Britain Considered Buying F-14 Tomcats: How the RAF Almost Fielded the 20th Century’s Most Dangerous Fighter

The F-14 Tomcat has for over 50 years held the title of the world’s heaviest fighter jet, and during the Cold War was widely considered the foremost aircraft for air to air combat fielded by any country. Deployed by the U.S. Navy from 1974, and acquired by the Iranian Air Force just two years later, the F-14’s extreme cost and high maintenance needs even compared to other Cold War heavyweights like the F-15 meant that it saw few sales overseas. The sensitivity of its technologies meant that it was not offered to the large majority of American export clients, with the F-5E and F-16 being the standard export fighters in the 1970s and 80s. A number of countries did consider the F-14, most notably Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel, although for a number of reasons all eventually selected the F-15 in its stead which was much cheaper both to operate and to acquire and easier to maintain but was very significantly less capable in beyond visual range combat.

Decisions on acquisitions of U.S. allies were very often influenced by the requirements of the U.S. Military for joint operations, and  with the F-15 forming the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’s air superiority fleet Japan and Saudi Arabia both came under pressure to choose the Eagle for interoperability reasons, including to ensure that the U.S. Air Force would be able to use their facilities in the event of a major war. For Israel the country’s small size and more limited budget made the F-15 a more suitable choice since engagements were likely to take place at closer ranges and the Israeli Air Force had a much smaller territory to control. The U.S. Air National Guard notably also considered the F-14, concluding that it was the most suitable fighter for its needs, but ultimately opted for the F-15 due to its lower cost and the relatively limited threat from Soviet intercontinental range bombers at the time.

The F-14’s AN/AWG-9 radar provided a much greater degree of situational awareness than any rival combat aircraft, other than the Soviet MiG-31, which used the world’s first electronically scanned array radar for air to air combat. The Tomcat’s most notable other feature was its access to AIM-54 air to air missiles, however, which were the only ones in the Cold War with ‘fire and forget’ capabilities provided by active rather than semi-active radar guidance. The missiles had a staggering 190km engagement range, compared to just 70km for the AIM-7 used by the F-15 and 130km for the R-27 used by modern Soviet fighters such as the Su-27. The missiles carried warheads large enough to destroy entire formations of aircraft as demonstrated by the Iranian Air Force against Iraqi MiG-23s. The F-14’s capabilities notably drew the attention of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), when the country was struggling to fund an air defences variant of the Tornado variable swept wing fighter as costs continued to mount. The Tornado was a lighter and much less capable fighter, but was distinguished by a relatively powerful sensor suite comparable in range to that of the F-15 although still far inferior to that of the Tomcat. A British acquisition would have not been unprecedented, with the country previously having come closet to purchasing F-111 strike fighters and having acquired F-4 Phantoms for its carrier groups.

In the 1970s the RAF’s fighter fleet fell to under 100 serviceable aircraft, with the service subsequently considering the American F-14, F-15 and lightweight F-16 to form new units. The RAF reportedly found the F-16’s capabilities, in particular its short range, relatively weak radar and low weapons payload, to be insufficient, while the F-14 was favoured over the F-15 due to its superior ability to deal with electronic warfare countermeasures. The high cost of the F-14, however, ultimately prevented the sale although inquiries were made into purchasing Tomcats second hand either from the U.S. Navy or from the Imperial Iranian Air Force. The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 eliminated the possibility of acquisitions from Iran, while progress with the Tornado program made it favourable to purchase a domestically developed fighter even if its capabilities fell very far short.

The Tornado program would pay dividends in the form of profitable exports to Saudi Arabia, while also boosting the British defence industry, which was seen to more than compensate for the F-14’s performance advantages. In addition the Tomcat, even if purchased second hand, still had tremendous operational costs and maintenance needs well above those of the Tornado which may have led the RAF to perceive the domestic fighter as being more cost effective. Thus while the F-15 retained the title of by far the most capable fighter fielded by a Western air force during the Cold War, this title could have potentially gone to the F-14 had it been acquired by the RAF. Tornadoes would see limited air to air combat during the Gulf War in 1991, when one was engaged and shot down by an Iraqi MiG-29, but had capabilities more well suited to strike operations. The fighters were finally retired by the RAF in 2019.

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