The F-14 Tomcats that never were vs F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: who would have won?

A U.S. Navy F-14D. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

Several years since it was eventually retired from the U.S. Navy, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat remains one of the most loved planes by aviation enthusiasts.

Any article about this iconic fighter plane, still operating with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, its story, capabilities, records and surrounding anecdotes, always become a much debated and commented post on The Aviationist. For this reason, we will continue writing about this legendary plane and its replacement: the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

After the Tomcat retirement, not only has the Rhino (as the F/A-18E/F is nicknamed by its aircrews) quickly become the backbone of every Carrier Air Wing (CVW), but it has also replaced some of the oldest Legacy Hornets on the American flattops. Having fulfilled such a difficult task, the Super Hornet has demonstrated to be one of the best multirole jets available today. But could an advanced version of the F-14 have been even better?

LCDR Joe “Smokin” Ruzicka, who was the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) who flew the last F-14 Demonstration before the Tomcat’s retirement in 2006, last year released an interesting interview to Foxtrot Alpha’s Tyler Rogoway. Among all the other things, Ruzicka explained that, while the Super Hornet is a great plane, it seems like its strength mainly comes from technology. “In the Tomcat, I think you had to be a better aviator because the technology just wasn’t there. It was up to the aircrew to maximize its performance (or minimize it if you sucked).”

That said, one might wonder whether integrating the same technology in the F-14 would have been possible.

By 1987, Grumman realized that the potential for growth had not yet been reached by the F-14 airframe, and they proposed to the U.S. Navy four advanced versions of the F-14, as told by Tim Callaway in Issue 13 “Grumman F-14 Tomcat” of Aviation Classics magazine.

The F-14D Quickstrike was the first proposal: featuring an enhanced version of the APG-71 radar, this advanced Tomcat version would have carried stand off weapons such as the Harpoon, HARM and SLAM (Standoff Land Attack Missile) missiles.

Requiring only new software and minor modifications to existing F-14Ds, the Quickstrike would have been a cost-effective attack platform but it didn’t meet the Advanced Tactical Fighter specification and the U.S. Navy chose the shorter ranged F/A-18E/F.

The second proposal was the ST21, the Super Tomcat for the 21st Century. The latter would have been a structural upgrade to the existing F-14Ds, that would have introduced a new wing glove design and single piece windscreen, while sensors positioned in front of the under fuselage weapons rails would have supplemented the chin pods. Moreover the ST21 would have also received a new engine the F110-GE-129 of 13,154kg of thrust, which would have provided a supercruise speed of Mach 1.3 featuring also thrust vectoring nozzles for greater maneuverability. These new engines would have supplied to the ST21 a tremendous acceleration alongside with a greatly increased range of the aircraft.

Another modification to the standard F-14D would have been the AST21, the Attack Super Tomcat for the 21st Century.

This advanced Tomcat would have been fitted with additional extra bomb pylons under the engine nacelles, a nuclear weapons capability, a modified radar with a Forward Air Controller (FAC) mode and an Integrated Defensive Avionics Package (IDAP) to improve survivability in the air to ground environment. The last proposal, as Callaway explains, was the ASF-14 Advanced Strike Fighter.

The ASF-14 would have been a totally new aircraft with the F-14 shape and it would have taken advantages of the new materials and new technologies developed for the Advanced Tactical Fighter and Advanced Tactical Attack Aircraft programs.

None of these proposals has been built and we’ll never know if an advanced Tomcat would have been better than the actual Super Hornet, but for sure these two fighters are two different aircraft as explained by Ruzicka, who told to Rogoway that the better way to understand the differences between the F-14 and the F/A-18E/F is using the analogy of a muscle car to a mini-van, “with the Tomcat being the former and the Super Hornet being the latter. The muscle car doesn’t have much to it in the way of fancy technology, just some raw speed and the coolness of a Steve McQueen movie, but it gets the job done. The mini-van on the other hand is a very nice car, complete with DVR’s for the kids, Air Conditioning, power windows, and lots of places to put your sippy cup. It’s a great car—-but it’s still a mini-van.”


