F-14 Tomcat: Was Retiring This Fighter a Poor Decision by the Navy?

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Despite differing opinions, it appears that the Navy made a prudent decision to retire the F-14, allowing for the progression towards the current state of affairs with F-22s, F-35s, and the integration of drones and 6th-generation aircraft.

Maverick and Goose immortalized the F-14 Tomcat as a symbol of US military air power, but the Pentagon’s decision to retire the 1980s-era aircraft seems to be a well-founded response to the rapidly evolving air-threat landscape.

F-14 History and the Future

The concept of a two-man crew offers several advantages, including the additional situational awareness provided by an extra set of eyes. The presence of an aviator can assist with command and control, targeting, surveillance, and threat identification, allowing the pilot to focus on other critical tasks.

Reducing the crew to one or even eliminating pilots altogether reduces weight, drag, and the potential for human error. While human pilots possess unique cognitive abilities that are unlikely to disappear soon, technological advancements have seemingly surpassed the benefits of a two-man crew.

The advent of AI-enabled, high-speed computers has rendered the concept of a two-man crew obsolete. These advanced systems can rapidly collect, organize, and transmit vast amounts of data, presenting integrated information to pilots. Functions such as altitude, navigation, maintenance, speed, targeting data, threat identification, and electronic warfare systems can be effectively managed without human intervention.

Machines excel at performing critical, time-sensitive combat functions exponentially faster than humans. AI-enabled algorithms can instantaneously assess complex variables, analyze data, and recommend optimal courses of action. The goal is to outpace an enemy’s decision-making process and gain an advantage in air combat engagements.

The prevailing consensus among military scientists, developers, and innovators is that the optimal approach to real-time, high-speed combat involves a combination of man and machine. This human-machine interface leverages high-speed computing to alleviate the cognitive burden on pilots while capitalizing on the unique faculties of human cognition and decision-making. Human perception, consciousness, intuition, emotion, and dynamic decision-making remain invaluable qualities that computers cannot replicate. Therefore, a manned-unmanned teaming approach is favored to maximize combat advantages.

The US Air Force has been actively networking drones with fighter jets in combat and testing the ability of fighter jets to engage in dogfights with the support of AI-enabled co-pilots. Successful experiments, such as the use of the AI algorithm ARTUu alongside a human pilot on a U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, have informed air-combat technology development. These technologies aim to leverage the computational capabilities of machines while allowing humans to exercise judgment and perception in areas where computers fall short.

Ultimately, the rapid progress in these technologies suggests that pairing a human pilot with a computer may offer greater advantages than maintaining a traditional two-man crew, particularly considering the increasing autonomy of unmanned aircraft controlled by F-22s, F-35s, and sixth-generation aircraft. Therefore, despite some opposing arguments, the retirement of the F-14 by the Navy appears to have been a well-advised decision, aligning with the current capabilities of advanced aircraft and their integration with unmanned systems.

F-14 Tomcat. Image taken at National Air and Space Museum on October 1, 2022. Image by 19FortyFive.
F-14 Tomcat. Image taken at National Air and Space Museum on October 1, 2022. Image by 19FortyFive.
F-14 Tomcat. Image taken at National Air and Space Museum on October 1, 2022. Image by 19FortyFive.
F-14 Tomcat. Image taken at National Air and Space Museum on October 1, 2022. Image by 19FortyFive.

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