F-14 vs F-18: Which One Would You Fly in Combat?

An F-14B TOMCAT, from the Fighter Squadron VF-103) "Jolly Rogers" and an F/A-18C(N) HORNET, from the Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-34 "Blue Blasters," demonstrate a high-speed, inverted pass. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

Tomcat or Hornet?

Until 2006, the “Wing King” of U.S. Naval Aviation was the F-14 Tomcat. On Sept. 22, 2006, the legendary aircraft made its last flight. Since then, the backbone of every Carrier Air Wing (CVW) is the F/A-18, both Hornet and Super Hornet models.

Although it was retired from the U.S. military service, the F-14 is still in service with the IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force). However, this article does not focus on the outcome of an eventual close encounter between Iranian Tomcats and American Hornets; it is just a comparison between two fantastic flying machines.

So which aircraft would you take to a fight?

The question, of course, it’s very difficult to answer. It depends on the way you see it and may significantly vary from pilot to pilot. However, some assumptions can be made in accordance with the most widely known characteristics of both weapon system, as the author as done in this article with the aim to give readers a comparison between the Hornet and its predecessor.

If the mission is strictly fleet defense, the F-14 was a perfect platform. In fact, the six wing-mounted pylons of the Super Hornet (or the four of the Hornet) impose a higher drag on the F/A-18 that couldn’t match the Tomcat performance as a very high speed interceptor.

VF-143 Pukin Dogs F-14B Tomcat and F/A-18E of the same squadron. (U.S. Navy)

Indeed, the Tomcat is known to be a very fast airplane, with great sustained energy performance and, since it carried a great quantity of fuel which gave it a good endurance, the F-14 was also very good for high speed strike missions.

But the Cold War ended a couple of decades ago and “its” Bears bombers are no longer the threat that led to the Tomcat possessing those attributes in first place. Furthermore, while the F-14 was an older aircraft in which some newer technologies were integrated, the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a more modern airplane with newer equipment, easier to maintain: a great advantage in times of budget constraints.

In close air combat, the Super Hornet is much maneuverable (with a good authority at slow speed and high AOA – angle of attack) and, even though it lacks the AIM-54 Phoenix for the long distances in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements,  it has got the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) and the AIM-9X Sidewinder for the dogfights, which the F-14 didn’t integrate.

In FAC(A) Forward Air Controller (Airborne) mission both aircrafts have some strengths and weaknesses: while the Tomcat had a greater on-station time than the Super Hornet, the F/A-18 has an integrated cockpit and for air-to ground missions has the capability to carry not only Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs) and  Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), but also High Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) and Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOWs) which the F-14 could not carry. Still, the F-14 could carry a reconnaissance pod (although an RF-18 version was produced) while the F-18E fly as a buddy refueler.

Anyway, thanks to its eleven weapon stations, the Super Hornet is more flexible than the Tomcat and it can carry a larger array of air-to-ground ordnance.

So the F/A-18E/F is a great aircraft and a very versatile strike fighter. Still, it’s a Legacy Hornet evolution and it’s not as revolutionary as the F-14 was when it entered the active service in the ’70s, as the most experienced Tomcat driver, Capt. Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, once said.

And, although it was an old plane, according to a female U.S. Navy RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) the F-14 was also a sexy aircraft: “The Super Hornet is a wonderful jet, and it’ s only going to get better. But it will never be cool. The Tomcat was cool. I know sexy when I see it.”

 

17 Comments

  1. Sky– I don’t have much information on that incident, as the only references seem to say it was an “air to air confrontation” so I can only imagine that it was engaged.

    Still, interesting to think about. I personally cannot vouch for Turkey’s air force, but I can tell you the things the USAF does to train pilots no other country comes close to. So I personally would hardly consider that Mirage a threat, and I’d almost feel bad using a 120B for such a low threat. I’d rather get in close and only spend a couple thousand dollars in vulcan rounds, haha.

    David– interesting video. To be fair, the students were flying the F-14, and the F-14 is less agile and a bigger target than the F-16 for gun games. Still, it’s fun to see it doing so well.

  2. As an F/A-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron (RAG) Instructor, I asked dozens of former F-14 pilots who had transitioned to the Hornet and the Super Hornet which aircraft they would rather go into Indian Country with. While most guys complained about the slower speed of the Hornet, 9 out of 10 guys still answered that question with an emphatic “the Hornet.” Better avionics, better radar, better cockpit setup, i.e. HOTAS and moving map, better RAW gear, AMRAAM, AIM-9X with helmet mounted sight, and overall better combat situational awareness.

