Tomcat's in the Mud!
The Development of the F-14 in Air-to-Ground Missions

When the VFX specification was released in June 1968 it's print contained an important secondary role:-that of close air support with a bombload of up to 14,500 pounds. Thus right from the beginning the F-14 was designed to carry bombs, indeed early Grumman publicity material for the winning design (303E) shows it doing just that.
During the flight test program at least one of the pre-production F-14A conducted tests with 14 Mk82 500lb bombs attached to modified Phoenix launchers (see image on right). However after testing was complete the air-to-ground capability was allowed to lapse, for several reasons:- the F-14 was justified on the grounds that it was the only aircraft that could fill the demanding Fleet Air Defense mission, if upon entering service it had started dropping bombs Congress would most certainly have asked the question of why it was necessary to buy interceptors for $35 million and then use them to drop bombs when better bomb trucks (the A-6 and A-7) were available for less money. The second reason is touched upon above, in the late 1970's the Navy had plenty of air-to-ground aircraft, the A-6 was in service and in constant development (the A-6E TRAM made it's first operational deployment in 1979), likewise the A-7E (which in the early 1980's received a FLIR pod) and the F/A-18 was on the drawing board. Thus the Tomcat crews specialised in the air-to-air arena, where they were needed, as the USSR developed new and improved bombers, the Tu-22M, and anti-ship missiles in the form of the AS-4 and AS-6.
The air-to-ground role and the F-14 were not complete strangers during the 1980's, as the F-14D was developed it incorporated the necessary software and hardware to enable it to carry iron bombs and the incorporation of more advanced weapons would be relatively simple. In addition small sections of the Tomcat community continued to argue for an air-to-ground role, culminating in the dropping of two inert Mk84's by a F-14A from VX-4 on the 10th of November 1987. Clearance trials continued at a slow pace and in July 1992 Fleet squadrons received clearance for GP bombs. Cluster bomb units and LGB's followed soon after.
The early 1990's was a chaotic time for defence planners and as a result budgets. As the Navy's planned next generation of strike aircraft were terminated, leaving only the project that would become the F/A-18E/F, the idea of further developing the F-14 for the strike role became more attractive. However with funds tight, only limited upgrades would be possible. During this period Grumman proposed a range of Advanced Tomcat Derivatives, which in the end lost out to the F/A-18E/F. In December 1994 a Navy report urged the acquisition of a stand alone laser designator and FLIR for the F-14. Lockheed Martin had been proposing a variant of the LANTIRN system to the Navy since 1993 and won the contract to develop it for the F-14.
To save time and cost Lockheed Martin's proposal envisaged using only the AN/AAQ-14 targeting pod (LTP) with modifications including GPS, ballistic tables and navigation aids. The pod is not integrated into the F-14's computer's and software, instead it feeds images from the FLIR onto the RIO's PTID and the pilot's vertical display indicator (VDI) in the F-14A/B or one of the two MFD's in the F-14D. LANTIRN, as installed on the F-15E and F-16C, can fly the aircraft in terrain following mode to a pre-set target. The F-14 version cannot do this, however as the LTP includes GPS receivers the pod can aid navigation, providing a highly accurate means by which to check the aircraft's INS system.
The LANTIRN pod, with major sections marked.
Instead of proceeding down the normal route of prototyping LANTIRN and then conducting trials at the Naval Air Warfare Center the system was trialled in the Fleet, AIRLANT being given the task of demonstrating the capabilities of the system. This was partially possible because LANTIRN was already a mature system, in use with the Air Force since the late 1980's. A F-14B from VF-103 (BuNo. 161608) was chosen to be the testbed. After being returned to Northrop Grumman for modification the test program began in March 1995. By June testing was complete and Lockheed Martin were awarded a contract for production standard systems. Initially 10 aircraft and 6 LTP's were involved and once completed these carried out the necessary trials to ensure the system was ready for deployment. In a ceremony held on the 14th of June 1996 the F-14 Strike Fighter was unveiled to the public and press at NAS Oceana by a combined team from VF-103 and Lockheed Martin. On the 28th of June the system began it's first operational deployment onboard the USS Enterprise, CVN-65. As well as taking part in missions over Bosnia the squadron flew a 600nm (round trip) strike mission against targets in Israel as part of Exercise Juniper Hawk. As well as scoring hits on all four targets the F-14's destroyed all opposing aircraft, proving their capability in the self-escorted strike role. Another first was a two week detachment to Sardinia, flying against MiG-29's from 1st Yagstaffle, German Air Force Of the 14 F-14B's that deployed 9 were LANTIRN capable and 5 TARPS capable (as the LANTIRN controller replaces the TARPS panel it was not possible at first for aircraft to be both TARPS and LANTIRN capable-a work round has since been developed as in October 1997 VF-102 deployed with 3 aircraft that were both TARPS and LANTIRN capable). 6 of the 9 LANTIRN aircraft had received the modifications to make them NVG capable. 6 LANTIRN pods were taken onboard and only 7 failures were experienced in 460 sorties. Lockheed Martin contractors were onboard throughout the cruise to provide support, illustrating how closely the Navy and contractor worked during the entire program.
Since this first deployment the LANTIRN capability has spread throughout the Fleet, as have NVG's and the "Upgrade" modification. The table below features full dates for each squadron. The F-14 "Upgrade" is a separate program but closely linked to the LANTIRN upgrade. It fits systems from the F-14D into F-14A/B's, providing them with a digital architecture, allowing the aircraft to carry advanced weapons such as Paveway III LGB's and in future types such as the JSOW (Joint Stand Off Weapon) and JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Weapon). Also upgraded is the RWR, the brand new AN/ALR-67. Bol chaff/flare launchers are fitted, increasing the number of expendables carried. Radar upgrades and a NVG compatible cockpit complete the "Upgrade".
Initially the Navy ordered 13 LANTIRN pods, since then at least another 25 have been ordered. As well as pods F-14's have been undergoing the modifications necessary for them to carry the pod. During 1997 pods and modified aircraft were in relatively short supply, thus they were transferred to squadrons on deployment, squadrons residing at NAS Oceana often had no aircraft modified for LANTIRN. As more aircraft undergo modification this need to transfer aircraft has slowed and will soon stop. The decision, early in 1997, to reduce the numbers of F-14's in the Fleet (due to higher than expected fatigue) has meant less airframes for modification and thus the program's completion earlier.
With it's long range and ability to carry (and if needed bring back) a heavy load of ordnance the F-14 has become the carrier's deep strike platform, in effect replacing the A-6. Although not a true all weather platform (the FLIR's effectiveness is downgraded by cloud or rain) the F-14 is highly effective in the self-escorted strike role, leaving the shorter ranged F/A-18's to carry out missions closer to the carrier. In theory the F-14 will be replaced by th F/A-18E/F, but even that will not have the same range in strike missions (475nm for the F/A-18 compared with the F-14's 650nm). The Bombcat was recently called upon to remind Saddam Hussein of the consquences of defying the UN, aircraft from VF-211 and VF-102 flying missions as part of the Southern Watch operation over Iraq.

