I mentioned in a previous post that with maintenance upgrades the Tomcat could have stayed around and we could have skipped the entire F-18 Hornet family.
Many people, myself included, have lauded the Hornet but only in comparison to the F-35 train wreck. As a stand alone aircraft, the Hornet is woefully short ranged for today’s missions and is poorly suited for either air to air combat or strike. The lack of suitability is a function of trying to be a multi-role aircraft and, therefore, being outstanding at neither.
A far better alternative would have been to perform the maintenance upgrade we previously discussed (see, "Maintenance Upgrades") combined with the Super Tomcat upgrades. That would have given us a high performance fleet interceptor with vastly improved maintainability. Let’s take a closer look at what we might have had if the Navy had opted to go the Tomcat upgrade route instead of the Hornet route.
To review, the sequence of proposed Tomcat upgrades (maintenance and performance) was, in order,
- F-14D Quickstrike
- Super Tomcat 21
- Attack Super Tomcat 21
- ASF-14 (Advanced Strike Fighter)
The first three modifications would have preserved the basic F-14 to the degree possible while the final version, the ASF-14, would have incorporated new materials and technologies and produced an essentially new aircraft similar to the way the Super Hornet is largely a new aircraft compared to the original Hornet. The first three versions would have been remanufactured while the last version would have been new construction.
Here, in no particular order, is a list of the various technologies proposed for inclusion in the Tomcat upgrades.
- GE-F110-129 engines for super-cruise at Mach 1.3 and increased acceleration
- Upgraded APG-71 radar including an Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar mode and a 20% increase in target acquisition range. (3)
- Modified and enlarged control surfaces to provide 33% greater low speed lift around the carrier and enlarged all-moving tailplanes. (3)
- Enlarged leading edge root extensions (LERX) that would house more fuel and enhance the jet's low speed handling capabilities
- Thrust vectoring nozzles tied directly to a new digital flight control system. Even without thrust vectoring, the aerodynamic enhancements found on the ASF-14 would allow the jet to reach over 77 degrees of sustained AoA, but thrust vectoring was also to be part of the new design which would have made it the most maneuverable fighter of all time. (3)
- Significantly greater range
- The Quickstrike version would have had provision for up to 24 munitions points, fewer for heavier munitions. (3)
- Modified radar with Forward Air Controller (FAC) mode
- Integrated Defensive Avionics Package (IDAP)
- FLIR targeting and Terrain Following Radar
housed in front of the
missile mount's aerodynamic fairings under the fuselage Phoenix
- Infra Red Search & Track system (IRST) and Television Camera System (TCS) mounted in under-nose pods
- Upgraded cockpit avionics including a new wide angle heads up display (HUD) that would be capable of projecting the navigational FLIR's imagery
- Increase in internal fuel from 16,200 lbs for an F-14D to 18,500 lbs for the SuperTomcat 21. (2)
- Further increase in internal fuel over the Super Tomcat 21 via thicker wings in the ASF-14.
- Use of carbon fiber structural components to save weight and volume
- 1960's era sub-systems that were heavy and complex would be replaced with modular components
- All of the jet's hydraulic and electrical systems that gave legacy Tomcat maintainers such headaches over the years would have been replaced with greatly simplified systems
- Many structural components would be made out of carbon fiber instead of aluminum or titanium. This would allow the new Tomcat to be only slightly heavier in gross weight (about 1000 pounds empty) than its predecessor, while gaining 2200 lbs of fuel in each glove area. (2)
- Some stealthy characteristics would be applied to the ASF-14, this may have included radar baffles over it engines' fan faces and "edge-aligned" gear doors and access points. (1)
- A mammoth active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar
would have been fitted and provided with immense amounts of power for
interlaced air-to-air and air-to-ground operations or even standoff electronic
attack. You can see how incredible the ASF-14s AESA capability would have
matured into by looking at the current APG-63V3 AESA radar upgrade program
for the F-15. The APG-63V3 is actually more capable in some respects than
the F-22A's APG-77 AESA radar because it is larger in diameter, allowing
for more transit/receive modules to be utilized, and it is newer in its
design. The Tomcat was built originally for the massive Hughes AWG-9 fire
control radar, the largest radar ever deployed on a
fighter, so there is a US LOTof real estate up front for the mother of all fighter jet AESA radar arrays to have been fitted. (1)
And, of course, any new technologies that have been developed and incorporated into the current F-18E/F would also have been capable of being added to the SuperTomcat.
