Battle of the Superfighters

Flight Journal|June 2020

Battle of the Superfighters
F-14D Tomcat vs F/A - 18E/F Super Hornet
BOB KRESS AND REAR ADM. PAUL GILLCRIST U.S. NAVY, RETIRED

The crew of Tomcatter 106 (BuNo. 164343) fly the flag over northern Iraq, December 30, 2005. A veteran of 177 sorties on cruise for a total of 545 flying hours, this jet dropped a GBU-38 while in the NAG; overall, six VF-31 Tomcats expended JDAM. (Photo courtesy of VF-31.)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every aircraft that goes into service is accompanied by controversy. This was especially true for the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Super Hornet. With the long anticipated Paramount Pictures movie sequel, Top Gun: Maverick coming out in June, we noted that in the original 1986 movie, Maverick was flying the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, but in the new sequel he is at the controls of the F-18 Super Hornet. So it made perfect sense to publish our classic feature "Battle of the Superfighters" as well as some of the passionate reader responses it generated.

In this comparison, our two experts argue that the Super Hornet was not necessarily the airplane the Navy needed for the future, and their backgrounds lend weight to their arguments. Rear Admiral Paul Gillcrist spent 33 years as a fighter pilot and wing commander and was operations commander of all Pacific Fleet fighters. Bob Kress was an aeronautical engineer, and during his long career at Grumman, he was directly involved in the development of a wide range of fighters. He was also the engineering manager for the original design and development of the F-14 Tomcat. Their analysis makes an interesting statement when placed against the backdrop of the current ongoing war on terrorism.

The requirements for a practical, deep interdiction fighter/bomber have long been the subject of controversy within the naval aviation community, especially when it comes to the F-14D Tomcat versus F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Often, however, the definition of “deep interdiction” is changed to fit the aircraft being discussed, rather than taking into account the real-world theater of operations for which it is destined.

A VX-9 “Vampires” F/A-18F Super Hornet blazes over the desert during an operational test mission. Based at China Lake, California, the Vampires are instrumental in ensuring the fleet receives new aircraft that have had all of the bugs worked out of them. They also validate upgrades to ensure the fleet receives the best product possible. (Photo by Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics.com)

As shown over Afghanistan, there were four basic requirements for any carrier strike force:

• Reach the target.

• Don’t get shot down by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), or enemy fighters.

• Strike the target.

• Return to the carrier before running out of gas.

Within these four seemingly simple rules are the needs for an airplane to have a long range while carrying sufficient munitions to hammer a target, and still be able to fight its way through enemy aircraft and AAA threats.

Afghanistan Scenario

Because our government doesn’t tell us all of its secrets, we had to make some assumptions while using Afghanistan as an example. It is, however, obvious that reaching the target presents a great challenge. To avoid Silkworm missiles, the carrier battle group probably would not want to venture north of a line joining Masqat in Oman and Ahmadabad in Pakistan. Along this line, the group would be somewhat west of Karachi. Reaching Kabul in Afghanistan would require a oneway flight of roughly 825 statute miles.

Assuming the use of S-3 tankers, an F-14D strike refueling somewhere between the towns of Quetta and Sukkur in Pakistan wouldn’t have any trouble attacking targets in the northernmost parts of Afghanistan. If, however, an F-18 refuels in the same spot, it will barely make it to Kabul. The unrefueled radius of an F-14D carrying the normal strike load (four 2,000-pound LGBs, two HARMs, two Sidewinders, plus 675 rounds of 20 mm ammo, and two 280-gallon external tanks) is at least 500 miles. Accompanying F-18s have only a 350-mile radius carrying about half the bomb load. To complete the picture of mission distances, the S-3s would have to dash back to the carriers, hot refuel, and meet the raid coming out of Afghanistan, which would be much in need of JP-4 cocktails.

Why are we nitpicking over mission details? Easy! At the beginning of the studies that led to this article, we were convinced that the Afghan campaign would be an all-USAF show, and that would lead to questions of carrier fleet effectiveness. But map studies combined with knowledge of geopolitical restrictions showed that carrier assets, primarily the F-14D, were just about the United States’ only option. This has clearly been substantiated by events.

