The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is a supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, variable geometry wing aircraft. The F-14 was the United States Navy's primary maritime air superiority fighter, fleet defense interceptor and tactical reconnaissance platform from 1974 to 2006. It later performed precision strike missions once it was integrated with the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night LANTIRN system. The F-14 was developed after the collapse of the F-111B project, and was the first of the American teen-series fighters which were designed incorporating the experience of air combat in Vietnam against MiGs.
It entered service in 1974 with the U.S. Navy, replacing the F-4 Phantom II. It was later exported to the former Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1976, during a time when the US still had good relations with Iran. It was retired from the active U.S. Navy fleet on 22 September 2006, having been replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As of 2008, it remains in service only with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.
The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) shortly issued an RFP for the Naval Fighter Experimental (VFX), a tandem two-seat fighter with maximum speed of Mach 2.2 and a secondary close air support role. Of the five companies that submitted bids (four of which incorporated variable-geometry wings as on the F-111), McDonnell Douglas and Grumman were selected as finalists in December 1968, and Grumman won the contract in January 1969. Grumman had been a partner on the F-111B, and had started work on an alternative when they saw the project deteriorating, and so had an edge on its competitors. Their early design mock-ups and cost projections were discussed with Naval authorities as an alternative to the F-111B.
The winning Grumman design reused the TF30 engines from the F-111B, though the Navy planned on replacing them with the F401-PW-400 engines then under development by Pratt and Whitney for the Navy (in parallel with the related F100 for the USAF). Though lighter than the F-111B, it was still the largest and heaviest U.S. fighter to ever fly from an aircraft carrier, its size a consequence of the requirement to carry the large AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, also from the F-111B and an internal fuel load of 16,000 lbs (7,300 kg). The F-14 would also share a similar inlet duct, wing, and landing gear geometry with Grumman's A-6 Intruder.
Upon being granted the contract for the F-14, Grumman greatly expanded its Calverton, Long Island, New York facility to test and evaluate the new swing-wing interceptor. Much of the testing was in the air of the Long Island Sound as well as the first few in-flight mishaps, including the first of many compressor stalls and ejections. In order to save time and forestall interference from Secretary McNamara, the Navy skipped the prototype phase and jumped directly to full-scale development; the Air Force took a similar approach with its F-15.
The F-14 first flew on 21 December 1970, just 22 months after Grumman was awarded the contract, and reached Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 1973. The Marine Corps was initially interested in the F-14 as an F-4 replacement and went so far as to send pilots and radar intercept officers to Fighter Squadron One Twenty-Four (VF-124), the Pacific Fleet Replacement Squadron for the F-14, to train as instructors. But the Marine Corps was never fully sold on the aircraft and pulled out when the stores management system for ground attack munitions was left undeveloped, leaving the aircraft incapable of dropping air-to-ground munitions (these were later developed in the 1990s).
With time, the early versions of all the missiles were replaced by more advanced versions, especially with the move to full solid-state electronics that allowed better reliability, better ECCM and more space for the rocket engine. So the early arrangement of the AIM-54A Phoenix active-radar air-to-air missile, the AIM-7E-2 Sparrow Semi-active radar homing air-to-air missile, and the AIM-9J Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile was replaced in the 1980s with the B (1983) and C (1986) version of the Phoenix, the F (1977), M (1982), P (1987 or later) for Sparrows, and with the Sidewinder, L (1979) and M (1982). Within these versions there are several improved batches (for example, Phoenix AIM-54C++).
The Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) was developed in the late 1970s for the Tomcat. The TARPS reconnaissance pod was carried on the right rear fuselage tunnel station and required additional connections. Approximately 65 F-14As and all F-14Ds were modified to carry the pod. The system was primarily controlled by the RIO in the back seat who had a specialized TARPS display to observe reconnaissance data. TARPS system was introduced in 1980. The TARPS was upgraded with digital camera in 1996 with the "TARPS Digital (TARPS-DI)". The digital camera was further updated beginning in 1998 with the "TARPS-CD" configuration.
The F-14A's engine was upgraded to the GE F110-400 in 1987. These upgraded Tomcats were redesignated F-14A+, which was later changed to F-14B in 1991. The F-14D variant was developed during this time. It included the GE F110-400 engines with newer digital avionics systems including a Glass cockpit.
