July 28, 2006

Tomcat fighter makes last carrier flight

By Kristin Roberts

Navy's F-14 Tomcat, built to protect the fleet from Soviet
bombers, took its last flight off an aircraft carrier on
Friday, closing one of the final chapters in its 32-year

The retirement of the Tomcat, made famous in the movie "Top
Gun," clears the way for the Navy to start using new military
aircraft that supporters say can meet post-Cold War
requirements more affordably.

But for Tomcat pilots and aircraft enthusiasts, the end of
the F-14 does not just mark an end of an aviation era -- it
signals a trend in U.S. government weapons spending that favors
cost-cutting over performance.

"It's a Cold War icon with modern-day lethality," said
Cmdr. Jim Howe, commander of the Navy's last Tomcat fighter
squadron and the pilot on the last Tomcat to make the
two-second, 150 mile-per-hour (240 kph) catapult launch off the

Lt. Justin Halligan, the pilot who dropped the last bomb
from a Tomcat over Iraq earlier this year, said the plane was
"at the top of its game or better, but times are different,
money's different."

Pilots and machinists aboard the USS Roosevelt aircraft
carrier, off the coast of Virginia, echoed those sentiments
this week. So did industry analysts.

"We're kind of retreating from an era of best you can build
and moving to an era of best you can afford," said Richard
Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group aerospace and defense

"There's no better sign of that than the retirement of the


Beyond reflection about the aircraft's powerful image,
supersonic speed and unmatched dog-fighting capabilities, many
sailors and analysts agreed the Navy just doesn't need the
Tomcat anymore.

While some in the Navy criticize Washington, analysts say
there is a lot more room for further cuts in the military
aircraft budget given the changing face of war.

Simple but deadly ground-based threats such as the roadside
bombs used against U.S. forces in Iraq, difficulties securing
access to foreign bases and the near total lack of a rival in
the air, raise questions over the need for maintaining high
spending levels.

Many critics point to the Air Force's plans to buy the F-22
-- the next generation of aircraft aimed at maintaining
America's military superiority in the skies -- for a hefty $130
million each.


The Tomcat had outlived its mission once the Cold War
ended, and the federal government was quick to decide the cost,
at more than $60 million per plane, was outweighing the
benefit. The first Bush administration terminated new F-14
production in its fiscal 1990 budget, and the Navy in 1991
ended its plans to convert older versions, saving $6 billion.

The Tomcat will be fully retired in September, with planes
going to museums and a war reserve. The Navy has already begun
transitioning to Boeing Co's F/A-18 Super Hornets, and it will
then move to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, being built by a
team led by Lockheed Martin.

But there is little agreement when it comes to the F-22.
The Government Accountability Office urged Congress in June to
delay funding the program, saying the Air Force had not made a
business case for it.

John Pike, director of security Web site
globalsecurity.org, argues the Air Force should start to depend
on unmanned vehicles to conduct long-range missions.

"There's got to be a point over the next decade or two that
the pencil pushers, the accountants, are going to say piloted
aircraft are a luxury we can no longer afford," Pike said.