  1. Hey my money is on the tomcat a f14d or even an e variant would have done the job nicely. Heck bring back the Tomcat any way it was worth the money.

  2. What killed the F-14 was the GD/MACDAC A-12.

    When the Avenger II ceased to be a 35 million dollar frame (abou .001 seconds after the pen left the paper) the F-14D/A-6F upgrade took the hit and so you lost a LOT of engineering fixes like an internal APU, single point maintenance panel and much better BIT as well as a host of other improvements to wiring harnesses and ‘plumbing’ which were supposed to be shared between the Intruder and Tomcat while the A-12 got it’s Gen-3 stealth squared away, around the middle of the 1990s.

    Contrary to popular misconception, Admiral Lehman was never an ‘anti LO’ or ‘Grumman Pusher’ guy but simply knew that the M&R problems being experienced by the F-117 and the B-2 meant that naval LO could never survive the already harshed maritime environment.

    But when the push to match the USAF with a VLO strike bomber to replace the 1950s era A-6 in the Reagan era of excess funding exceeded his paygrade, he did the best he could and after the predictable happened, he had to find money for the A-12 somwhere.

    That ‘where’ was the F-14 which was suddenly going to be replaced by NATF and so it supposedly didn’t matter (NATF turned from the F-23N to the F-22 with F-14 VG which promptly made it unaffordable as essentially zero commonality existed between the variants, plus NIH which the USN is always guilt of…).

    This cost the upgrade production and later 14R/eman effort dearly as the front end of the jet got all sexed up with the APG-71 and AAS-42 plus glass cockpit, HUD and IFDL but the back end was still basically 1960s technology base and that is where most of the mechanicals tended to TAC vs. Hours break.

    It should be noted that _when they got their deployment swing_ going as preferential priority on the fleet replenishment squadron spares pipeline and jets were flying every day on a fixed schedule of ‘replace before it breaks’ expected FMC servicability, the F-14s, even the early A models, went from 60 MMH/FH to about 29 and in one case, 25. Which is very good for a VG airframe. Start adding missions back onto the airframe like TARPS-CD(R) and later the Bombcat mission and more stuff begets more downs in the systems.

    The thing you have to keep in mind is that the jet _still worked_. It could could carry an AIM-54, an AIM-7M and two AIM-9Ms and be reasonably self escorting, even with LANTIRN and a pair of GBU-24/31. It could swing completely to fighter. It could swing entirely to bomber (with four PGMs) and it had great radios to coordinate with other players as a SCAR asset with all that gas giving it plenty of time to sprint between kill boxes in search of OBAS targets and probably the best targeting FLIR in the business at that time (gyro+GPS on-pod = low jitter and much better SFPA detector behind the optics).

    Comparatively, the Hornet was always a mess, largely because you could not make an F-16 multirole condition match to a carrier fighter which also needed another 10,000lbs in navalization features.

    It still wouldn’t have been too bad if they had just admitted that the Super was what the A-18 should have been all along: a specialist medium attack bomber replacement for the A-6.

    _At that level_, things like high alpha and self-escort mission loads don’t really matter because nobody expects you to take on a Flanker and win. Indeed, all you really have to do is improve the lift margin (bigger HLD) to bring back heavy, expensive, PGMs.

    However; by the late 90s, an unsupported F-14 inventory was getting decidedly old and so the USN didn’t want an A-6 replacement they wanted to narrow the airwing tail altogether and ditch both the Tomcat and the Tadpole altogether.

    This was always laughable using a baseline jet whose heavy-weight munition load meant a combat radius of 190nm and whose 27″ radar couldn’t reliably detect fighters past 50nm, let alone provide six channel SARH for Phoenix and Sparrow.

