Why the Super Tomcat 21 Was Not To Be: Designed to incorporate the air combat experience learned during the Vietnam War, the Grumman F-14 was the first of the American “Teen Series” fighter jets that would include the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the F/A-18 Hornet.
During its three decades in service with the United States Navy, the F-14 Tomcat more than lived up to the role it was initially designed for, drawing blood in combat and even getting its moment in the spotlight in the film Top Gun.
The carrier-based multi-role fighter was developed after the United States Congress halted the development of the F-111B along with the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program. While the goal of that effort was to supply the United States Air Force and the United States Navy with the planes to fit each of their individual needs, the Navy was opposed.
The F-111B, having been modified to meet Navy mission requirements, was deemed too heavy for carrier operations and the contract was canceled in April 1968. Subsequently, the Navy inaugurated a new design contest for what was termed the VFX program, the two primary competitors being McDonnell Douglas and Grumman. The Grumman’s design won out, and it followed the aircraft maker’s tradition of naming its planes after cats – thus the “Tomcat” was born.
The F-14, which made its first flight in 1970, arrived as a supersonic, twin-engine, variable-sweep wing, two-seat fighter that was designed to engage enemy aircraft in all weather conditions as well as at night.
F-14: Old Cat, With New Tricks
There had been multiple efforts to greatly improve this “hepcat” over the course of its multiple lives. That included the F-14D Super Tomcat, the final variant, which was notable for being able to engage in multiple targets more easily than its predecessors. It featured extensive changes to the avionics and displays.
The aircraft was to be the definitive Tomcat, but the upgrades came as the world was changing. The Cold War ended, and in 1989 after massive cost overruns and huge delays, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney proved more deadly than a Soviet fighter pilot.
Cheney shot down the purchase of any more F-14Ds—which likely made sense at the time. As a result, the Navy only received thirty-seven of the new F-14D Super Tomcats, while eighteen older F-14A models were updated to the D-models, designated as F-14D(R) for rebuild.
The Super Tomcat 21
The Tomcat almost received another life – but it wasn’t to be.
Had things played out differently, and the Soviet Union had not collapsed in the early 1990s, an even more advanced version of the Tomcat could have taken to the skies.
Described as an “Evolutionary” upgrade of the F-14, the ST21 (Super Tomcat for the 21st Century) would have added more fuel capacity and even an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that had been developed for the canceled A-12 attack aircraft.
The ST21 essentially grew out of a previous proposal that had been made by Northrup Grumman after the A-12 program was ended. It was to be called the Tomcat Quick Strike, which was meant to upgrade the existing F-14s by providing them with high-end navigation and targeting pods similar to the United States Air Forces’ LANTIRN system, as well as upgraded ground attack modes for the F-14D’s APG-71 Radar.
The newly improved aircraft could have had the ability to carry more standoff weaponry including the AGM-84E SLAM and AGM-88 HARM.
Those modifications could have given Tomcat true super-maneuverability, sustained speed, and peppy acceleration. As with the Tomcat Quick Strike, the new ST21 would have been able to carry targeting and navigation pods to provide it with true multirole fighter capabilities.
Earlier this year, TheAviationGeekClub quoted a former U.S. Navy test pilot, who suggested that the Super Tomcat 21 could have likely outperformed even the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
“The F-14D yes, it would in every area except reliability and turn performance (with equivalent combat loads the Tomcat was actually better than the F/A-18) but to truly understand what could have been you need to look at the Super Tomcat 21,” Kevin Mason, former US Naval Test Pilot School and TOPGUN Graduate, was quoted as stating.
Mason further suggested the ST21 could have been a virtually complete redesign of the original with modern technology including fly-by-wire. However, as noted, it wasn’t to be. The old cat didn’t get that extra life. The Navy decided to fill the role of fighter/attack aircraft with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the F-14 Tomcat was finally retired on September 22, 2006.
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.