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The Forgotten Reason Why Iran Had F-14 Tomcats for Maverick to Steal in Top Gun

F-14 Tomcat Top Gun. Image: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

The F-14 Tomcat was retired many years ago by the U.S. Navy. So how did Iran have F-14 Tomcats in the new Top Gun: Maverick movie, and how do they have them in real life? As in all things Iran, it seems like a complicated story: 

With a global box office draw now approaching $1.5 billionTop Gun: Maverick is a bonified blockbuster — and at least some of the credit for that has to go to the spectacular fan service provided by Maverick’s return to the cockpit of the famed F-14 Tomcat.

Fair warning, there are some light spoilers for “Top Gun: Maverick” ahead, but we won’t reveal much you wouldn’t have already seen in the trailers.

The plot of “Top Gun: Maverick,” like the plot of its 1986 precursor, is built around a conflict with another nation that can best be summed up as, “yadda yadda yadda.” It’s clear in the movie’s first act that it doesn’t want you thinking too hard about who the bad guys are, why the Navy is conducting a secret mission over Iran without the benefit of any mission planners other than a 60-year-old Captain who should be in the brig, why the F-35 couldn’t fly this mission, or why the Air Force doesn’t just handle it with platforms purpose-built for exactly these kinds of operations… like the B-2 Spirit.

And to be honest, that’s fine. I didn’t fly my butt to San Diego for an advanced screening of this movie to watch a two-hour documentary on how effective mission planning turns highly dangerous missions into very boring flights through dark skies and unaware air defenses. I came to see Maverick do a bunch of crazy stuff in a fighter jet that would have him stripped of his flight status in real life. I came to see fighter jets doing the sort of stuff they only ever really do when things go wrong.

And maybe most of all… I came to see Maverick square off against Russian Su-57s in an F-14 Tomcat he managed to steal from Iran.

But those of you who aren’t very well versed in Iran’s airpower might have found yourself wondering why on earth a nation that hates America is still operating the same American fighters Maverick flew in the 1980s. The truth is, Iran really does have a collection of F-14s… and we gave them to them.

How Iran got its own fleet of F-14s

The F-14 Tomcat was among the most capable fighters in the sky back in 1979. With a top speed in excess of Mach 2.4 and a rate of climb of around 45,000 feet per minute, the F-14 would leave even America’s current top-of-the-line F-35 in the dust if they were to drag race. Of course, combat isn’t drag racing, and the F-14’s large radar signature and dated systems would likely make it easy prey for the slower, but stealthy, F-35 (even if Mav seemed to do fine against Su-57s).

Iran was a much different place prior to the 1979 Revolution that saw the overthrow of Iran’s final monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in favor of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic Republic. While the revolution itself is a complex matter, the ways it affected relations with the West are relatively easy to summarize: the revolution replaced a Western-friendly government with a regime that saw America as a philosophical opponent.

But earlier in the decade, Iran’s American-friendly government was on the market for some serious airpower. Although both fighters were still in testing prior to entering into active service, the U.S. organized a fly-off between Grumman’s F-14 Tomcat and Mcdonnel Douglas’ F-15 Eagle, and ultimately, Iran chose to order 80 of the large, swing-wing F-14s for their own use.

But immediately following the establishment of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and amid an ongoing hostage crisis, the United States canceled its shipments of F-14 Tomcats. Of course, by then it was too late; 79 of the 80 Tomcats that were promised to Iran had already been delivered.

The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was originally designed to serve aboard U.S. Navy carriers, where they would be the first line of defense against Soviet bombers carrying anti-ship cruise missiles and nuclear weapons. As such, the F-14 was built not just to fight, but to cover great distances at a high rate of speed so they could rapidly close with approaching bombers, hold their own against fighter escorts, and prevent Soviet nuclear weapons from ever reaching U.S. shores.

Fortunately, nuclear war never came, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tomcat’s expensive maintenance requirements started to seem a bit less worthwhile. The U.S. Navy eventually decided to phase the F-14 out in favor of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, an aircraft that emphasized ground engagement more than air superiority.

Upon the F-14’s retirement in 2006, the U.S. literally shredded its remaining F-14s in order to ensure Iran couldn’t get their hands on any of their parts.

But that’s just the end of the F-14’s story here in the United States. Thousands of miles away, Iran has continued to operate its fleet of 79 Tomcats to this very day… at least, if they’re to be believed.

The United States has made it incredibly difficult for Iran to get their hands on the parts they need to keep the F-14s in the air, so most experts on this side of Iran’s border agree that it’s unlikely Iran could field many of these 4th generation fighters for a real fight. However, Iran contends that they currently have 24 F-14s that are still operational and flight ready, with two that have even been upgraded to F-14AMs. These “upgraded” fighters have been modified to fly with reverse engineered, locally sourced, replacement components, as well as weapons systems Iran can reliably get their hands on.

However, two “updated” versions of a long-retired fighter don’t make for much of a threat. And even if we were to give Iran the benefit of the doubt and assume they have two-dozen functional F-14s, their pilots will be woefully ill-prepared for the rigors of combat in these jets.

American fighter pilots are, hands down, the most heavily trained combat aviators in the world. On average, American fighter jocks see nearly twice the seat time in their respective aircraft as compared to their Chinese or Russian counterparts, let alone pilots serving in a less economically developed nation like Iran. And because Iran lacks the means to maintain their F-14s consistently, their pilots likely have next to no experience at the stick of the Tomcat. It simply wouldn’t be practical to put them in the air with any regularity.

The F-14 Tomcat is, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive fighters to come out of the Cold War, but in the modern era of stealth platforms like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, even Maverick wouldn’t stand a chance in an Iranian F-14… unless, of course, he benefitted from some serious movie magic.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx. 

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