Of course, the F-14Ds were not the first to hit targets in Afghanistan; B-2 stealth bombers each carried sixteen 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs. They flew from Whiteman AFB in Missouri; a 33-hour round trip. Further, big-time USAF strategic air assets—B-52s and B-1s, arrived shortly afterward.

It was soon apparent that USAF tactical aircraft were not being used in Afghanistan. We went back to the maps and found that, even given unlimited inflight tanker refueling, the USAF F-15 and F-16 could not be used without a Middle Eastern ground base. Turkish bases were simply too far away and would require refueling over hostile areas. Only the use of tactical air bases in Turkmenistan and/or Uzbekistan would work, and this would allow only partial coverage of Afghanistan.

EVEN GIVEN UNLIMITED IN-FLIGHT TANKER REFUELING, THE USAF F-15 AND F-16 COULD NOT BE USED WITHOUT A MIDDLE EASTERN GROUND BASE

The big question then becomes: does the Navy have the assets to be able to carry this kind of war into the future, and what kind of planning is in place? To cut to the chase, the discussion once again reverts to whether or not the new Super Hornet will really cut the mustard or if the Navy has taken yet another wrong turn that will cost us dearly on the battlefield.

History of Naval Aviation Diffculties

The subject of the erosion of Naval aviation has nagged both of us ever since the cancellation of the A-12 program by the Secretary of Defense in the late 1980s. It was a watershed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the level of bad management that had not been seen in the Pentagon for decades! We can look back on that day and clearly see that the unraveling of the fabric of Naval aviation would become a longterm trend. Neither of us contends that the A-12, as envisioned by Navy leaders, was the right airplane to develop at that point in history. In fact, it wasn’t! That, however, is another story.

We have put off writing this article simply because we know it is likely to ruffle many feathers in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but events in Afghanistan again brought our main arguments into focus. Is writing this kind of article worthwhile? We wondered if we might be seen as “piling it on” when the Navy was in difficulty and clearly on a steep, downhill slide. Well, we have listened, with no small restraint, to the pontifications that justify how well the Navy is doing with its favorite program, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet—despite unimpeachable reports to the contrary from the guys in the fleet. Comments made to us by young fleet pilots who have flown the airplane and describe it as “a dog” carry much more weight than statements from senior officers and civilians higher up in the food chain. But certain pontifications in a statement by a senior Naval officer who should have known better served as the last straw.

Two-place F/A-18Fs form up on a single E model. E and F models are both Super Hornets. (Photo by Ted Carlson/Fotodynamics.com)

THE NAVY’S DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONAL TESTING IS QUOTED AS SAYING THAT THE SUPER HORNET WAS SUPERIOR TO ITS EARLIER MODELS “IN EVERY CATEGORY BUT THREE: ACCELERATION, MAXIMUM SPEED AND SUSTAINED TURNING PERFORMANCE.”

The pronouncement appeared along with a spate of triumphal announcements that celebrated the successful completion of the Super Hornet’s first operational evaluation (OPEVAL). In a publication titled “Inside Washington,” the Navy’s director of operational testing is quoted as saying that the Super Hornet was superior to its earlier models “in every category but three: acceleration, maximum speed and sustained turning performance.” This pronouncement boggled our minds because these are the very performance capabilities that determine a tactical airplane’s survival. Then, as if to justify this hand grenade, the officer is quoted as stating that the Navy has sacrificed speed in the Super Hornet for other beneficial capabilities, and he asserts, “Brute speed is no longer the discriminator it once was when the benchmark was the Soviet threat.” It is clear to us that this naval officer doesn’t have a clue about aerial combat and the importance of total energy in the complex equation of energy maneuverability. Nor does he seem to understand that Third World countries all around the globe are purchasing the very latest operational Russian-built fighters, which are also licensed for production in China. The Russian aerial threat still exists; what has changed is that the pilots aren’t Russians.

