The venerable Grumman F-14 Tomcat has already entered the twilight of it’s long and eventful service with the US Navy and the aircraft are already being withdrawn from service as they are replaced by the Boeing F/A-18E/F together with the unique F-14 TARPS reconnaissance system.
The F-14 Tomcat actually grew from the ashes of a programme in the early 1960's to build a fighter that would meet the requirements of both the Navy and the Air Force and was given the designation F-111. The Navy version, the F-111B, weighed in at 85,000 lbs and was designed to carry the AIM-54 Phoenix missile and the powerful AWG-9 radar, a combination that was planned to shoot down aerial enemy targets 100 miles away. F-111B flight tests were little short of a complete disaster and several pilots lost their lives flying an aircraft that was too heavy and far too clumsy for carrier operations. Thankfully only 7 F-111B were produced before common sense finally prevailed and the program was finally cancelled in 1968. Nevertheless the Navy and Hughes decided to continue testing the AWG-9/Phoenix with the F-111B prototypes to ensure that the system was ready when a replacement aircraft was ready to fly.
The F-14 program was born with the 1968 Navy's proposal for the VFX (Navy Fighter Experimental) and resulted in Grumman's general design 303. The VFX required a fighter with a two-man crew with tandem seating, two engines, an advanced weapon system, a powerful radar plus the ability to carry a variety of long, medium and short-range high-performance air-to-air missiles together with an internal gun. Finally, the VFX was also required to land on a carrier with a full armament load, rather than having to ditch highly expensive missiles to keep the landing weight down. However, by now thanks to the foresight of the Navy and Hughes, AWG-9 radar and Phoenix missile originally used in the F-111B aircraft, was also ready for service and both would be used in the F-14A Tomcat. The first flight of the F-14A prototype took place on December 21, 1970 and after comprehensive testing, the fully F-14 was introduced to the fleet in 1974.
In the 1980’s the US Navy was becoming short of reconnaissance assets and decided that the F-14 would make an excellent recce platform. The Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) was designed specifically for the F-14 and is housed in a 17ft, 1,850lbs pod mounted on the main fuselage, in the right rear Phoenix station. The front of the pod contains a two-position (vertical and forward oblique) Barrington IL KS-87 frame camera, behind this camera is a Barrington IL KA-99 low altitude panoramic camera, followed by Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAD-5 linescan imaging infra-red sensor. TARPS can also be fitted with a KS-135 long-range camera. Only minor changes to the wiring and cockpit displays are needed to enable an F-14 to carry a TARPS. During Desert Storm in 1991 F-14s flew 781 TARPS missions and numerous TARPS missions were also conducted over Bosina-Hercegovina as part of Operation Deny Flight in 1993. However, Desert Storm also showed the limitations of using ‘wet film’, where the dissemination of information was far slower than the end users required, particularly when the TARPS equipped F-14s were used for ‘Stud Hunting’ or Battle Damage Assessment deep inside Iraq.
In 1990 the first updated F-14D, powered by two F100-GE-400 engines came off the production line, with the final Tomcat leaving the factory in July 1992. However, by now the US Navy had decided that the Tomcat should also be used for other roles and the new F-14Ds all had the cockpit displays and wiring for use of the TARPS recce pod. Today, the few remaining F-14Ds have full strike capability and LANTIRN equipped Tomcats can also deliver smart as well as standard iron-bombs with a considerable bring-back capability. The Tomcat is night-vision goggle capable and is now considered a long-range multi-mission day & night strike-fighter and reconnaissance platform. The limitations of the TARPS ‘wet’ film system was resolved by the purchase of 24 new TARPS – DI (Digital Imagery) pods in 2003 and this allow the aircraft to relay imagery in near real-time back to a carrier or a ground station via their Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) secure UHF datalink.
But things went different for the latest Tomcat version, the F-14D, thanks to financial cut-backs and a strong F-18E/F lobby in the US government, the number of new F-14Ds was reduced as well as the remanufacture numbers of aircraft that should have been upgraded from F-14A/B standard to the F-14D. A few days after the F-14D production and remanufacture were terminated on 26 February 1991, the US Department of Defence announced that the F-18F Super Hornet would replace the F-14 Tomcat and the final aircraft will be withdrawn from service in 2006, along with the TARPS-DI system.