In the 1990s, with the pending retirement of the A-6 Intruder, the F-14 air-to-ground program was resurrected. The first experiments with bombs were carried out in the late 1980s. However, the main task of the F-14 was air defense in Operation Desert Storm, so most air-to-ground missions were left to A-7 and F/A-18 squadrons. The F-14 was cleared operationally to drop basic iron bombs in 1992. To provide for use of precision munitions, the remaining F-14As and F-14Bs underwent an upgrade program. The upgrade included digital avionics, improved cockpit displays, structural improvements and improved defensive systems. The upgraded fighters had avionics comparable to the F-14Ds and were designated F-14A (Upgrade) and F-14B (Upgrade), respectively.
By 1994 Grumman and the Navy were proposing ambitious plans for Tomcat upgrades to plug that gap between the retirement of the A-6 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entering service, but Congress balked. The upgrades were priced in the billions, a bit much for an interim solution, and they would take too long to implement to meet the gap. The solution finally devised was an inexpensive and quick upgrade, with fit of the Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) targeting pod system that provided the F-14 with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera for night operations and a laser target designator to direct laser guided bombs (LGB).
Although LANTIRN is traditionally a two-pod system, with an AN/AAQ-13 navigation pod with terrain-following radar and a wide-angle FLIR, along with an AN/AAQ-14 targeting pod with a steerable FLIR and a laser target designator, the decision was made to only use the targeting pod. The Tomcat's LANTIRN targeting pod featured some improvements over its baseline configuration, most significantly a Global Positioning System / Inertial Navigation System (GPS-INS) capability that allowed a Tomcat to find its own location at any time. The pod was carried on the right wing glove pylon.
Fit of the LANTIRN pod didn't require any updates to the F-14's own system software, which would have substantially increased the time and expense of the upgrade. It did require that the Tomcat have the MIL-STD-1553B bus, fitted standard to the F-14D and on upgraded F-14A/Bs. The RIO received pod imagery on his display and guided LGBs using a new hand controller. Initially the hand controller replaced the RIO's TARPS control panel, meaning a Tomcat configured for LANTIRN couldn't carry TARPS and the reverse, but eventually a workaround was developed that allowed a Tomcat to carry LANTIRN or TARPS as needed. An upgraded LANTIRN named "LANTIRN 40K" with 40K laser allowing improved operation up to 40,000 feet (12,200 m) was introduced into service in 2001. Tomcats also added the ability to carry the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), giving it the option of a variety of LGB and GPS-guided weapons.
The latest upgrade to the Tomcat included the Link 16 software which enables the aircraft to target enemy aircraft spotted by AWACS aircraft without using its own radar, giving it superior look down kill ability in Beyond Visual Range combat scenarios.
The F-14's wing sweep can be varied between 20° and 68° in flight, and is automatically controlled by an air data computer. This maintains the wing sweep to give the optimum lift-to-drag ratio as the Mach number varies, but the system can be manually overridden by the pilot if necessary. When the aircraft is parked, the wings can be "overswept" to 75°, where they overlap the tail to save space on tight carrier decks. In an emergency, the F-14 can land with the wings fully swept to 68°, although this is far from optimum and presents a significant safety hazard. The F-14 can also fly and land safely with the wings swept asymmetrically, in emergencies.
The wings have a two-spar structure with integral fuel tanks. Much of the structure, including the wing box, wing pivots and upper and lower wing skins is made of titanium, a light, rigid and strong material, but also difficult to weld, and costly. Ailerons are not fitted, with roll control being provided by wing mounted spoilers at low speed (which are disabled if the sweep angle exceeds 57°), and by differential operation of the all-moving tailerons at high speed. Full-span slats and flaps are used to increase lift both for landing and combat, with slats being set at 17° for landing and 7° for combat, while flaps are set at 35° for landing and 10° for combat. The twin tail layout helps in maneuvers at high AoA (angle of attack) while reducing the height of the aircraft to fit within the limited roof clearance of hangars aboard aircraft carriers. Two under-engine mount points are provided for external fuel tanks.
