The F-14 program can trace its roots back to the Douglass F-6 Missiler - an airplane that was designed but never built. The Missler looked like anything but a fighter - it had straight wings, a stubby nose and was subsonic. Its sole purpose was to protect the aircraft carrier and its battlegroup from enemy missile attack by virtue of the fact that it was equipped to carry six long range "Eagle" missiles under its wings and seemed to reflect the design philosophy that the manned fighter was becoming obsolete and that missiles would be relied upon exclusively in the future.

When Robert Macnamara became Secretary of Defense, he became infatuated with the idea of a single plane that could be used for all branches of the millitary. Thus the F-111 program was born. Two versions of the F-111 were initially designed, the F-111A for the USAF to be built by General Dynamics and the F-111B for the Navy to be built by the Grumman Corporation.

The F-111 was the world's first non-experimental plane to use swing wings (variable geometry wings - later copied by the Russians in the Mig-23 and Mig-27). The sweep of the aircraft's wings could be adjusted in flight such that the sweep angle was optimal for the current flight parameters (airspeed, angle of attack etc.) The F-111 was fitted with two Pratt & Whittney TF30 afterburning turbofans. The F-111B for the Navy was to be fitted with Hughes AWG-9 pulse doppler radar and equipped with six Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles (so named because the Eagle missle program was cancelled and the new missle arose from the ashes of its predecessor) under six rotating pylons under the wing (the pylons rotated so that as the wing sweep was changed, the pylons would continue to point straight ahead). Unfortunately, in the quest to make a single basic (read: compromise) design that could be used for both the Navy and the Air Force, too many aspects required to make a good carrier fighter design were compromised away. As a result, the F-111B was cancelled. The F-111A, in the meantime, was fitted with a terrain following radar and had a rather inauspicious combat debut in Vietnam, losing five planes in very short order as the terrain following radar proved to be a beacon for enemy defenders.

Following the cancellation of the F-111B, the Navy still had not met its need for an interceptor that could protect a carrier battlegroup from missle attack. A new fighter acquisition program was begun and Grumman was selected. Following several design revisions, Grumman proceeded with its Model 303. Although in order to meet the plane's primary mission as a cruise missile interceptor the AWG-9 / Phoenix missile combination would be used, Grumman's design philosophy was to design an excellent dogfighter armed with the AIM-7 Sparrow, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and M61 Vulcan Cannon, and then (in the words of one of the designers) "figure out a way to bolt six Phoenix missiles onto it".

In fact, while the F-14 can carry up to six of the vaunted Phoenix missiles, it is very rarely flown in this configuration as the aircraft's weight when carrying the six missiles exceeds its maximum carrier landing weight. So, more often, only four Phoenixes are carried.

The F-14 design is a large departure from that of the F-111B. While still employing variable geometry wings and the TF30 engines, Grumman's designers opted to widely separate the engines from one another. While this created a larger moment of intertia while rolling the aircraft vs. the F-111's arrangement of placing the engines in tandem, the wide seperation meant that debris from one failed engine was much less likely to damage its neighbor. Other design considerations included the use of two verticle stabilizers rather than a single stabilizer as in the F-111, to better accomodate the limitted height of the aircraft carrier hangar while still providing adequate stability, and the mounting of all external weapons under the fuselage in the "tunnel" between the air intakes, or on fixed pylons under the wing "roots" (the non-pivoting portion of the wing), thus eliminating the need for the F-111's more complicated swiveling pylons.

The F-14 was also designed such that the fuselage acts as a large lifting area, and was one of the first fighters to take advantage of an aerodynamic phenomenan known as vortex lift to help increase manueverability.

As a result, Grumman had created a very large but very manueverable fighter for its size. The F-14 was also very expensive, costing roughly four times the price of the Navy's current front-line carrier fighter, the F-4 Phantom. However, as proponents of the F-14 pointed out, it was not possible to carry four times as many F-4's on an aircraft carrier as F-14's.

One of the F-14's more unique features was that a television camera was carried in a chin pod under the nose. The television camera could be slaved to the AWG-9 radar and used to obtain a magnified image of the target, thus greatly aiding in positive target identification at long ranges.

The F-14 was viewed by many as the resurrection of Gruman's WWII "Cat" series of fighters, which included the F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F7F Tigercat and F8F Bearcat. Admiral Tom Conally was initially in charge of the F-14 program for the Navy, and the fighter was initially given the unofficial nickname of "Tom's Cat", which eventually evolved into the official nickname, "Tomcat".

Over the course of its life, newer versions of the F-14 have been designed and some employed in service. Originally, the troublesome TF30 engines in the F-14A (which were prone to compressor stalls) were to be replaced in the F-14B with the F404 engine. However, this version of the F-14B (dubbed the "Super Tomcat") never went into production. Later, the TF-30 engines were replaced with the F101DFE (later renamed F110) engine, an afterburning turbofan derived from the F101 engine used in the B-1 Lancer in the F-14A+, F-14B and F-14D models. The F-14A+ was merely a re-engined F-14A, while the B model enhanced the avionics and the D model featured a major avionics overhaul, including the replacement of the analogue AWG-9 radar with the digital APG-70 radar, which featured LPI (low probability of intercept, meaning that the radar employs technologies to make it much more difficult for adversaries to detect the radar's emissions) technology.