Author’s Note: Before you read this, note that I will be going into some of the plot details of the new Top Gun: Maverick movie. So, if you have not seen the movie – and you really should just go see it right now as it is mindless fun and a great way to get back to the theaters after the pandemic – then you may want to hold off from reading this.
Sure, all of the film’s trailers show off the much newer and cooler F/A-18 Super Hornet, the SR-72 Blackbird, and even the Su-57 Felon from Russia (more on that in a second), but the old F-14 is back in a very big way.
Top Gun: Maverick Features One Crazy Dogfight
Somehow, as only the magic in the movies can make happen, Maverick and Rooster sneak onto an Iranian Airbase that was just hit by a massive Tomahawk cruise missile attack and steal an old F-14 from a hanger.
From here, Maverick and Rooster take to the skies in the old Tomcat and try to escape to their Navy aircraft carrier. All of a sudden, multiple Russian-built Sukhoi Su-57 Felon 5th generation fighters (Note: in the movie, they are referred to only as 5th generation fighters, and the audience is never told they are Russian-made) that survived the airbase attack spot and engage Maverick and his elderly F-14.
Who Would Win in Real Life?
So the natural question comes to mind: Could a 1970s F-14 Tomcat – even updated, as the Iranians have done over the years – somehow take on and defeat the mighty Russian Su-57 as the movie portrays?
Two Air Force pilots who agreed to speak to 1945 all said the same thing: are you crazy? “I have flown F-35s for some time now,” explained one Air Force pilot who asked his name not be used as he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “I can tell you this, I have killed quite a few 4th generation fighters in combat simulations – killed them from distance and they never knew they were dead until they were informed. In a combat scenario, I would easily kill an even older F-14 from Iran or anywhere else – they would never see me, know I was there, or pick me up on the radar most likely. They would die and not even know it was coming until they met their maker in heaven or hell.”
Another Air Force pilot who recently retired – and also asked to keep his name out of this article as he was not cleared to speak on this issue – also shared the same opinion. “The movie is fantastic, I just saw it myself, but the general public needs to understand an F-14 Tomcat was built for a different era. It was not built to fight a 5th generation fighter like the F-35, F-22, or even the less capable Russian Su-57 like in Top Gun: Maverick,” explained the retired pilot. “What would likely happen is the pilot flying the 5th generation fighter would work in behind the F-14, leverage their stealth capabilities, and kill the Tomcat with a missile from far away. There is no cool dog fight or any sort of other engagement. Maverick dies. End of story.”
Of course, knowing human nature, there are ways for the F-14 to win, even if incredibly remote. For example, when I was Executive Editor of the National Interest, for fun I assigned to one of our defense writers a fun story looking at if the 5th generation F-22 stealth fighter could somehow get beaten by an F-14 in a dogifght. The writer was pretty upset about even having to write the story – he demanded his name be left off it as he thought it was so crazy.
While he agreed with the pilot’s ideas above, he did leave open at least some hope for Maverick:
“However, if by some bizarre circumstance the F-22 is embroiled in a dogfight with the F-14, the chances are the Raptor will kill the Tomcat unless the American pilot suffers from extremely bad luck or makes a serious error. The Raptor holds all of the cards in terms of instantaneous and sustained turn rates—which in the F-22’s case is greater than 30 degrees per second—and energy addition. The Raptor’s incredible specific excess power and sheer maneuverability combined with its new AIM-9X missiles makes it so that the odds are grotesquely stacked in the F-22 pilot’s favor.”
So maybe my idea was not so crazy after all? I guess a little military fantasy mixed with nostalgia now and then is a good thing.
Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree focusing on International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization.