Flightline Friday: Another “could have been” Super Tomcat 21 October 16, 2015Posted by Tantumblogo in blogfoolery, Flightline Friday, foolishness, fun, history, non squitur, silliness, Society, technology.
My son has gotten me on a Tomcat kick of late. I found this article at Foxtrot Alpha regarding the final proposed Tomcat variants that competed against the Super Hornet for the Navy’s “interim” strike fighter for the 90s and 00s (and beyond!). The Navy chose the Super Hornet, mostly because it cost 50% less to acquire and at least that much less to operate, but in so doing, it bought a markedly inferior aircraft. The great virtue of the Tomcat was its very long legs. The advanced derivatives Grumman proposed would have stretched those out even farther, extending range to nearly 2x on internal fuel. Grumman basically planned to redesign the plane from the ground up (which is also what McDonnell did with the Super Hornet) to radically improve its generally problematic maintainability.
Aviation enthusiasts love these “might have beens,” for some reason. The Avro Arrow, the TSR.2, Supersonic Buccaneer, F-108, F-12…….there are tons of them. And now, Super Tomcat 21:
The Super Tomcat 21 grew out of a previous proposal made by Grumman after the collapse of the A-12 program [Wrongfully cancelled by Dick Cheney, who was looking for scalps for the early 90s “peace dividend.” The A-12 had problems, but they weren’t particularly spectacular problems. They were average, run of the mill things that happen in developing a radical new aircraft] called the Tomcat Quick Strike. Quick Strike was meant to be an upgrade for existing F-14s by giving them high-end navigation and targeting pods similar to the USAF’s LANTIRN system, along with upgraded ground attack modes for F-14D’s APG-71 Radar (based on the aircraft’s original AWG-9 radar) and the ability to carry more standoff weaponry like the AGM-84E SLAM andAGM-88 HARM.
Quick Strike was aimed more at cheaply picking up the Intruder’s slack than at replacing the A-12’s high-end capability, and was seen at the time as an insufficient technological leap over the F-14B and D models already in service. Also, rumors that an inexpensive clean sheet next generation Hornet design was in the works over at McDonald Douglas did not help Quick Strike’s attractiveness. So Grumman came back to the Navy with a true “Super Tomcat,” called the Super Tomcat 21……… [Follows a digression discussing how Tomcats were eventually upgraded to essentially Quick Strike levels anyways in the mid-late 90s, when it was realized that not having A-6s
(prematurely retired) was a very bad thing.]
The Super Tomcat 21 would be a modification of the original F-14 design and it was to feature GE-F110-129 motors that would allow the Tomcat to super-cruise (achieve mach 1+ without using afterburner) continuously at mach 1.3. [So the sims and wind tunnel said. That doesn’t always work out in reality, but probably would have in the Tomcat’s case] Additionally, the jet would have an upgraded APG-71 radar, modified and enlarged control surfaces, and 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 were also an option. These modifications would give the “Turkey Bird” true super-maneuverability and eye-watering acceleration and sustained speed. Additionally, super-cruise combined with its additional internal fuel carriage capacity would have given the Super Tomcat much greater range than it already had. The jet would also be able to carry targeting and navigation pods, giving it true multi-role capability. Finally, a new single-piece windscreen would be added to provide much better forward visibility.
There was also a more deep strike optimized version floated called Attack Super Tomcat 21. From an avionics standpoint this jet would be a major leap forward compared in comparison with its predecessors, with an attack FLIR and Terrain Following Radar housed in the Phoenix missile mount’s aerodynamic fairings under the fuselage. The Infra Red Search & Track system and Television Camera System would be mounted in under-nose pods similar to the F-14D’s TCS/IRST pod. Also, the aircraft would have upgraded cockpit avionics including a new wide angle heads up display (HUD) that would be capable of projecting the navigational FLIR’s imagery. New mission computers and an upgraded self defense suite was included in the more elaborate Attack Super Tomcat 21 proposal. The Super Tomcat 21 and the Attack Tomcat 21 were pitched as a concept for remanufacturing existing F-14s or for new build aircraft. [This would have gone new build almost certainly. By the time they were done, barely 10-20% of the old aircraft would have remained. At that point, it’s cheaper just to build new]
A side note: I once talked to an accomplished engineer that worked for Grumman on the Super Tomcat 21 proposal. He told me that the performance models they were seeing with the Super Tomcat design were absolutely stunning and the jet’s low speed handling, especially with thrust vectoring [OK, sounds easy, but adding thrust-vector control to the engines would require a complete rewrite of the flight control software. No mean task. This was basically a ground-up redesign of the F-14 and would not have been cheap] and the bigger engines, and the sheer amount of territory it could cover in a single mission were unprecedented. This man went on to work for “other contractors” on major fighter programs, but he maintains that the Super Tomcat’s maneuvering performance and ability to operate as a fighter independent of tanker assets over large distances has still not been accomplished in any US or foreign design to this day. He did mention that he does see a large degree of the Super Tomcat’s potential in the Russia’s late model Flanker series, especially with its thrust vectoring and large internal fuel, but according to him it still does not really compare.
