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.”

 

19 Comments

  1. The F-14 loaded with 6 phoenix missiles can take out 6 targets at 130nm at least. The 6 on 6 test would have been 100% kill if two of the target drones hadn’t failed and crashed before the phoenix missiles got to them. I have to say that the super/hornet wouldn’t have a chance against a mach 4 missile that flies between 80 and 100 thousand ft. using the altitude to increase it’s kinetic energy. The F/A 18’s avionics and AIM-120 might be more advanced, but with a range of 25nm max (much less if the target changes aspect). I would say an AIM-120 would have a 99% kill ratio within 16nm and a AIM-9L/M would be good for about 9nm. You can’t use the new avionics if you were killed 115nm before you can fire.

    • FireFox- So you are among “the Phoenix believers”, like me. Do you know there are a lot of people who think had no effectiveness against the fighters?

    • In most ways the AIM-120D is a superior weapon to the Phoenix, it has a vastly more advanced seeker, and the F/A-18E can carry ten of these plus two AIM-9X for an air defense mission. The other advantage of the Super Hornet is that it can recover with more ordnance. For CAP, unless you know you are going to expend weapons, you do not launch with more than you can trap with. A Tomcat in real life would never launch with more than 4 Phoenix simply because there was no way it could bring more than four back. They would only go off the deck with six if there was a real attack. Still, six Phoenix vs ten AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders? And the Super Hornet’s AESA radar? The Tomcat would not even detect the Hornet until those AMRAAMs were on the way.

      • The Super Hornet can Carry 10 AIM-120s, but it can’t Fire them. It can ferry a larger load than it can launch. To draw a parallel, a F-22 can Carry 14 AIM-120s in ferry configuration, but it can’t launch all of them. In ferry configuration, eight of those -120s are not launchable.

        Also, your are doing a bit of sleight of hand. You are comparing the F-14 of 1990 with the Super Hornet of 2014 with all its upgrades. If you compare apples to apples, the F-14D of the ’90s compared with the Super Bug as delivered of those years had a radar that covered a vastly greater volume of the sky and much greater ranges. In fact, one of the reason we lost AIM-152 is the Navy wasn’t able to make a good case for development of a missile that could fly farther than its soon-to be-main fighter (Super Hornet) could see. F-14D even then was able to see much farther, and could use the AIM-152 to its full capability, but as we all know, it was canceled in favor of the Super Bug. .

        Had the F-14 remained, it is reasonalbe to expect that it would have avionics upgrades as least as good as the Super Hornet’s and probalby better becuase it was starting from a higher capability base (larger radar antenna, for example). Never would have been as low maintenance as the Super Hornet though, although the difference wouldn’t be as big as some claimed. Back in the ’90s when they did the comparison they compared the out of production F-14A with the Super Bug, whereas the F-14D needed much less mmh/fh. Regarding the Hornet E/F’s AESA, certainly the F-14 would have gotten one. But about that Hornet AESA:. It has suffered repeated deficiencies in reliability, suitability and performance. Moe importantly, each year the Defense Office of Testing and Evaluation continues to report that continuing operational testing of APG-79 AESA fails to demonstrate any signficant difference in mission accomplishment over F/A18E/Fs equipped with the older, mechanically scanned legacy radar.

      • lol. Even the f-14A has a bigger radar range than the current super hornet. The super hornet’s nose cone is far too small to house ANYTHING in the radar range of even the late 1950’s AWG-9 system.

        The aim-54 is the only hypersonic air to air missile ever used in any military ever. SAM site missiles don’t count. They’re not air to air even if you strapped them to a plane. They’re not designed for air to air.

        Even an F-14A will blow up every single plane in existence long before they can hit the tomcat. And even the AIM-54A ‘s range is well over 100 miles. That’s more than any possible current gen AIM-120.

        Sorry. Super Hornet loses.

  2. I think the important point missed is that the F-14’s could have been upgraded. How would a hornet perform against an F-14 with new radar and engines. How would a hornet perform against an f-14 with new flight software or newer engines?

    • Geo, you are right. What you tell is confirmed by the fact that the Super Tomcat 21 would be integrated with all those improvements.

    • not really plausible since the F-14 airframe was pretty much shot to shit – way too much maintenance to keep serviceable. better to buy a new aircraft with lower frame maintenance.

      • But not with lower frame maintenance and lower air-to-air capabilities than the F-14. If there was the need to replace the Tomcat so it would have been better to trade it with a true totally new fighter and not with a bigger version of a little fighter.

        • “…better to trade it with a true totally new fighter and not with a bigger version of a little fighter.”
          Well stated and if history is a teacher we already know how the eventual choice worked out for a certain Axis power in Europe vs the first choice employed by their allied opponents. Seems we don’t always apply common sense and we can and should call corruption whenever we see it.

      • Grumman had already “remanufactured some of the older airframes. The big maintenance items were systems . HUD’s had degenerated to less than 8 hours MTBF and when the hud was changed the aircraft had to be test flown day vfr. That meant re-spotting a lot of aircraft go the the jet up to the deck, repotting aircraft on the deck, dragging the maintenance officer or other senior pilot who had flown the prior night , up and into the aircraft for the flight.

  3. The F/A 18 E and F were designed to replace the A-6 in the attack role, not the F-14. When the navy decided to persue the ATF (NATF) program in the 90’s further purchases of the F-14 (and tomcat 2000) were canceled. Eventually the navy pulled out of the ATF(F-22) program and decided that the new super hornet could fill the role of the F-14 (a role it was not designed for). However, since the end of the cold war, the navy aircraft role has changed to a strike.Sadly the interceptor role was not needed.

    Comparing these two planes is like comparing your mom’s station wagon to your new Chevy Tahoe.

  4. Abilities aside the F-14 was, is the most beautiful jet fighter ever made. There is something about its design that is so elegant and gracefull. The Hornet is so dull in comparison If I was a naval pilot I would have resigned in disgust. I hope to come to USA one day to see F-14 for real. I’ve never seen one in Britain even at airshows back in the 80’s. My favorite Brit plane (jet)? The English Electric Lightning.( because its mad not beautiful) I still think that replacing the Tomcat with that loathsome f-18 thing is sick. Replacing it with the F-35 would be fair enough I could understand that, but the Hornet. What were the navy thinking. $ signs me thinks.

    • I’ ve heard by rumors in the airshows circus that soon or later a Tomcat will be brought back in flying conditions since they have got 2 or 3 airframes in good conditions..I really hope that one day it will happen. I agree with you, the F-14 is the most beautiful jet fighter ever made.

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