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Gulf War 20th: F-14 Tomcat in Combat

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When Operation Desert Storm began, the F-14 Tomcat was the only fighter in the U.S. inventory to have scored an air-to-air kill in American hands. It was also a kind of superstar for its popular role in the movie Top Gun. The F-14 was expected to perform well in Desert Storm – and did.

The F-14 was expected to perform well in Desert Storm – and did.

Two U.S. carriers participated in the Desert Shield build-up – USS Eisenhower (CV 69) with F-14 squadrons VF-142 “Ghostriders” and VF-143 “Pukin Dogs” on board and USS Independence (CV 62), which was unique in having just a single Tomcat squadron, VF-154 “Black Knights.” U.S. Navy commanders used their sleek, swing-wing Tomcats to guard the influx of coalition forces to the Persian Gulf region and to test Saddam Hussein’s air defenses. Eisenhower and Independence finished their cruises before fighting began.

F-14 Tomcats

A view of Fighter Squadron 74 and 103 (VF-74 and VF-103) F-14A Plus Tomcat aircraft parked on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV 60) during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Department of Defense photo

By Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm, no fewer than six U.S. carriers were on station in the war zone. One of them, USS Midway (CV 41) had accommodated Tomcats in fleet trials but was considered too small to have Tomcats operationally embarked. The five Tomcat-equipped warships were the USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) with squadrons VF-14

F-14s were tied to defensive CAPs for the fleet and routinely ventured over enemy territory only when escorting strike missions.

“Tophatters” and VF-32 “Swordsmen”; USS Saratoga (CV 60) with VF-74 “Be-Devilers” and VF-103 “Sluggers” – both carriers in the Red Sea for operations against targets in Western Iraq. USS America (CV 66) with VF-33 “Tarsiers” and VF-102 “Diamondbacks,” USS Ranger (CV 61) with VF-1 “Wolfpack” and VF-2 “Bounty Hunters” and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) with VF-41 “Black Aces” and VF-84 “Jolly Rogers” launched strikes from the Persian Gulf against targets in Kuwait and Eastern Iraq. America moved from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf in early February, before the start of the ground war.

F-14A Tomcat

An underside view of a Fighter Squadron 41 (VF-41) F-14A Tomcat aircraft on a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) during Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft is carrying four AIM-7 Sparrow missiles under its fuselage and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on each wing pylon. U.S. Department of Defense photo

Tomcat squadrons mainly flew strike escort missions, though the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod (TARPS) equipped aircraft proved useful as surveillance platforms after it became apparent that the F-14 squadrons did not need to be fully committed to fighter duties. TARPS aircraft helped search for Iraq’s mobile Scud missiles. The F-14 community’s hopes that their aircraft would add to its laurels in the air-to-air role were frustrated, however, since the lack of enemy air activity provided few targets for the allied air forces, and most of these fell to U.S. Air Force F-15Cs, which were assigned combat air patrol (CAP) duties inside Iraq and over the borders.

 

Almost No Air-to-Air

Tomcat pilots, radar intercept officers and plane captains might be forgiven if they expected a lot of air-to-air action.

Until the start of the ground offensive, F-14s were tied to defensive CAPs for the fleet and routinely ventured over enemy territory only when escorting strike missions. They flew a handful of offensive sweeps, but the Iraqis refused to engage. On Jan. 17, 1991, for example, VF-14 and VF-32 each sent a pair of Tomcats on a sweep to H-2 and H-3 airfields, with no result.

Tomcat pilots, radar intercept officers and plane captains might be forgiven if they expected a lot of air-to-air action. After all, the Tomcat had seen plenty of action during the previous decade. On Aug. 19, 1981, F-14s from VF-41 aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) shot down two Libyan Su-22 Fitters over the Gulf of Sidra. On Jan. 4, 1989, Tomcats of VF-32 from the Kennedy bagged two Libyan MiG-23 Flogger Es directly off the Libyan coast.

But while the Tomcat proved invaluable during Desert Storm, it did not fulfill its air-to-air potential. The air-to-air mission was assigned to Air Force F-15 Eagles while Tomcats were charged with working with carrier strike packages.

F-14 Tomcat

An F-14 Tomcat aircraft of Fighter Squadron 103 (VF-103) prepares for refueling during Operation Desert Storm. The aircraft is armed with AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The F-14 scored only a single confirmed aerial victory during the war, when Lt. Stuart Broce of VF-1, and his RIO and squadron commander, Cmdr. Ron McElraft downed a Mil Mi-8 “Hip” helicopter on Feb. 6, 1991, using an AIM-9 Sidewinder. They were flying F-14A bureau number 162603. Their success balanced the loss of an F-14 downed by a surface-to-air missile on Jan. 21. Lt. Devon Jones, the pilot of bureau number 161430, was rescued while radar intercept officer Lt. Lawrence Slade became a prisoner of war.

The F-14’s standard load-out usually consisted of two AIM-54C Phoenix and two AIM-7F Sparrow missiles under the fuselage, plus two AIM-7Fs and two AIM-9s under-wing, and with external fuel tanks on the under-nacelle hardpoints. TARPS-configured aircraft flew with the reconnaissance pod replacing Sparrows, and usually with an Expanded Capability Chaff adaptor in the port forward Phoenix rail and an AN/ALQ-167 jamming pod under the starboard rail. All participating F-14s were equipped with the ASW-27C datalink, allowing the aircraft to cooperate closely with each other and with Air Force F-15s. Warplanes not equipped with this equipment (such as Royal Air Force Tornado F. Mk. 3s) were not allowed over Iraq, in order to prevent blue-on-blue engagements.

The F-14 scored only a single confirmed aerial victory during the war, when Lt. Stuart Broce of VF-1, and his RIO and squadron commander, Cmdr. Ron McElraft downed a Mil Mi-8 “Hip” helicopter on Feb. 6, 1991, using an AIM-9 Sidewinder.

Inclusion of two squadrons of F-14A (Plus) models – in Saratoga‘s VF-74 and VF-103 and in later years redesignated F-14B – gave a useful opportunity to compare old and new under combat conditions. A number of TF30 turbofan-engined F-14As experienced compressor stalls and even flameouts when attempting to refuel in flight at high weights and at altitudes of above 23,000 feet, when afterburner was required to stay “plugged in.” Fuel flow under these circumstances was almost balanced by the increased fuel consumption. The A (Plus), on the other hand, with the F110 turbofan engine, proved itself to be exceptionally reliable, and the extra increment in performance was judged invaluable.

Some naval officers feel they missed a bet by not using the Tomcat in the strike role, as they did later with the “Bombcat” variant during fighting over Kosovo in 1999 and in Iraq up to 2005. In Desert Storm, there was no shortage of air-to-ground aircraft, but the F-14’s participation could have been a useful and high-visibility demonstration of its versatility. Instead, the F/A-18 Hornet emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation for its multi-role capabilities. This was undoubtedly a factor around the end of the twentieth century when the Navy decided in favor of the next-generation F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and against continuation of the F-14D and various air-to-ground “Bombcat” variants.

F-14A Tomcat

A Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over part of Al Jaber Airfield. The airfield was heavily damaged during Operation Desert Storm. Some believe that if the Tomcat had been able to perform strike missions during Desert Storm, it might still be in service. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The Navy retired its last F-14 Tomcat in February 2006.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...