Two retractable surfaces, called glove vanes, were originally mounted in the forward part of the wing glove, and could be automatically extended by the flight control system at high Mach numbers. They were used to generate additional lift ahead of the aircraft's center of gravity, thus helping to compensate for the nose-down pitching tendencies at supersonic speeds. Automatically deployed at above Mach 1.4, they allowed the F-14 to pull 7.5 g at Mach 2 and could be manually extended at above Mach 1. They were later disabled, however, owing to their additional weight and complexity.
The airbrakes consist of top-and-bottom extendable surfaces at the rearmost portion of the fuselage, between the engine nacelles. The bottom surface is split into left and right halves, with the arrestor hook hanging between the two halves. This arrangement is sometimes called the "castor tail", or "beavertail. The Tomcat has fully mechanical flying controls, with the only exception being the spoilers, which are hydro-electrically driven.
The engines are fed by two rectangular air intakes located under the wings. These Pratt & Whitney JT10As (better known as the TF30) were relatively powerful for the time (5.670/9.480 kg/t) and being turbofans, they allowed reduced fuel consumption while cruising, which was important for long patrol missions.
Both air intakes have movable ramps and bleed doors that are operated by the air data computer to enable enough air to enter the engine while keeping shockwaves away from the engine. The exhausts also feature variable nozzles with moving petals that open or close depending on engine state. The TF30 engines left much to be desired both in power and reliability. John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, told Congress that the F-14/TF30 combination was "probably the worst engine/airframe mismatch we have had in years" and said that the TF30 was "a terrible engine", with F-14 accidents attributed to engine failures accounting for 28% of overall losses. Cracks in the turbines were dangerous to the point that the engine bay was reinforced in case of blade failure, to help reduce damage to the rest of the aircraft. The TF30 engines were also extremely prone to compressor stalls, which could easily result in loss of control due to the wide engine spacing, which causes severe yaw oscillations and can lead to an unrecoverable flat spin. At specific altitudes, the exhaust from a launched missile could cause the engine compressor to stall. This resulted in the development of a bleed system that temporarily reduced the power of the engine and blocked the frontal intake during missile launch. The overall thrust-to-weight ratio at maximum load is around 0.56, which does not compare favorably with the F-15A's ratio of 0.85. Even so, the aircraft itself is able to reach Mach 2.4, and the maximum speed is officially Mach 2.34. Internal fuel capacity is 2,400 US gallons (9100 L): 290 US gallons (1,100 L) in each wing, 690 US gallons (2,600 L) in a series of tanks aft of the cockpit, and a further 457 US gallons (1,730 L) in two feeder tanks. The aircraft can carry two 267 US gallon (1,020 L) external drop tanks under the engine intakes. There is also an air-to-air refueling probe, which folds into the starboard nose.
The undercarriage is very robust, in order to withstand the harsh takeoffs and landings necessary for carrier operation. It comprises a double nose wheel and widely spaced single main wheels. The result is very different from the narrow and high undercarriage of F-15 Eagle. Both have similar weights and a high wing that makes undercarriage stowage impractical. The Tomcat fuselage is wider and the aircraft does not need to hold big external fuel tanks, as the Eagle often does, in the ventral positions. There are no hardpoints on the sweeping parts of the wings, and so all the armaments are fitted on the belly between the air intakes and on pylons under the wing gloves.
The nose of the aircraft is large because it carries not only the two person crew, but also a large number of avionics systems. The ECM and navigation suite are extremely comprehensive and complex. The main element is the Hughes AWG-9 X-band radar, which in the initial version included a lightweight 5400B digital system with 32 kilobytes of RAM. The antenna dish is a 36-inch (91 cm) wide planar array, uses 10 kW of power, and has integrated IFF antennas. There are available several search and tracking modes, such as Track-While-Scan (TWS), Range-While-Search (RWS), Pulse-Doppler Single-Target Track (PDSTT), and Jam Angle Track (JAT). A maximum of 24 targets can be tracked simultaneously, and six can be engaged in TWS mode up to around 60 miles (100 km). Pulse-only STT mode has a maximum range of around 96 statute miles (150 km). The maximum search range can exceed 120 statute miles (190 km) and even a fighter can be locked onto at around 72 - 90 statute miles (120–140 km). Cruise missiles are also possible targets with the AWG-9, since this radar can lock onto and track even small objects at low altitude when in a Pulse-Doppler mode. The radar antenna dish is in the nose, and most of the radar avionics are located just behind the nose, near the pilot's position. Other avionics (such as IFF, communication radios, direction-finding equipment, etc) are near the RIO's position, and are mostly integrated into the AWG-9 display system.
