The F-14 Tomcat is, in fact, the only plane that can carry and fire the AIM-54C Phoenix AAM (Air-to-Air Missile). This missile, and in fact the design of the F-14 itself, are derived directly from the mission of these aircraft.

(Useless aside: The F-14 is the aircraft flown by Maverick, Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun, a thinly-disguised Navy recruiting propaganda film disguised as a Hollywood release in the mid-'80s.)

The F-14 is tasked, according to the Navy, with 'air superiority', 'fleet air defense' and 'strike' duties (see the Navy fact file at When the F-4 Phantom II neared the end of its useful service life in the late 1970s, a replacement was sought that would better embody the lessons learned and the tactical doctrine practiced as a result for a war at sea. Specifically, the Vietnam war had taught the U.S. Navy that interceptors could not just be extremely fast missile trucks with low maneuverablility. In fact, although speed was critical, the ability to engage in a 'turn and burn knife fight in a phone booth' with enemy aircraft was also needed.

On the other side of the coin, however, was the recognition that the Soviet air force and navy had a definite air-warfare plan for dealing with U.S. Carrier Battle Groups. The main thrust of this plan involved saturating the battle group air defenses with salvos of cruise missiles fired from land-based bombers such as the Ilyushin-28 Beagle and Tupolev Backfire and Blackjack (NATO's code names for them). In order to defend against such a threat, the Navy planned to employ 'layered' defenses. One was a dispersed ring of surface escorts designed to offer early warning of such an attack as well as offer some AAW capability vs. the cruise missile horde. However, ideally, the outermost layer would consist of fleet air defense interceptors guided by both surface and airborne control radars (such as those carried by Aegis ships and the E-2C Hawkeye). These interceptors would need to be able to:

  • Swiftly launch and reach high supersonic speed so as to engage the bombers at maximum distance from the carrier in order to prevent their launching cruise missiles
  • ...and therefore be able to carry fuel and weapons appropriate for the job, including...
  • ...the AIM-54C Phoenix AAM. This weapon has a range of 'in excess of 100NM' and travels at supersonic speeds.

The AIM-54 is a very big missile. Its size is driven by its large rocket motors, as well as a large payload in the form of an explosive and likely expanding-rod warhead, and finally by the need to carry larger onboard sensors due to its long range. In an ideal engagement, F-14's, scrambled by early warning, would vector directly towards the incoming threat and launch salvos of AIM-54's at perhaps 150 nautical miles range. The missiles would follow a high-arc ballistic trajectory for maximum speed, and (hopefully) destroy the incoming bombers while they were still farther from the carrier than their cruise missiles could reach.

In order to carry this out, the F-14 needed a very powerful (i.e. large) radar system. The resultant size of its onboard sensors, which were designed expressly to support the AIM-54, meant that the airframe of the F-14 would be correspondingly beefy. The complexity of the systems meant that there would need to be an additional crew member (known as a RIO or Radar Intercept Officer) to run the offensive and defensive systems of the aircraft while the pilot concentrated on making the intercept and keeping them both alive.

Early versions of the F-14 (the F-14A) suffered from being slightly underpowered. They used two Pratt & Whitney TF-30P-414A turbofan engines with afterburners. These engines each produce 20,900 lbs of static thrust per engine. However, the aircraft was heavy enough that in order to takeoff from a short carrier deck, the use of afterburners was required. This not only raised the maintenance cycle time of the aircraft, but also meant a smaller 'safety cushion' of available power in case of emergency, and less fuel available on the aircraft once it got airborne. In fact, several F-14A aircraft have been lost during high-stress maneuvering due to what is suspected to be either engine flameout or the aircraft entering a flight profile from which it did not have enough thrust to recover.

The F-14B and -D use Two General Electric F110-GE-400 turbofans, with afterburners. Besides having better maintenance characteristics, these engines each produce 27,000 pounds of static thrust, offering adequate power reserves for emergencies and the ability to take off and cruise at lower power settings.

In addition to the AIM-54, the F-14 can carry a variety of other weapons, including but not limited to the AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile, the AIM-9 Sidewinder series of missiles, and an M61A2 Vulcan 20mm cannon. In addition, the F-14D can carry various ground-attack ordnance.

No longer in bulk production, the F-14 cost approximately $38 million US to produce. Those are unadjusted dollars from the production years. For its time, it was an extremely expensive fighter. It first flew in December, 1970.