In light of it being Top Gun Day I think it would be proper to take a look back to see how the true star of the movie, the F-14 Tomcat, could have lived on in various forms far past its 2006 retirement date.
In our reality, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet became the US Navy's vanguard fighter of the 21st century as a result of the boondoggle that was the A-12 Avenger program. After massive cost overruns, weight increases and huge delays, then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney axed the stealthy carrier-borne flying wing attack jet leaving a huge hole in NAVAIR's future inventory.
This was back in 1991, the Cold War had just ended and we just got done kicking the ass of one of the world's largest standing armies. Congress had been talked into high-risk, hugely aggressive defense programs for decades and they had had enough. The "peace dividend" sentiment was on the rise and defense budgets were beginning to fall.
With the A-6E TRAM Intruder's retirement imminent and in the vacuum created by the cancelled A-12 program, manufactures starting throwing out "logical growth" designs based on existing platforms. The hope was that if aircraft manufacturers make an almost entirely new aircraft look like an existing type, while also giving them a familiar "evolutionary" designation, Congress would see the product as a low risk, low-cost upgrade of a proven platform and thus move forward with its procurement. At the same time the NATF program (the equivalent to the USAF's Advanced Tactical Fighter program) was in the works, but the costs and timeline for its development would have been massive, and in light of what happened to the stealthy A-12 "Flying Dorito," it was clear that something simpler was needed. In the end this "low risk" and familiar design concept worked via the eventual development and procurement of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Yet in some people's opinion, it worked for the wrong aircraft.
The Super Tomcat 21 grew out of a previous proposal made by Grumman after the collapse of the A-12 program called the Tomcat Quick Strike. Quick Strike was meant to be an upgrade for existing F-14s by giving them high-end navigation and targeting pods similar to the USAF's LANTIRN system, along with upgraded ground attack modes for F-14D's APG-71 Radar (based on the aircraft's original AWG-9 radar) and the ability to carry more standoff weaponry like the AGM-84E SLAM and AGM-88 HARM.
Quick Strike was aimed more at cheaply picking up the Intruder's slack than at replacing the A-12's high-end capability, and was seen at the time as an insufficient technological leap over the F-14B and D models already in service. Also, rumors that an inexpensive clean sheet next generation Hornet design was in the works over at McDonald Douglas did not help Quick Strike's attractiveness. So Grumman came back to the Navy with a true "Super Tomcat," called the Super Tomcat 21.
A side note: the Quick Strike concept would be the impetus for outfitting the F-14 fleet with LANTIRN targeting pods capability. This relatively austere upgrade turned out to be one of the best investments NAVAIR had ever made in an existing platform and the mighty air defense focused Tomcat would become the tactical bomber of choice by the late 1990s and the airborne forward air controller of choice, otherwise known as FAC(A), by the early 2000s.
The Super Tomcat 21 would be a modification of the original F-14 design and it was to feature GE-F110-129 motors that would allow the Tomcat to super-cruise (achieve mach 1+ without using afterburner) continuously at mach 1.3. Additionally, the jet would have an upgraded APG-71 radar, modified and enlarged control surfaces, and enlarged leading edge root extensions (LERX) that would house more fuel and enhance the jet's low speed handling capabilities. Thrust vectoring nozzles tied directly to a new digital flight control system were also an option. These modifications would give the "Turkey Bird" true super-maneuverability and eye-watering acceleration and sustained speed. Additionally, super-cruise combined with its additional internal fuel carriage capacity would have given the Super Tomcat much greater range than it already had. The jet would also be able to carry targeting and navigation pods, giving it true multi-role capability. Finally, a new single-piece windscreen would be added to provide much better forward visibility.
There was also a more deep strike optimized version floated called Attack Super Tomcat 21. From an avionics standpoint this jet would be a major leap forward compared in comparison with its predecessors, with an attack FLIR and Terrain Following Radar housed in the Phoenix missile mount's aerodynamic fairings under the fuselage. The Infra Red Search & Track system and Television Camera System would be mounted in under-nose pods similar to the F-14D's TCS/IRST pod. Also, the aircraft would have upgraded cockpit avionics including a new wide angle heads up display (HUD) that would be capable of projecting the navigational FLIR's imagery. New mission computers and an upgraded self defense suite was included in the more elaborate Attack Super Tomcat 21 proposal. The Super Tomcat 21 and the Attack Tomcat 21 were pitched as a concept for remanufacturing existing F-14s or for new build aircraft.
A side note: I once talked to an accomplished engineer that worked for Grumman on the Super Tomcat 21 proposal. He told me that the performance models they were seeing with the Super Tomcat design were absolutely stunning and the jet's low speed handling, especially with thrust vectoring and the bigger engines, and the sheer amount of territory it could cover in a single mission were unprecedented. This man went on to work for "other contractors" on major fighter programs, but he maintains that the Super Tomcat's maneuvering performance and ability to operate as a fighter independent of tanker assets over large distances has still not been accomplished in any US or foreign design to this day. He did mention that he does see a large degree of the Super Tomcat's potential in the Russia's late model Flanker series, especially with its thrust vectoring and large internal fuel, but according to him it still does not really compare.
The Tomcat's ultimate proposed configuration was known as the "ASF-14" would be a new build, highly updated version of the legendary F-14. A true "Super Tomcat" in every sense of the word, the machine would boast an even larger increase in internal fuel over the Super Tomcat 21 via thicker wings, the gutting of bulky older generation sub-systems and the use of carbon fiber structural components to save weight and volume. It would initially utilize the same motors as the Super Tomcat, but there was talk of eventually rolling the F-22 and NATF's F-119 or F120 engines into the design at a later date. I was told that the Tomcat's super-cruise ability with these advanced engines would be limited more by heat accumulation than speed itself (think numbers over mach two).
