supporting strike packages heading into Iraq, scanning over the border with their radars and intercepting inbound Iraqi planes. With the excellent AWG-9 radar and long range AIM-54 and AIM-7 missiles the Tomcats could be used as offensive weapons, even without leaving Iranian airspace.
U.S. AWACS observed the downing of an Iraqi Tupolev Tu-22 "Blinder" bomber, and the downing of at least one F-14. Western sources estimate 4 kills against 4-5 losses; the official Iranian estimate is 35-45 kills, and 12 losses, all reportedly due to engine failure during combat.
Also unresolved is the extent of usage of the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. Most Western sources indicate that sabotage prevented their use, although other sources claim that up to 25 planes were downed by AIM-54's before their supply ran out. The Iranian F-14s used the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles as primary armament; Iran is reportedly developing a domestic copy of the Sparrow.
In 2004, Tom Cooper published Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat, based mainly on primary interviews with Iranian pilots. It makes many claims that contradict previous reports. In particular, it claims up to 159 kills, and that in one incident four Iraqi aircraft were shot down with one AIM-54. The following combat encounters are claimed by Cooper:
By 1980, with the prospect of war with Iraq becoming ever more likely, most of the 77 surviving F-14 airframes were found to be in non-operational condition, or at least had non-functioning radars. As a result, F-14 pilots were forced to rely on ground control for their first wartime patrol and intercept missions. Within a few days of the start of the war, a dozen or so F-14s were made operational.
The first confirmed kill by an F-14A during the Iran-Iraq war occurred before the formal start of hostilities, when on September 7, 1980 a IRIAF F-14A destroyed an Iraqi Mil Mi-25 (export version) Hind helicopter using its 20mm Vulcan cannon. Six days later Major Mohammad-Rez Attaie shot down an Iraqi MiG-21 with an AIM-54 Phoenix missile while flying border patrol. A single AIM-54 fired in July, 1982 by Captain Hashemi may have destroyed two Iraqi MiG-23s flying in close formation.
Cooper claims the AIM-54s were used only sporadically during the start of the war, most likely because of a shortage of qualified radar intercept officers, and then more frequently in 1981 and 1982 until the lack of thermal batteries suspended the missiles use in 1986. There were also rumors that suggested that Iran's Tomcat fleet would be upgraded with avionics derived from the MiG-31 Foxhound. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force officials and pilots insist that the Soviets were never allowed near the F-14s and never received any F-14 or AIM-54 technology. Also, the AIM-54 missile was never out of service in the IRIAF, though the stocks of operational missiles were low at times. Clandestine deliveries from US sources and black market purchases supplied spares to top up the Phoenix reserves during the war, and spares deliveries from the USA in the 1990s have also helped. Furthermore, an attempt was made to adapt the MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missiles that were also a carryover from the pre-revolution period to be used as air-to-air missiles for the F-14, and at least two F-14s have been successfully integrated.
All in all, the Iranian Air Force was said to have launched possibly 70 to 90 AIM-54A missiles, and 60-70 of those scored. Of those, almost 90% of the AIM-54A missiles fired were used against Iraqi fighters and fighter-bombers. Only about a dozen victories by AIM-54s were claimed to be against fast, high-flying targets such as the MiG-25 or Tu-22 'Blinder'. The successes in aerial combat, if true, would make the Iranian Air Force the most successful user of the F-14 Tomcat during its operational history.
By the close of the war both sides were unable to obtain new aircraft or parts, and aerial combat had become conservative. Neither side could afford to lose aircraft they simply could not replace. In particular the IRIAF F-14 fleet suffered from a lack of trained technicians, and by 1984 only 40 F-14s were still in service. By 1986, that number had dropped to just 25. The F-14 was delegated to protecting Iran's vital oil refining and export infrastructure, where they often encountered French-built Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1EQ fighters attempting to attack Iranian oil pipelines.
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- According to a post from author Tom Cooper
- According to a post from author Tom Cooper
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