The Tomcat’s ultimate proposed configuration was known as the “ASF-14” would be a new build, highly updated version of the legendary F-14. A true “Super Tomcat” in every sense of the word, the machine would boast an even larger increase in internal fuel over the Super Tomcat 21
via thicker wings, the gutting of bulky older generation sub-systems and the use of carbon fiber structural components to save weight and volume. It would initially utilize the same motors as the Super Tomcat, but there was talk of eventually rolling the F-22 and NATF’s F-119 or F120 engines into the design at a later date. [Unlikely. It would have required major airframe surgery] I was told that the Tomcat’s super-cruise ability with these advanced engines would be limited more by heat accumulation than speed itself (think numbers over mach two).
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. Additionally, the ASF-14 would have been built with a top of the line self defense and countermeasure suite along with ability to perform “wild weasel” suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions.
Possibly the best part of about the ASF-14 is that it would be an entirely new aircraft, much along the same lines as the Super Hornet. This means old 1960’s era sub-systems that were heavy and complex [and became a maintenance nightmare during the 90s and 00s] 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. Furthermore, 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 1200 pounds) than its predecessor, while gaining thousands of pounds of fuel. There was even talk that some stealthy characteristics would be applied to the ASF-14, this may have included radar baffles over it engines’ fan faces and “edge-alligned” gear doors and access points.
The cockpit would have featured an all glass design with helmet mounted displays for both the pilot and the RIO/WSO. The most exciting part of the avionics suite would have made use of the Tomcat’s massive radar aperture. 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 US fighter, so there is a LOT of real estate up front for the mother of all fighter jet AESA radar arrays to have been fitted…….[There follows several paragraphs detailing the myriad shortcomings of the Super Hornet. I’ve already covered those here. The main thing: lack of range. The F-18 has always been fuel-critical and the Super Hornet did not improve things much. In many cases, it has half the range or less than the standard Tomcat, let alone any upgraded versions discussed above. Another little known fact: with any kind of load, even air-to-air, the Super Hornet has a hard time going supersonic even in full afterburner]
…….Taking a light strike fighter and turning it into a medium strike fighter is far less than ideal. Taking a heavy fighter and turning it into better heavy strike fighter is much more relevant especially considering the unique challenges of the carrier environment. The ASF-14 would have been the pinnacle of American non-stealth fighter aircraft, offering blistering speed, immense range, long on station time, advanced sensors and super-maneuverability all in a proven carrier capable package. In fact, with the upgrades planned under the ASF-14 model this “ultra-Tomcat” of sorts would have been more or a regional fighter and attack aircraft than a traditional fighter, which would have made a ton of sense over the last 13 years of war and in the present where America’s strategic focus is turning towards the vast expanses of the Pacific Theater. [That’s very, very true. Hindsight is 20-20, no one could have predicted what has come to pass back in ’92-3 when these decisions were made, but the Super Tomcat would have been far better suited to the wars this nation has fought, and the need to shift more focus to the Western Pacific, than the Super Hornet. It would have cost a good bit more, but that added cost would have bought impressive capabilities.]
Sadly the ASF-14 proposal never came to reality as the USN thought it would be too expensive in the long run and opted with the Super Hornet instead.
I look on the decision to purchase the mediocre Super Hornet vice advanced Tomcats as a prime argument in favor of maintaining a separate Air Force. There are many who advocate that the Air Force should be closed down, its assets devolved back to the other services. But we see the other services, especially the Navy since 1990, give very short shrift to their own air arms in favor of buying more and more ships or focusing on land warfare. The Navy is still largely run by surface admirals. These are men who came out of the surface fleet. Since 1990, the Navy has almost completely recapitalized its surface fleet, while allowing its air arm to severely degrade. They did this even though there were literally scores of low-time destroyers and frigates built in the late 7os/80s that could have been in service until right about now, and been very effective. Scores of cruisers, destroyers, and frigates built (or vastly upgraded) at great expense in the 80s were scrapped en masse in the 90s while the Navy kept buying more and more billion dollar Burke class destroyers. So, the surface Navy got its shiny new toys, while Naval Aviation has experienced a brutal, 25 year long contraction, losing many organic capabilities (long range strike, long range air defense, organic fixed wing ASW, organic long range tankers, to date ZERO stealth capability, etc). And yet, it is Naval Aviation that is used in combat 90+% of the time, compared to the surface navy. This is the kind of foolhardy decision that tends to come from subordinating an air arm to a service that really has a different core mission. It is a powerful argument in favor of keeping an independent Air Force.