Tomcats also feature electronic countermeasures (ECM) and radar warning (RWR) systems, chaff/flare dispensers in the tail, fighter-to-fighter data link, and a precise inertial navigation system. The early navigation system was purely inertial. Initial coordinates were programmed into the navigation computer, and a gyroscope in the system would track the aircraft's every motion. These aircraft motions were sent to the navigation computer, allowing it to calculate the jet's distance and direction from the initial starting point. Later, GPS was integrated into this inertial system, providing not only more precise navigation, but providing redundancy in case either system failed.
The chaff/flare dispensers were located on the belly, at the very tip of the tail, just to one side of the arresting hook. The dispenser contained several cylinders, into which either flares or chaff could be loaded in any combination. The RWR system was arranged with 4 antennae around the aircraft, and could roughly calculate the direction and the distance of many different types of radar from various aircraft and missile types. The RWR set could also display the status of the tracking aircraft's radar. It could differentiate between search radar, tracking radar, and missile-homing radar. The electronic countermeasures system could analyze incoming radar signals and send confusing radar signals back to the source.
The original set of sensors also comprised an infrared sensor under the nose in a "chin pod": it was AN/ALR-23 with indium antimonide detectors, cooled by a self-contained Stirling cycle cryogenic system, but this proved ineffective, and was replaced with a new system. This was an optical system, Northrop AAX-1, also called TCS (TV Camera Set) and was used to help pilots visually identify and track aircraft, at least on day missions, up to a range of more than 60 miles for large aircraft (a zoom function was included to help with small fighters). The TCS could be "slaved" to the radar to follow whatever the radar is tracking, and the radar could be slaved to the TCS to track whatever the camera "sees." Both the crew have access to the images on their displays. Despite its utility, for a long time most F-14s did not have the system added. Bill Gunston reported that even in 1983, only one in eight aircraft had the system fitted.
A dual IR/TCS system was adopted for the later F-14D variant, with an ECM antenna fitted as well in the same mast. This meant Tomcats could be configured with only an ECM antenna, or the IR sensor, or TCS, or many combinations thereof. The Tomcat's ESM system consists of many subsystems: RWR, ECM, and chaff/flare dispensers in various parts of the fuselage, nose, tail and wings. This was a marked difference with many previous fighter aircraft in that some did not even include a simple RWR.
The maximum load of six Phoenix missiles was never used operationally. Although early testing proved it was possible, there was never a threat requirement to engage six hostile targets simultaneously, and the load was too heavy to recover aboard an aircraft carrier. The Phoenix missile was never fired in anger by the U.S. Navy. It has been claimed that Iranian F-14s did so, but as with many of the activities of the Iranian Air Force, this has not been reliably confirmed.
During the height of Cold War operations in the late 1970s and 1980s, the typical weapon loadout on carrier deployed F-14s was rarely more than one AIM-54 Phoenix, normally augmented by two AIM-9 Sidewinders, two AIM-7 Sparrow IIIs, a full loadout of 20 mm ammunition for the M61 cannon and two drop tanks.
The F-14 began replacing the F-4 Phantom II in USN service starting in September 1974 with squadrons VF-1 Wolfpack and VF-2 Bounty Hunters aboard USS Enterprise and participated in the American withdrawal of Saigon. The F-14 had its first kills on 19 August 1981 over the Gulf of Sidra in what is known as the Gulf of Sidra incident after two F-14s from VF-41 Black Aces were engaged by two Libyan Su-22 "Fitters". The F-14s evaded the short range heat seeking AA-2 "Atoll" missile and returned fire, downing both Libyan aircraft. U.S. Navy F-14s once again were pitted against Libyan aircraft on 4 January 1989, when two F-14s from VF-32 shot down two Libyan MiG-23 "Floggers" over the Gulf of Sidra in a second Gulf of Sidra incident.