In addition, if we had gone the SuperTomcat route, we would undoubtedly have upgraded the
or developed a new, better replacement – perhaps
something like a longer ranged AMRAAM which we essentially now have, anyway. Phoenix
So, what would be the specs of a Super Tomcat compared to the Super Hornet and F-35? Obviously, the Super Tomcat’s specs are speculative and are my own assessments.
Super Tomcat Super Hornet F-35
Combat Radius 750 (4) nm 390 nm 490 nm (5)
Speed Mach 2+ Mach 1.8 Mach 1.6
Hardpoints 10 11 2 (6)
Weapons Load 17,750 lbs(7) 17,750 lbs 3,000 lbs (6)
(4)Wiki credits the F-14D with a 500 nm combat radius. Given the increases in fuel and wing area, combined with newer, more efficient engines, I’m estimating 750 nm combat radius.
(5)Wiki credits the F-35 with a 625 nm to 760 nm combat radius which is patently false since the credited range is 1200 nm. The best possible combat radius is half the range since the aircraft has to fly out and return. So, to list a combat radius that is greater than half the range is not possible. When one factors in the combat maneuvering (higher thrust) during the combat mission, the maximum value of half the range becomes significantly less than half. One of the two numbers is incorrect. Given all the lies told about the F-35 by the manufacturer and the Navy so far, I flat out don’t believe the listed combat radius. So, I’ve estimated a combat radius that is likely far more correct.
(6)This is the F-35’s combat capability. The aircraft has 6x additional hardpoints but those will not be used in combat because of the resulting degradation of stealth. Further, the aircraft’s combat radius is predicated on a clean configuration (internal weapons only). Any configuration with external hardpoints would severely degrade the combat radius as well as stealth and maneuverability.
(7)The Super Tomcat would, undoubtedly, have increased its weapon payload from the 14,500 lb of the standard F-14 but how much is a guess. I’ve seen no published number. I’ve opted to cite the same capacity as the Super Hornet although I suspect the increase would be much greater. This is a debatable number.
Now, let’s look at today’s aircraft roles. The Navy needs a long range fleet interceptor and air superiority fighter. Given the existence of the Tomahawk-TLAM, there may or may not be a need for a long range strike aircraft – but that’s another post. Clearly, an upgraded Tomcat would have given us a vastly superior long range fleet interceptor and air superiority fighter as compared to the Super Hornet we have today.
An upgraded Tomcat is even superior to the F-35 in all ways except stealth. There’s just a limit to how much stealth you can “fit” on to an airframe that wasn’t designed and shaped for stealth from the beginning. Of course, we don’t know how much stealth the ASF-14 would have had. More importantly, we don’t know how much stealth is actually effective or needed.
The two-seat Tomcat would have also allowed a much greater degree of secondary tasking such as surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, control of other aircraft, etc.
What we see from all this is the possibility that the Tomcat could have been upgraded and the entire F-18 line skipped while providing a vastly superior aircraft. Going further, the improved Tomcat would, today, surpass not only the F-18 but the F-35, as well, in all ways except stealth.
It is likely that the cost of the overall upgrade path would have been less than the F-18 path simply due to bypassing the basic airframe development. Of course, the upgrades, themselves, would have cost the same as the upgrades for the Super Hornet.
Having a vastly superior aircraft, today, would allow the Navy to skip the troubled F-35 and wait for the next generation fighter instead of having to accept a hugely expensive F-35 that does not even meet the Navy’s need for a long range interceptor and air superiority fighter.
It’s not as if all this has become apparent only with the benefit of hindsight. The advantages of the Tomcat upgrade path were well known at the time and the mediocrity of the F-18 Hornet was also well recognized. The Navy had every opportunity to make an informed, better decision and opted not to. They have no one to blame but themselves for the current situation.
(1)Foxtrot Alpha website, “Top Gun Day Special: The Super Tomcat That Was Never Built”, Tyler Rogoway,
(2)Home of M.A.T.S. website,
(3)topedge.com website, “Advanced Tomcat Variants”,