VF-103 Jolly Rogers1st F-14 squadron to deploy with LANTIRN. 28th June 1996 to 20th December 1996. Pods and equipment were transferred to VF-32 aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt before the cruise ended.
VF-32 SwordsmenFirst to deploy LANTIRN on F-14A. November 1996 to May 1997.
VF-2 Bounty HuntersFirst Pacific Fleet squadron to deploy with LANTIRN, also first to deploy LANTIRN on F-14D. April 1 1997 to September 1997 onboard USS Constellation, CV-64.
VF-41 Black Aces and VF-14 TophattersDeployed to Mediterranean and Red Sea from Spring 1997 to late summer.
VF-211 CheckmatesDeployed onboard USS Nimtz, CVN-68, as part of CVW-9, in September 1997. Returned to NAS Oceana in late February 1998.
VF-102 DiamondbacksFirst to deploy with the full F-14 Upgrade model onboard USS George Washington as part of CVW-1. 10th October 1997 to 2nd April 1998.
VF-154 Black KnightsA team from Northrop Grumman flew to NAF Atsugi, Japan, in September 1997 to being LANTIRN and "Upgrade" modifications. The Black Knights deployed to the Persian Gulf in January 1998 onboard USS Independence for their first cruise with the new systems.
VF-11 Red Rippers and VF-143 Pukin' DogsFirst cruise with LANTIRN began in early March 1998. A round the world cruise onboard USS John C. Stennis, it is due to conclude in autumn 1998.
VF-31 TomcattersReceived their first LANTIRN capable aircraft in late 1997, using them on deployment to NAS Fallon, Nevada, during CVW-14 work-ups. First cruise will be onboard USS Abraham Lincoln, beginning in early May 1998.
VF-213 Black Lions and VF-101 Grim ReapersUnsure of the status of these squadrons, VF-213 has recently converted to the F-14D and so may have LANTIRN capable aircraft. VF-101 is the training squadron, whether it will receive LANTIRN aircraft is unclear.

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