Despite the attention given to the Tomcat over aerial encounters in the Gulf of Sidra, its first sustained combat baptism of fire was as a photo reconnaissance platform. The Tomcat was selected to inherit the Reconnaissance mission upon departure of the dedicated RA-5C Vigilante and RF-8G Crusaders from the fleet. A large pod called the Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) was developed and fielded on the Tomcat in 1981. With the retirement of the last RF-8G Crusaders in 1982, TARPS F-14s became the U.S. Navy's primary tactical reconnaissance system. One of two Tomcat squadrons per airwing was designated as a TARPS unit and received 3 TARPS capable aircraft and training for 4 TARPS aircrews.
While the Tomcat was being used in combat in its intended air superiority mission over the skies of Iran in the early 1980s, the US Navy found itself flying regular daily combat missions over Lebanon to photograph activity in the Bekaa Valley. At the time, the Tomcat had been thought too large and vulnerable to be used overland, but the need for imagery was so great that Tomcat aircrews developed high speed medium altitude tactics to deal with considerable AAA and SA-7 SAM threat in the Bekaa area. An urgent combat need was stated to address the Tomcat vulnerability in this type of mission. The first exposure of a Tomcat to a SA-2 was over Somalia in April 1983 when a local battery was unaware of two Tomcats scheduled for a TARPS missions in prelude to an upcoming international exercise in vicinity of Berbera. An SA-2 was fired at the second Tomcat while conducting 10 thousand foot mapping profile at max conserve setting. The Tomcat aircrews spotted the missile launch and dove for the deck thereby evading it without damage. The unexpected demand for combat TARPS laid the way for high altitude sensors such as the KA-93 36 in (91 cm) Long Range Optics (LOROP) to be rapidly procured for the Tomcat as well as an Expanded Chaff Adapter (ECA) to be incorporated in a AIM-54 Phoenix Rail. Commercial "Fuzz buster" type radar detectors were also procured and mounted in pairs in the forward cockpit as a stop gap solution to detect SAM radars such as the SA-6. The ultimate solution was an upgrade to the ALR-67 then being developed, but it would not be ready until the advent of the F-14A+ in the latter 1980s. During the Gulf of Sidra operations in 1986, the Tomcats were used in over-water missions only due to their vulnerability overland. It was not until Desert Shield that US Navy Tomcats were introduced to overland combat operations on a regular basis.
The participation of the F-14 Tomcat in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm consisted of Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and overland missions consisting of strike escort and reconnaissance. Until the waning days of Desert Storm, in-country air superiority was tasked to USAF F-15 Eagles due to the way the Air Tasking Orders (ATO) delegated primary overland CAP stations to the F-15 Eagle. The governing Rules of Engagement (ROE) also dictated a strict Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) requirement when employing Beyond Visual Range weapons such as the AIM-7 Sparrow and particularly the AIM-54 Phoenix. This hampered the Tomcat from using its most powerful weapon. Furthermore, the powerful emissions from the AWG-9 radar are detectable at great range with a radar warning receiver. Iraqi fighters routinely displayed countertactics as soon as the Tomcats "lit them up" with the AWG-9. The US Navy suffered its only F-14 loss from enemy action on 21 January 1991 when b/n 161430, an F-14A upgraded to an F-14A+, from VF-103 was shot down by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile while on an escort mission near Al Asad airbase in Iraq. Both crew survived ejection with the pilot being rescued by USAF Special Forces and the RIO being captured and held by Iraqi troops as a POW until the end of the war. The F-14 also achieved its final kill, an Mi-8 "Hip" helicopter, with an AIM-9 Sidewinder.
In 1995, F-14s from VF-14 and VF-41 participated in Operation Deliberate Force as well as Operation Allied Force in 1999, and in 1998, VF-32 and VF-213 participated in Operation Desert Fox. On 15 February 2001 the Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM was added to the Tomcat's arsenal. On 7 October 2001 F-14s would lead some of the first strikes into Afghanistan marking the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and the first F-14 drop of a JDAM occurred on 11 March 2002. F-14s from VF-2, VF-31, VF-32, VF-154, and VF-213 would also participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The F-14Ds of VF-2, VF-31, and VF-213 obtained JDAM capability in March 2003. On 10 December 2005, the F-14Ds of VF-31 and VF-213 were upgraded with a ROVER III downlink, a system originally designed for use with unmanned aerial vehicles which allows a Forward Air Controller (FAC) on the ground to see real-time images acquired by the aircraft's sensors by transmitting these images to the FAC's laptop. The F-14s of VF-31 and VF-213 deployed on its last combat cruise on USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2005.