    Add to this Navy regs on never pushing more than 200lbs above your shoulders onto a shoulder wing monoplane 8ft off the ground and suddenly you have to not only increase the effective area of the wing to increase bringback. But you also have to find space for an outboard HARM/AMRAAM capability because, golly wally, it’s a ‘fighter’. Not.

    Anyone who looks at the Hornet notices that they have solved for the (slow speed handing, carrier recoverability) straight wing by pushing it as far back on the fuselage as they could to retain supersonic capabilities without the nose-shockline passing over more than the outer panel. A big wing with six stations on it, that far back, severely inhibits pitch rate of the heavy nose. And so they went from a cranked ogival LEX back to the single-curve saber design of the YF-17. This created a LOT of drag and still didn’t get the pitch rate high enough to be an alpha pointer like the F-18 Classic and so they made it bigger again. This plus the six-pylon wing meant that added high lift devices wasn’t enough and wingspan had to grow as well. Which meant that LEX blanking at the roots and differential flow off the spine could cause enough spanwise migration to get TRO snaps which meant you now had to have a huge dog tooth (which had been tried on the Legacy Hornet but found to be draggy and buzzy and was thus removed) and still the TRO problem remained so that you had to add a plenum to the snag.

    Now you had a jet which was so draggy that the engines were unable to keep enough energy on the airframe to either get rapid transient recovery or sustain loaded roll as two principle drivers for ‘agililty’ as controlled nose chase on a threat aircraft. The entire Super airframe is basically a flying speed brake at high alpha.

    Which is the point at which unexpected interactions began to get nasty. You don’t want to put a hardpoint outboard of the fold if you can at all avoid it and even with a wider wingspan, stores separation clearances were not good, especially between the innerwing and much larger inlet trunking.

    Since limiting factors on wingspan had already been met without severely effecting aerolastics qualities (twist and deflection on the airfoil, big G and fatigue drivers) this mean the pylons had to be toed outboard and that pounded the crap out of the ordnance and wing tanks which, despite 14,500lbs of onboard fuel, now had to be put back into the mission design rather than concentrating on a single centerline as the primary radius driver. These wing tanks still don’t like to clear from the airframe and the drag is now such that an early ‘Bests the F-14, we promise!’ spec of 550nm strike radius first went down to 460nm. Then 393nm (KPP) and finally to 363nm. Meanwhile, the dogtooth, plenum and toed out wingpylons shake the wing so bad that jet literally rides like a gravel truck on a washboard road throughout the combat cruise area of .85-.9 and the jet is, essentially (with warload) strictly subsonic, having zero Ps margin above Mach 1 and 20,000ft, compared to the Mach 1.25 and 25,000ft for the Classic Hornet.

    Remember, ALL of this came about because of USN _insistence_ that this jet be called a ‘fighter’, despite the fact that it’s principle, original, design driver was to bring back heavier A2G ordnanc which the Classic Hornet would have had to dump.

    What makes or breaks fighter performance in the moder, BVR/ARH age? F-Pole. What drives F-Pole? Release Mach and Altitude. If you can punch the missile through the sound barrier, on the jet, before firing it you get another 20% range vs. time improvement. If you are at -10,000ft altitude differential and firmly below Mach 1 because the engines literally haven’t got the goose to moose you through. You will lose perhaps 30% missile range to the combined effects of someone shooting down at you from thinner air and being faster than you as a result.

    I would add one other thing here: The AMRAAM, even in the AIM-120D variant, is no match to the AIM-54. The Buffalo is a 1,004lbs in the AIM-54C+ variant, the AMRAAM is about 347lbs. At best, with GPS profile matching and precision trajectory tailoring vs. a closing target, it is a 20-25nm ranged weapon and for AIM-120C5, which still forms the majority of the warstock, this goes down to 10-12nm with a 6-8nm NEZ.

    Phoenix is good against fighters (direct shot, no loft) out to about 35-40nm and NEZ is about 17nm. The biggest issue being whether the threat RWR has the sophistiction to pick up the tether because the AIM-54 predated the Shooter:Illuminator concept of a non-tuned tether. At cIoser ranges, in daylight, the there is a good chance of IRST, MAWS or even MOB detection of he considerable launch plume as well. At night, especially with goggles, you can likely see the motor ignition from the ISS.

