Friday, August 27, 2004

An Old Workhorse Retires

After many years of glorious service, he US Navy is finally going to part with the venerable F-14 Tomcat, the real hero of a certain movie which happened to feature some guy called Thomas Mapother Cruise in a supporting role.

After this summer, the Tomcatters are to deploy once more from the U.S. East Coast, then head to the great aircraft retirement home in the desert, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s still the best fighter jet in the world,” said Lt. Andrew McLean, a VF-31 Tomcatter with three years’ experience at the F-14 controls. “It was built during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was our major military threat. It’s one of the last aircraft built intended to have overwhelming force, and they built these jets without cutting edges … the best engines were put in them, the best radar, the best missiles … It was designed for fleet defense, and did its job well,” the pilot said.

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Throughout its long career, the F-14 has performed many different missions, Gall said, making it “a true workhorse of naval aviation ... air supremacy, or ‘dog fighting,’ to reconnaissance and putting bombs on target.”

The Navy has moved to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, more a multipurpose jet praised for its versatility, rather than the F-14’s pure speed and maneuverability in a dogfight.

“Today, we’re all seeking to do more with less, so with the new jets, there are some compromises,” said McLean, whose pilot call sign is “Lick.” “They are still great, but the F-14s were built as fighters and they were the best fighters.”

The pilot said eventually VF-31 would transform into a squadron of F/A-18s, airplanes he’s had the opportunity to fly.

The F-14, he said, “is more like what you think of as a muscle car ... they have this sort of aura about them ... the F-14s are like that.”

“With the Super Hornets, you kind of get that ‘new car smell,’ like with a new Mercedes. It’s got power, but not overwhelming power, and has a lot of the luxury items and amenities,” he added.

“And the F-14s, being older, tend to take more maintenance. You’ll have Super Hornet guys working 9-to-5 shifts, when our guys are regularly working 12-hour shifts and longer just to keep the Tomcats working at top level,” he said. “But when both planes are up and running at the top of their game, there’s a lot of things the Super Hornet just can’t replace that the Tomcat can do.”
Putting aside the fluff for the moment, the retirement of the F-14 really does mean a sizable reduction in the US Navy's operational capabilities, as the F/A-18 simply doesn't have the same combat radius, the same thrust or the ability to use the AIM 54 Phoenix missile. The aging F-14's burdensome maintenance requirements meant that it had to go at some point, but the Super Hornet can at most serve as a stopgap, given the availability on the export market of aircraft like the Rafale, the Gripen, the Eurofighter and any number of Sukhoi designs.

What is happening with the F-14 Tomcat is symptomatic of a larger problem that pervades America's aerial forces; although the F-15 Eagle is also getting rather long in the tooth, Congress has proven unwilling to procure in the numbers originally specified, pushing up the flyaway cost per plane, which is then used as an excuse for further cuts in procurement. One can only hope that American politicians have the foresight not to cancel the Joint Strike Fighter programme, or a lot of US Navy pilots might end up disappearing into Davy Jones' locker in coming years.