Saturday, February 18, 2006

A sad day in the annals of naval aviation...

The F-14D Tomcat has flown its last combat mission; phased out of the Navy's carrier air groups because, being a pure air superiority fighter, it wasn't versatile enough in the air-to-ground role.

The darling of a whole generation of aviation buffs who grew up watching Top Gun, the Tomcat was a big, sleek machine designed to provide an umbrella against air attack for the USN's carrier groups, a role apparently deemed no longer important in today's post-transformation military. The USA Today article linked above made a statement I found annoying, however:
Although still swift and deadly, the F-14 is a victim of changing times. For example:

· Sophisticated missiles have made its specialty, aerial dogfighting, obsolete. Opposing aircraft target each other from miles away, often before the pilots can see each other except on radar.
This isn't quite true. While the Tomcat is indeed a respected dogfighter, its whole reason for being is as a launch platform for the AIM-54 Phoenix; a Beyond-Visual-Range AAM that can swat a bomber, and its load of ship-killing cruise missiles, out of the sky from 100 miles away. The Phoenix isn't a weapon that can just be duct-taped to the underside of any old plane, either; it requires a specialized radar that lives in the nose of the F-14 for target acquisition.

If we're never going to face another opponent with cruise missile-toting bombers, then the F/A-18 Super Hornet can do everything the Tomcat can, and do it better. If, however, protection of our super-expensive CVN's from long-range aerial threats is still a priority, then the Tomcat will be missed. At least during the height of the Vietnam War, when COIN (COunter INsurgency) was the buzzword on everone's lips, we had the Russkies staring at us across the Fulda Gap to keep us honest...

9 comments:

Zendo Deb said...

The new joint-strike-fighter is better at air superiority. So much better as to not even make much of a contest since it is VERY stealthy. It is also faster and carries a pretty good collection of weapons.

But the Tomcat will just go into mothballs - ready to come back if needed.

homebru said...

Between Korea and VietNam, we managed to convince ourselves that missles made dog-fighting obsolete and, therefore, aircraft didn't need guns.

Then the Migs showed up and, suddenly, guns and gunfighters were "in" again.

History does and will repeat itself.

George said...

The F-4 Phantom was the general do-almost-everything aircraft of itsa era. (I think the Germans still fly it althought they will replace it with the Euro-fighter.)

However, it was the Navy which armed its version with guns. The USAF had gone wholly missleering. The Tomcat's stand-off range (complete with TV) was the element that really could protect the fleet carriers. (The Falklands showed what a sub-standard air force could do with ship busting missles, I think.)

I hope that the Air National Guard will get the Tomcat into its inventory. I know ... I know ... ANG resemble bus drivers now.

Still ...

Marko said...

Fleet defense against ballistic threats is handled by the AEGIS cruisers now, so the Tomcat was kind of redundant in that role.

Also, the AIM-54 missiles are showing their age, with a lot of the stock having developed stress cracks. In addition, the Phoenix is a swell performer against a slow Tupolev loaded down with ASM missiles, but it's not all that nimble and less than ideal for shooting down fighters.

All in all, they retired the Tomcat for the same reasons they ditched the battleships...too costly to operate, and a redundant mission capability that can be done by newer and less expensive systems.

Xavier said...

The U.S. Navy retired the AIM-54 Phoenix, Sept. 30, 2004. Without the Phoenix missle, the F14 is just a big jet that takes up to damned much space on the deck and in the hangar bay while leaking hydraulic fluid everywhere. They are a PIA to keep airborne, and serve no purpose without the AIM-54 that another bird cannot better fill.
Anytime baby? Yeah, OK.

Tam said...

"Without the Phoenix missle, the F14 is just a big jet that takes up to damned much space on the deck and in the hangar bay while leaking hydraulic fluid everywhere."

Well, that's the truth. The Phoenix was the Tomcat's reason for existance. Without a modern version of the AIM-54, the Tomcat is just an extravagantly expensive hangar queen...

Anonymous said...

There goes one of the reasons why I studied aeronautical engineering. :-(

T.Stahl

Addison said...

Also, the F-14's airframes were approaching service life time limits.

(Which on carrier-based planes is based on # of landings, for obvious reasons)

Steve Skubinna said...

What is interesting about AEGIS is that things have come full circle. The old Talos missile was retired mainly because its engagement envelope encroached on the outer air defense zones, where the fighters lived.