Maverick and Goose made the F-14 Tomcat famous as a cultural emblem of US military air power, yet the Pentagon’s decision to ultimately retire the 1980s-era aircraft appears to be sound and well-placed as a way to adapt to a fast-changing air-threat environment.
F-14 History and the Future
The concept of a two-man crew is designed to bring several key advantages, such as the simple fact of adding another set of eyes. An aviator can of course help with command and control, targeting, surveillance and even threat identification, with the idea of freeing up the pilot for other pressing, time-sensitive tasks.
Reducing a crew to one or even no pilots reduces weight, drag and the possibility of human error. Of course, human pilots are not likely to disappear soon given those unique, critical faculties particular to the human mind, yet computer advances have arguably outpaced the advantages of using a two-man crew.
Therefore, despite Top Gun fame and an illustrious history, technological progress has arguably rendered the concept of a two-man crew obsolete. The reason is both clear and simple, the advent of AI-enabled, high-speed computers can quickly gather, organize and transmit vast amounts of otherwise disparate pools or streams of data, quickly presenting an integrated picture of pilots.
This means key procedural functions such as altitude, navigation, aircraft maintenance, speed and time-sensitive variables such as targeting data, threat identification and EW systems can to a large extent be completed without a need for human intervention.
Essentially, machines can naturally perform certain critical, time sensitive combat functions exponentially faster than humans. New incoming sensor data is bounced off a vast database for comparison, reference, organization and analysis and then sent or presented to a human decision maker in position to make quick, time-sensitive decisions in combat.
In fact, advanced AI-enabled algorithms are so sophisticated that they have even out-performed humans in some simulated dogfighting exercises. High-speed computers can instantly assess a large number of key interwoven variables, perform analysis and recommend optimal courses of action for pilots. The idea is to get inside of or ahead of an enemy’s decision-making process to prevail in any air-combat engagement.
What much of this points to is the growing consensus among military scientists, weapons developers and innovators that the optimal approach to real-time, high-speed combat includes a blending of man and machine. Often referred to as human-machine interface, the idea is to use high-speed computing to ease the cognitive burden upon a pilot while enabling him or her to use those key faculties unique to human cognition and decision-making. Certainly, there are many things specific to human perception, consciousness, intuition, emotion or dynamic decision-making that computers simply cannot replicate. Therefore, combat decision-making is best served through a manned-unmanned teaming approach. This way, the best of each is leveraged to maximize any combat advantage.
With this in mind, the US Air Force is not only networking drones to fighter jets in combat but also testing fighter jet dogfighting ability with a human pilot supported by a machine or AI-enabled co-pilot.
In 2020, an AI-enabled computer algorithm operated on board a military aircraft while in flight, coordinating navigational details, sensor information and reconnaissance missions alongside a human pilot. The AI algorithm, called ARTUu, flew along with a human pilot on a U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, performing tasks that would “otherwise be done by a pilot,” an Air Force report from 2020 explained.
This experiment proved successful and is something which continues to inform Air Force air-combat technology development. The concept of operations with this is simply that a machine can calculate those things machines do best at unprecedented speeds while humans exercise those elements of judgment and perceptions computers are unable to replicate.
Ultimately, what the rapid maturation of these technologies seems to suggest is that pairing a human pilot and a computer might be much more advantageous than having a two-man crew, particularly given that so many aircraft and fighters can already fly unmanned with growing degrees of autonomy.
Therefore, despite some arguments to the contrary, it seems the Navy may have been well-advised to retire the F-14 and clear the way more fully to where things are now with F-22s and F-35s controlling drones and 6th-generation aircraft already in the air.
Expert Biography and Author Information
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
March 22, 2023 at 2:00 pm
Geez. This plane has been retired for 15+ years already. I guess the F-14 fan boys will read anything with “F-14” in the article.
March 22, 2023 at 3:34 pm
Like you, Aero? lol
March 22, 2023 at 4:15 pm
God bless people in the world.
The FAD mission of F-14 is the outer ring active defense, which is responsible for combat Tu-16 and Tu-22M with AIM-54.
God bless America.
March 22, 2023 at 4:42 pm
The author sort of missed the boat with this article. No one is denying that AI is better at many things than humans, and that algorithms can sort through and organize data quicker than humans.
The argument for the Tomcat or the Intruder for that matter, is that their retirement left a capability gap in the carrier air wing that has yet to be filled. That gap was easy to ignore during the war on terror, but it has a become a glaring weakness in recent years.
If the Navy had decided to build Super Tomcats or Super Intruders in the 90’s those planes would still be around today.
March 22, 2023 at 7:01 pm
If the F22 were mass produced then sure. It took far too long to get the F35 developed. Leaving the F18 as the Navy’s only plane. These airframes are worn out and can not match the loiter time and defensive capabilities of the F14.
Losing the F14 relegated Aegis cruisers to full time Carrier Pickett duty instead of Navy killers.
This is not a fact talked about. The 14 may be an antique by today’s standards but there is no stealthy high tech equivilent.
We essentially replaced a purpose built weapon with a multitool that is 10x more expensive than the tool we replaced. The F35 does nothing “well” and is not an air superiority fighter and we don’t have enough F22s for them to be a difference maker.
March 22, 2023 at 11:01 pm
Although mentioned elsewhere, this article says nothing about the maintenance burden the F-14 had become. The swing-wing nature of the F-14 is great but it has to be maintained.
As to why the planners couldn’t come up with a worthier successor, I will leave that answer with those who know more.
March 23, 2023 at 1:02 pm
The Navy needed the 2000 mile combat range of F14. “The F/A-18 Hornet has a combat radius of 537 km (330 mi) on a hi-lo-lo-hi mission.”
March 24, 2023 at 7:08 pm
Wish the article had mentioned that the F-14 was built around the Phoenix missile system, which required a back-seater. Did a great job in Kosovo using him in attacks! Don’t forget, the top Vietnam Ace is a back-seater, Chuck DeBellevue!
March 30, 2023 at 1:31 pm
F-14, F4, and F5 helped the Iranians defeat Iraqis invasion. Only two countries in the world owned the F14s. USA, and Iran. Iran still utilizing them today. Let’s get rid of the mullahs so Iran and USA become brothers again.
March 31, 2023 at 10:45 pm
The key to modern air supremacy is the electronics. Who can reasonably argue that it wouldn’t be more effective and vastly more economical to
stick with the older proven aircraft do regular upgrades and, consequently, get way ahead in the electronics and weapons modification? The answer lies in the inevitable corruption of the politics/industry ‘partnership’. Now that drones are here, too, this needs to change.
April 4, 2023 at 12:05 pm
Bringing the F-22 into a discussion of a Navy weapons system is ludicrous! The Navy does not possess any F-22s and could not operate them from a carrier if they did! Also, before “writing off” the backseater thanks to AI, let’s look at F/A-18 and Strike Eagles (F-15E). Whenever we are discussing complex operational requirements (ie: something more than dogfighting), we default to a second crewmember. Current examples include long range precision strike (F-15E), Electronic Warfare (EF-18), Interdiction and ground support (Marine F-18s). The USAF recently released that the NGAD would probably have a “backseater” to control the swarm of Collaborative Combat Aircraft.