While the F-14 had been developed as a light weight alternative to the 80,000 lb (36,000 kg) F-111B, the F-14 was still the largest and most expensive fighter in its time. VFAX was revived in the 1970s as a lower cost solution to replacing the Navy's fleet of USMC Phantoms, and A-7. VFAX would be merged with the USAF Light Weight Fighter fighter competition, from which the F/A-18 Hornet emerged as roughly a midsize fighter.
In 1994, Congress would reject Grumman proposals to the Navy to upgrade the Tomcat beyond the D model (such as the Super Tomcat 21, the cheaper QuickStrike version, and the more advanced Attack Super Tomcat 21). Instead, the Navy elected to retire the F-14 and chose the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to fill the roles of fleet defense and strike formerly filled by the F-14.
The last American F-14 combat mission was completed on 8 February 2006, when a pair of Tomcats landed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt after one dropped a bomb in Iraq. That aircraft was assigned to VF-31 and the aircrew credited with the last bomb dropped in combat by a Navy Tomcat was pilot Lt Justin Halligan and RIO Lt Bill Frank. The other Tomcat on that mission was an F-14D from VF-213 piloted by Commander Air Wing Eight, Capt. William G. Sizemore, and became the last F-14 to land on an aircraft carrier after a combat mission. During their final deployment with the USS Theodore Roosevelt, VF-31 and VF-213 collectively completed 1,163 combat sorties totaling 6,876 flight hours, and dropped 9,500 pounds (4300 kg) of ordnance during reconnaissance, surveillance, and close air support missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On 10 March 2006, the 22 planes from these squadrons flew in formation into Naval Air Station Oceana after the last deployment of the F-14. VF-31 remained operational in the F-14 Tomcat under the Fleet Response Plan (FRP) through September and conducted the last carrier qualifications in late July maintaining their ability to deploy right up until the end. VF-213 and VF-31 would transition to the Super Hornet training.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) shot from its catapult an F-14D, assigned to VF-31, for the last time on 28 July 2006. It was piloted by Lt Blake Coleman & Lt Cmdr Dave Lauderbaugh as RIO. The last trap recovery was made a while before by Lt Chris Rattigan and LT Paul Dort, on aircraft no. 110. The "official" final flight retirement ceremony was on 22 September 2006 at Naval Air Station Oceana. The ceremonial last flight was flown by Lt Cmdr Chris Richard & Lt Mike Petronis as RIO in a backup F-14, after the primary aircraft experienced a mechanical problem. The actual last flight of the F-14 Tomcat in U.S. service took place 4 October 2006, when an F-14D of VF-31 was ferried from Oceana to Republic Airport on Long Island, NY.
The remaining intact US Navy F-14 aircraft have been stored at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group "Boneyard", at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. As of July 2007, many of the remaining 165 aircraft were being shredded to prevent parts from being acquired by Iran, the only other nation to buy the F-14. By July 2007, 23 F-14s had been shredded at a cost of $900,000. Because of the strength of the landing gear, it was removed before shredding and cut up with a torch. The last remaining one after demolition will be located at the Pensacola air station.
In the early 1970s, the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) was searching for an advanced fighter, specifically one capable of intercepting Soviet MiG-25 "Foxbat" reconnaissance flights. After a visit of U.S. President Richard Nixon to Iran in 1972, during which Iran was offered the latest in American military technology, the IIAF narrowed its choice to the F-14 Tomcat or McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. Grumman Corporation arranged a competitive demonstration of the Eagle against the Tomcat before the Shah, and in January 1974 Iran ordered 30 F-14s and 424 AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, initiating Project Persian King, worth US$300 million. Only a few months later, this was expanded by an order for 50 additional F-14As and 290 AIM-54s. The Iranian order was for 80 Tomcats and 714 Phoenix missiles, spare parts, and replacement engines for ten years, complete armament package, and support infrastructure (including construction of the huge Khatami Air Base in the desert near Esfahan).