A yellow shirt flight deck director guides “Tomcatter 104” (BuNo. 164345) towards waist cat three as part of the day’s first launch cycle on January 13, 2006. This jet was also a GBU-38 dropper over Iraq and completed 154 sorties during VF-31’s sixmonth deployment. It was one of three F-14Ds from the unit to be given war reserve status following its delivery to Davis- Monthan AFB in Arizona in September 2006. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)

As a nation, we have always had the means to protect our own global interests as well as those of other countries. Short of nuclear war, the carrier battle groups have been able to strike on very short notice. A president’s first question in time of crisis is often, “Where are the carriers?”

F-14D Tomcats Carry a Major Punch

With a layered defense, including air assets, guided-missile cruisers and frigates, and undersea backing, the carrier battle groups are almost invulnerable. On the longer Nimitz-class carrier, we see the F-14D—a truly long-range fighter/ bomber, plus lightweight F/A-18A fighter/ bombers. The long-range A-6 bombers are gone forever, but its derivative, the EA-6B Electronic Warfare (EW) aircraft is in place, and that is in much demand by both the USN and the USAF. This country’s Desert Fox and Kosovo experiences have, at last—and correctly— shifted the focus away from stealth and toward electronic warfare. In short, at the moment, the deck complement looks adequate. The F-14D can pick up the A-6’s role because it was designed to do so from scratch. Its performance in Kosovo as a very effective strike leader has more than borne out that fact. With LANTIRN [Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night], night vision devices, and synthetic aperture A/G radar, the F-14 targeted not only its own four 2,000-pound weapons, but also the ordnance of F/A-18s, RAF GR1s, and F-16s, which don’t have such capable sensors.

An interesting comparison can be made to quantify the F-14D’s strike effectiveness. Compare one F-14D and one B-2 bomber during a two-night (33- hour) mission in Kosovo. In reactive situations (no foreign base), the B-2 operates from the United States (lack of overseas B-2 basing is a serious constraint, and there are only a limited number of B-2s to begin with). The chart shows the weapons delivered—United States to Kosovo and back—for the B-2 and the F-14D.

Carrier Effectiveness Is the Issue

This simple chart says a great deal about a carrier battle group’s effectiveness. Remember that there were—or could be—24 F-14Ds on a ship, such as the John C. Stennis (CVN-71). Twenty-four F-14Ds can deliver more weapons than the entire 16 aircraft of a B-2 fleet. Unfortunately, the numbers of F-14Ds are dwindling, and they will be almost certainly be gone in another 10 years. What will be their replacement?

The F-14D will be replaced by the F/A-18E Super Hornet, which attempts deep-interdiction missions. Though it’s a whizzy little airshow performer with a nice, modern cockpit, it has only 36 percent of the F-14Ds payload/range capability. The F/A-18E Super Hornet has been improved, but still has at best 48 percent of the F-14D’s capability to deliver a fixed number of bombs (in pounds) on target. This naturally means that the carrier radius of influence drops to 48 percent of what it would have been with the same number of F-14Ds. As a result, the area of influence (not radius) drops to 23 percent! No wonder the U.S. Navy is working on “buddy tanker” versions of the Super Hornet.

By the way, now that the A-6 tanker has gone, how will the Hornets get to deep-interdiction targets? Contrary to what we’re officially told, a tanker variant of the Hornet is simply not the answer. In an attempt to make it supersonic, the F-18E has been given a low aspect ratio and a razor blade of a wing. This hurts subsonic drag and carrier takeoff payload when compared to an A-6 tanker, which is an aerodynamically efficient solution. Equally silly is the proposal for an EW version of the F-18E. The same aerodynamic reasons apply for this airplane, plus it has an external stores dilemma. To get sufficient range to support a deep interdiction mission, the EF-18E would have to use up precious external store stations with fuel tanks, rather than ECM pods as carried on the EA-6B. Perhaps the Navy should consider putting the EA-6B back into upgraded and modernized production and build some of them as tankers?

SHORT OF NUCLEAR WAR, THE CARRIER BATTLE GROUPS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO STRIKE ON VERY SHORT NOTICE. A PRESIDENT’S FIRST QUESTION IN TIME OF CRISIS IS OFTEN, “WHERE ARE THE CARRIERS?”

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June 2020