We flew the F-14 Tomcat, here’s why it was the most important Cold War warplane
By former F-14 pilot Jon Schreiber, with former Topgun instructor and F-14 RIO Dave Baranek
The F-14 Tomcat, born of lessons learned and policy denied1, became a star of the US Navy’s combat weaponry and the silver screen but more significantly, it was the most important warplane of the Cold War. Yes it was! Here’s why.
The F-14 embodied the broadest capabilities of any airplane ever designed for and flown in combat. It was a tactical airplane with strategic capabilities. Genius.
For today’s mission we won’t compare the Tomcat /AIM-54 missile combination to the Flanker /AA-10C. Instead, we’re going back to when the F-14 first brought sensational performance to American carrier flight decks.
The F-14 had the capability of destroying ANY opposing aircraft ANY where in the world. No other Cold War aircraft had the single mission capability to send two nuggets on a “standard” mission from the CV and trap two Aces a few hours later. The AIM-54 and the AWG-9 enabled incredible combat capability. With the AWG-9 able to track two dozen separate targets and feed the data to a swarm of million-dollar missiles doing their job, two J.Os3 could find themselves at the tactical pointy end of a powerful strategic spear. This capability was on American flight decks SEVENTEEN YEARS before the AIM-120 provided multi-shot capability to other American fighters. Additionally, the F-14 was armed with weapons that can kill from inside 1000 feet (the M61 Gatling gun) to 70 nautical miles with the Phoenix air-to-air missile, and the Tomcat was designed with an incredibly versatile performance envelope that boasted high-g manoeuvring, high-speed, great endurance. The Tomcat’s godlike potency captured the aviation world’s attention when it was introduced as one of the earliest 4th generation fighters.
Leveraging the Tomcat’s versatility during FleetEx 83 (April 1983), several F-14s reportedly overflew a Soviet military base near the Kamchatka peninsula – proving the assertion of Admiral Watkins, then CNO, that the USSR was “as naked as a jay-bird” in that AOR. Following the FleetEx 83 F-14 flyover, which caused a political stir, Able Archer 83 demonstrated NATO’s first strike capability in November 1983. Coincidence? We think not. The F-14 demonstrated it was capable of first strike. But how did a tactical airplane enable such a strategy?
In 1986, the F-14 proved that its extraordinarily capable weapon system and its endurance could create a “strategic-tactic,” variously known as Chainsaw and Tanksaw, enabling a single F-14 to achieve a kill volume covering approximately 2% of the Pacific Ocean. Kills at 700NM from the carrier meant anti-ship missiles carried on aircraft like the Bear and Badger were no longer a sure threat to the U.S. Navy’s fleet, allowing carrier-based and other long range strike aircraft to be flown feet dry over the USSR. The F-14 had completely amputated the air leg of the Soviet triad.
In a scenario where a Tanksaw F-14 shoots down outbound Soviet bombers while they are still feet-dry over the USSR, the cognisant Soviet Air Force General, who was just handed his retirement by a couple of Navy flyers, will need to temper his response to losing those capital assets so early in the campaign. His problem is not the aggressive F-14; his problem is that the standard USN F-14 always travelled with a team of “goodfellas.” Goodfellas in the form of one or more Battle Groups, and during the cold war a Battle Group deployed with organic strategic capabilities. If F-14s are able to kill bombers feet dry over the Soviet Union then the organic assets of the Battle Group have the ability to strike critical C4 targets in country. By severing critical C4 links across several Soviet regional C4 facilities the U.S. will have gained a great advantage of shortening the Soviet strategic decision-cycle time from about 40 minutes to less than 10 minutes. That advantage could disable initiation of the Soviets MAD3 response thus decapitating the entire context of the Cold War conundrum. Tactical to strategic, indeed.
The versatility of the F-14 was a triumph, forged in titanium, of the West’s ability to thwart any threat, thus ending the cold war and reserving a spot for the USSR on the “ash heap of history.” 2 While many other aircraft can claim a supporting role in ending the cold war, the key aircraft that crippled the air leg and MAD response of the Soviet Stratigiya was, unquestionably, the Tomcat.
- The F-14 incorporated many lessons from the ongoing air war in Vietnam, as did the F-15 Eagle. These included the importance of good maneuverability and cockpit visibility, the value of a built-in gun, and many more. As far as policy denied, this includes the failed attempt to force the Navy to accept the F-111B when it needed a versatile fighter and the missile-only armament of other recent American fighters.
- In his “Westminster Speech” of 18 June 1982, US President Ronal Reagan said, “…The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history….”
- Abbreviations used in the article that may not be common knowledge: J.O. = junior officer; CNO = Chief of Naval Operations; AOR = area of responsibility; MAD = Mutually Assured Destruction.
- Jon “Hooter” Schreiber is pappy to three cute as the dickens girls, father of two cool sons, and husband with limited fashion sense. He is a retired US Navy fighter pilot (F-4s and F-14s) and active GA pilot. Opinions offered free of charge.
- Dave “Bio” Baranek is enjoying retirement with his wife. He occasionally writes and creates aviation-related videos. He is a retired US Navy F-14 RIO and former Topgun instructor.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and are not endorsed by any organization.