The first F-14 arrived in January 1976, modified only by the removal of classified avionics components, but fitted with the TF-30-414 engines. The following year 12 more were delivered. Meanwhile, training of the first groups of Iranian crews by the U.S. Navy, was underway in the USA; and one of these conducted a successful shoot-down with a Phoenix missile of a target drone flying at 50,000 ft (15 km).
Following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the air force was re-named the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) and the post-revolution interim government of Iran cancelled most Western arms orders. Knowledge about F-14 use by Iran is limited; deteriorating relations led to an arms embargo being imposed on Iran, including the last Tomcat built for Iran, which was embargoed and eventually turned over to the United States Navy. Large shipments of spares were held back, and many aircraft were cannibalized for their spare parts. Limited reports from the Iran-Iraq war gave some indications Iran was exploiting the range and multi-contact tracking capabilities of the AWG-9 radar to use their Tomcats in the AWACS role, and that this usage was at least partly due to Iran's lack of a stockpile of usable AIM-54 Phoenix missiles.
In January 2007, it was announced by the US Department of Defense that sales of spare parts for F-14s would be suspended, due to concerns that they could end up in Iran. It announced that the decision was taken "given the current situation in Iran". On 2 July 2007, the remaining American F-14s were being shredded to ensure that F-14 spare parts would not be acquired by governments considered hostile to the US.
Although Iran is believed to possess 59 F-14s, only 20 to 25 are estimated to be in service.
The F-14A was the original production two-seat all-weather interceptor fighter version for the US Navy. Modifications late in its service life added precision strike munitions to its armament. The US Navy received 478 F-14A aircraft plus 79 went to Iran. The first 12 F-14As were prototype versions. The final 102 F-14As were delivered with improved TF30-P-414A engines. Additionally, an 80th F-14A was manufactured for Iran, but was delivered to the US Navy.
The F-14 received its first of many major upgrades in March 1987 with the F-14A Plus (or F-14A+). The F-14A's P&W TF30 engine was upgraded with the GE F110-400. The F-14A+ also received the state-of-the-art ALR-67 Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) system. Much of the avionics as well as the AWG-9 radar were retained. The F-14A+ was later redesignated F-14B on 1 May 1991. A total of 38 new aircraft were manufactured and 48 F-14A were upgraded to B variants.
The TF30 had been plagued from the start with susceptibility to compressor stalls at high AoA and during rapid throttle transients or above 30,000 ft. The F110 engine provided a significant increase in thrust, producing 27,600 lbf (123 kN) with afterburner. The increased thrust giving the Tomcat a better than 1:1 thrust-to-weight ratio at low fuel quantities. The basic engine thrust without afterburner was powerful enough for carrier launches, further increasing safety. Another benefit was allowing the Tomcat to cruise comfortably above 30,000 ft, which increased its range and survivability. The F-14B arrived in time to participate in Desert Storm.
In the late 1990s, 67 F-14Bs were upgraded to extend airframe life and improve offensive and defensive avionics systems. The modified aircraft became known as F-14B Upgrade aircraft.
Although the F-14D was to be the definitive version of the Tomcat, not all fleet units received the D variant. In 1989, Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, recommended that no D model aircraft be purchased for $50 million each and pushed for a $25 million modernization instead. He called the aircraft 1960s technology and planned to replace the F-14 with an Advanced Tactical Fighter variant. Congress decided not to shut production down and funded 55 aircraft as part of a compromise. A total of 37 new aircraft were constructed and 18 F-14A were upgraded to D variants.
The F-14 inspired a number of pop cultural uses worldwide. In 1980, the time-travel film The Final Countdown featured the VF-41 "Black Aces" and VF-84 "Jolly Rogers" F-14 fighter squadrons aboard USS Nimitz. The F-14s of the "Jolly Rogers" were also a primary inspiration for the VF-1 Valkyrie in the 1982-1983 Japanese animated TV series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (adapted outside Japan as part of Robotech). In 1986, the F-14 was the main aircraft in the film Top Gun, spawning a surge in U.S. Navy recruiting, as well as a video game franchise. The 1995–2005 TV series JAG featured a qualified F-14 pilot as a lead character and a retired F-14 airframe in several episodes. The F-14 has been featured in numerous other video games, and lesser roles in other films and TV series.