Despite having been retired for more than 14 years, the F-14 Tomcat remains one of the capable 4th generation fighters to ever take to the skies. The twin-engine, sweep-wing air superiority fighter was purpose-built to hunt down long-range Soviet bombers and blow them out of the sky before they ever had a chance to deliver nuclear weapons to the American homeland. In that regard, the Tomcat’s prowess in the skies was certainly a part of America’s nuclear deterrent strategy.
With a top speed of Mach 2.34, the F-14 Tomcat would leave today’s top tier stealth fighters in the dust, and its complement of AIM-54 Phoenix missiles–a purpose-built long-range air-to-air missile–the F-14 may have been one of the most capable dogfighters in the world during its tenure aboard America’s flat tops. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tomcat’s might in the skies was no longer quite as important, and the exorbitant price tag associated with keeping the complex aircraft ready to fight became a more pressing matter.
Ultimately, the F-14 Tomcat was retired in favor of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, which may not possess the same dogfighting tenacity of the F-14, but are far better suited for the sorts of air-to-ground operations that have dominated America’s combat operations for decades. Notably, an F/A-18 Super Hornet is the only U.S. fighter to have scored an air-to-air kill against an enemy fighter in the last twenty years — so it’s clearly got some chops in the sky as well.
The Tomcat may have been an incredibly capable fighter, but it was built for a fight that by the late 1990s was clearly never going to come.
Once the F-14 was retired in 2006, the United States opted to feed its remaining airframes to a shredder — not because the aircraft was a failure, but rather because it was incredibly capable… and in the hands of the Iranian military. Prior to the revolution in 1979, the United States sold Iran’s former (and U.S.-friendly) government 80 of these highly capable jets, with 79 delivered before the rise of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic. In order to ensure Iran couldn’t get replacement parts for their F-14s, the United States destroyed their retirement stock of the aircraft. Today, Iran claims to still have 24 F-14s that are combat ready.
It was an unfortunate end for what was truly one of the most incredible air platforms of the 20th century. From its starring role in the movie Top Gun to its deterring presence aboard America’s aircraft carriers, the F-14 was a success story for the U.S. Navy, and for the nation it defends.
Now you can get a crash course in F-14 history thanks to this great video from Popular Mechanics. The video itself is based on a full-length feature on the aircraft that I wrote, and I had a hand in putting the script together. You can read that article here.