    Due to the exception average and peak power as processing reserves of the APG-71 especially, the F-14 could track stealth targets and with a combination of AGILE (SS-2D from the AIMVAL period) and AIM-152 AAAM, the F-14 would be a match to any aircraft on the planet with the possible exception of the T-50 with Izdeliye 810. Even then, with up to twelve, 60nm @ Mach 5 LRAAM and an S-Band ‘guidance illuminator’ (ALO) podded flood for mixed SARH/IRH seekers, the F-14 would be superior for most TARCAP, HVA Sniper, Missile Defense and particularly FORCAP Missions.

    As a bomber, AARGM under the gloves and up to 16 GBU-53 in the tunnel, with a modern ATP-SE or similar (40-50nm standoff) targeting pod also gives it superior survivability to F/A-18F.

    Ordnance and Sensors (40″ AESA) make a huge difference to mission relevance. Far more than the airframe.

    • Didn’t help Grumman either when they couldn’t produce a plane they kept on telling the government that they were developing after all that money they were given. Now, I understand the Avenger was supposed to be stealth, but…..

  3. So they weren’t just trying to make as real of movie as possible within budget, and tell a story, but we’re trying to trick people about a plane? Do you really believe that?

    • Glenn….I told myself when I first opined here and other web sites with regard to Grumman Aircraft that I’d try to be as objective as possible and limit what I say as my father was an airframe engineer and prevy to info considered classified to the general public and my dad made sure I did not know what he knew. Also, promised myself that I would not post anymore comments on this site less someone said something outrageously stupid….with regard to said aircraft…. To answer you….Grumman is no more….the ppl who worked there r now my father’s age aka in their 70’s or older so (that generation & your ww2 generation b4) would manufacture a product that you could risk putting your life in as opposed to the Northrop Grumman of today or others where I would wouldnt Go near it. Grumman was a family run company period – Lockheed, Boeing at one time and Northrop r not…Top Gun again is a movie so how can an unclassified movie put classified information into it? You are as intelligent as Frank who tries to insult by thinking that talking to pilots who can’t divulge classified intel as factual info…Look at other comments attacking me for example Grumman’s last Hoorah b4 Cheney did them in was a 21 proposal…what the ppl on here have no clue about aside from the point of manufacturing – costs & budgets so u need look no farther than your 22 or 35 – (costing with over runs into the trillions vs Grumman’s 38 mill 4 a Tom) or where China hacked or stole classified intel on “hiding something”, limiting what it can do by hiding it or peversing it into 3 different versions of itself when it should be good at one thing – kicking ass n getting the crew home… I’d take the Tom 21″Anytime Baby,” had Grumman been able to build it – now I’m done take care – ps “I really don’t give a shit whether you or any one else loves it, hates it” I’m providing limited factual info on an aircraft my family and many long islanders built and built with great pride along with all their other aircraft.

  4. Good morning all, my name is Ed and I am new to this fourm but in no way new to Aviation. While I must say I regret not opting to serve or to fly in the Military, I instead opted to become a professional Commercial and Military Aviation Photographer and persue extensive post grad work in both commercial and Military Aviation design, engineering, history and finally a private pilot that I have been fortunate enough to work as a civilian consultant on more than 1/2 dozen military/civilian aircraft projects or proposals conducting everything from Mission Defining, cost analysis of new vs older design ideas, act to lobby top military and political officisls to sttempt to help our Military be “always ready” to defend America and her allies throgh intel gsthering etc. Unfortunately or outgoing predident has decimated or And negllrcyed Miltary so badly that

  5. The tomcat has speed agility and payload on its side. the super hornet has range cost more smaller silhouette Luck of the draw would be the best answer. Pilot skill will help determine the out come. Knock down dragout I would have root for the tomcat.

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