Even without thrust vectoring, the aerodynamic enhancements found on the ASF-14 would allow the jet to reach over 77 degrees of sustained AoA, but thrust vectoring was also to be part of the new design which would have made it the most maneuverable fighter of all time. Additionally, the ASF-14 would have been built with a top of the line self defense and countermeasure suite along with ability to perform "wild weasel" suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions.
Possibly the best part of about the ASF-14 is that it would be an entirely new aircraft, much along the same lines as the Super Hornet. This means old 1960's era sub-systems that were heavy and complex would be replaced with modular components. All of the jet's hydraulic and electrical systems that gave legacy Tomcat maintainers such headaches over the years would have been replaced with greatly simplified systems. Furthermore, many structural components would be made out of carbon fiber instead of aluminum or titanium. This would allow the new Tomcat to be only slightly heavier in gross weight (about 1200 pounds) than its predecessor, while gaining thousands of pounds of fuel. There was even talk that some stealthy characteristics would be applied to the ASF-14, this may have included radar baffles over it engines' fan faces and "edge-alligned" gear doors and access points.
The cockpit would have featured an all glass design with helmet mounted displays for both the pilot and the RIO/WSO. The most exciting part of the avionics suite would have made use of the Tomcat's massive radar aperture. A mammoth active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar would have been fitted and provided with immense amounts of power for interlaced air-to-air and air-to-ground operations or even standoff electronic attack. You can see how incredible the ASF-14s AESA capability would have matured into by looking at the current APG-63V3 AESA radar upgrade program for the F-15. The APG-63V3 is actually more capable in some respects than the F-22A's APG-77 AESA radar because it is larger in diameter, allowing for more transit/receive modules to be utilized, and it is newer in its design. The Tomcat was built originally for the massive Hughes AWG-9 fire control radar, the largest radar ever deployed on a US fighter, so there is a LOT of real estate up front for the mother of all fighter jet AESA radar arrays to have been fitted.
There is no doubt that the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and E/A-18G Growler programs are impressive. They have delivered a so called "80% solution" to NAVAIR on time and on budget consistently for a decade and a half. The jets are comparatively reliable and have good commonality with the legacy Hornet for aircrew and maintenance crossover familiarity. Although as a replacement for both the F-14 and the A-6, the Super Hornet lacks greatly in some very important respects. These being mainly range and speed.
The Super Hornet, or "Rhino" as it is now called, is not nearly as thirsty as its smaller A/B/C/D "legacy" hornet brethren, but it still lacks range and endurance. It is also a bit of a pig aerodynamically. Sporting a thicker wing and a larger, less aerodynamically efficient airframe than its progenitor, the Super Hornet is not that fast when compared to the Tomcat or even the legacy Hornet for that matter, especially when there are stores, or even just pylons hung under its big wings.
The pylons are probably the most appalling factor of the E/F/G Super Hornet models. They are actually canted out 3 degrees due to weapons separation issues during testing. This means that they are acting not just as parasitic drag, but as little speed-brakes of sorts whenever they are present and seeing as there is no weapons bay on the Super Hornet, they are almost always present. The more you store on these pylons the more surface area is meeting airflow head-on, causing a sizable drag and fuel burn penalty. This penalty would be partly solved by upgrading the existing Super Hornet fleet to Block III/Advanced configurations, with a stealthy weapons pod and conformal fuel tanks, but this is entirely another story.
In contrast, the F-14 carries the majority of its weapons in its "tunnel" recess, part of its overall lifting body design, that runs between the jet's two engine nacelles. This configuration greatly reduces drag in comparison to aircraft that carry their weapons on straight pylons on their wings.
The Super's big wings and control surfaces do help in the slow speed handling regime, but that area of the envelope is becoming less important with the proliferation of helmet mounting sighting systems paired with high off-boresight heat seeking missiles. In other words, you now only have to see your enemy to kill them in a dogfight, as opposed to getting the fighter's nose, and thus its weapons, pointed directly at them. This larger wing and weak aerodynamic shaping also means that the Super Hornet does not accelerate quickly with normal stores and even going over mach one can be challenging when configured in certain ways or when flying at certain altitudes.
To sum it up, the Super Hornet is an efficient and very smart flying compromise, capable of everything but master at nothing. If you want to get somewhere quick in it, prepare to burn a lot of gas in the process and you will still get there slower than most all other advanced fighters. So maybe the wrong machine was super-sized by the US Navy, especially concerning it was a one-size fits all design.
Taking a light strike fighter and turning it into a medium strike fighter is far less than ideal. Taking a heavy fighter and turning it into better heavy strike fighter is much more relevant especially considering the unique challenges of the carrier environment. The ASF-14 would have been the pinnacle of American non-stealth fighter aircraft, offering blistering speed, immense range, long on station time, advanced sensors and super-maneuverability all in a proven carrier capable package. In fact, with the upgrades planned under the ASF-14 model this "ultra-Tomcat" of sorts would have been more or a regional fighter and attack aircraft than a traditional fighter, which would have made a ton of sense over the last 13 years of war and in the present where America's strategic focus is turning towards the vast expanses of the Pacific Theater.
Sadly the ASF-14 proposal never came to reality as the USN thought it would be too expensive in the long run and opted with the Super Hornet instead. So next time you hear about how awesome the avionics integration is on the Super Hornet or the Growler, ponder on the possibility of how much more effective those avionics would have been if they were packed into an airframe that can carry them hundreds more miles away from the Carrier Group at extremely high sustained speeds.
Adapted from a prior piece at Aviationintel.com, pictures via public domain and US Navy.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com