    • I flew F-14As from 81-89 and few the 18 at TPS. The Tomcat had a big radar which gave it a signifiant BVR advantage. But merging with a F/A-18 was not a good idea unless a signficant pilot performance differential could be assured. The 18 burns energy faster than the 14, in the vertical it has better high alpha performance and the 14 has very poor throttle authority, these characteristics coupled with the 18s HOTAS makes it hard for the 14 to win in any a xVx enviroment. And dont forget the reliability issue.

      • hi CapitalThrought, do you know how the xVx exercises went with the F/A-18C or F/A-18E/F against F-14B/D?
        I understand that the F-14B/D improved a lot the maneuverability in dogfights because of the new engines.

        • Yes- I believe you are correct on both fronts. I never flew anything but the A, but as I have heard the D did well against Hornets

      • 1 Which aircraft would you want to send 500 miles into Afghanistan if your son was on the ground and in need of close air support that could remain on station

        2 Which aircraft would you want to intercept half a dozen Chicom cruise missile carrying bombers before they could launch

        3 Which aircraft had the capability to carry an upgraded Phoenix missile with the capability to intercept ballistic missiles during the launch phase

        4- Did you have the targeting pods

        • Its hard to compare since Im not current on what the capabilities are of the hornet. When I was current the turkey was a better bird with legs. Remember the A’s did not have bombing mission. So a trip for close are support would not have been a requirement. On the Chicom, I guess I would prefer the speed option. Did not have targeting pods.

      • What TPS class? (Grad and instructor) The TPS syllabus didn’t expand to give you a real life experience for a competitive comparison. I flew 18 A, B, C’s at McDonnell as a test pilot before I flew a Tomcat in the fleet. (Flew in the 110 refit program) I have some time in the 18 E/F before it was weighted down. Given the choice of flying into a fray or making a trip downtown in a “new” F18 E of F or a F14D? Knife fighting is “sexy” but looking at the whole mission, I’d take the Tomcat. For some of the comments made so far, Dick Cheney, then Sec of Def, ordered the destruction of all F-14 tooling AND replacement parts, sealing the fate of future repairs and upgrades to the Tomcat in the face of Congressional objections. The “Hornet Mafia” was established :-) F-14 always held the capability to utilize the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Politics and big money destroyed the F-14, not its capabilities.

        • Given your experience, I would have to defer to you on the overall comparisons. Your correct TPS experience was little more than fam rides. But what I did learn, the F-14A with the TF-30 was poorly matched against the F/A-18A in high alpha conditions, even in the early days we learned that quickly. We had an energy advantage but little else. I enjoyed the throttle authority of the Hornet, everything worked and it was forgiving. The Tomcat was most certainly not, by the time I flew the 18 the 14 was just getting a NATOPs all clear to fly it the way it was intended. But as you would know, it was hard to fly and had many flaws that with time got worked out. So as for going downtown, the F-14A wouldnt have much to do as its bombing role was not yet introduced. I would have loved a chance to fly the D, but it was not meant to be.

      • All the Hornet pilot has to do is get past those six Phoenix missiles first…and not run out of gas.

    • “Better avionics, better radar, better cockpit setup, i.e. HOTAS and moving map, better RAW gear, AMRAAM, AIM-9X with helmet mounted sight, and overall better combat situational awareness.”
      You mean all those things that would be even retroactively implemented into an existing Tomcat?

  3. I think the strange is that until 2006 when the Tomcat was still in service and the Super Hornet was already in service the wing king of every CVW was considered the F-14. And also pilots that transitioned to Super Hornet from Tomcat said that they misses Tomcat and the Super Hornet hasn’t a totally edge over the F-14. An edge that the F-14 has on the fighter that replaced the F-4. I think this thing is true, because if it were otherwise this discussion would not have been so long.
    I guess that if all the tools you have said were integrated in the F-14 the answer would have been the Tomcat. Now 6 years are gone from the last flight of a US Navy Tomcat and technology has done giant leeps and it is normal that today pilots say Hornet.

    • Imagine a new production Tom off the assembly line with all the modern avionics and goodies the F 18 has. That would be one bad ass fighter. If I had to bug out I would definitely want the raw speed of the Tom.

    • There will never be a more kickass wicked looking fighter aircraft than the F-14 tomcat. And no matter what any one says, if they would have integrated and updated modernized it’s systems there would be no comparison.

  4. I think that if only one of your students says that he prefers the Tomcat over the Hornet/Super Hornet, it means the F/A-18 has not a high edge above the Tomcat.

  5. Dario, need to work on your grammar and editing. Otherwise, a neat article. The Tomcat was a great airplane, but progress must continue. Thanks, Mike

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