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F-14 Combat Records

Inside The Navy
October 20, 2003

Special Forces And Tomcats Teamed Up For Classified Missions In Iraq

One of the more secretive operations in Iraq is the untold story of how land-based Navy F-14 Tomcats supported special operations forces on the ground during multiple strike missions over western Iraq. Details are classified, but Inside the Navy has learned the missions required aircraft that could fly long distances, provide a strong precision strike capability, and support forward air control airborne missions -- all capabilities resident in the Tomcat.
The operations are considered highly successful, said a source familiar with the missions. While land-basing the typically carrier-based F-14s is considered unorthodox, it was the introduction of new tactics, techniques, and procedures that made the missions unique and so sensitive, said the source. Lessons will be drawn from these special operations, but top admirals do not see the missions as a model for future naval air campaigns. Spokesmen for both the Navy and U.S. Central Command declined multiple requests for comment, noting details of the missions would be unavailable until the operations became unclassified -- which they said could take a number of years.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark disclosed the existence of the missions in a luncheon speech April 17. "It will be awhile before we hear all of the stories about the way [special operations forces integration] works," he said at the Navy League's annual conference in Washington, DC. "What most people don't know is that we had F-14s shore-based for this operation, working hand in glove, totally and completely dedicated to the special forces, and the skills that they brought in the cockpit."
According to Vice Adm. John Nathman, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs, special operations forces had a need so "compelling" during the Iraq war that it was important for the Navy to contribute F-14s to that mission. Nathman spoke to Inside the Navy on Oct. 9 following an unrelated panel discussion at the U.S. Naval Institute's symposium in Virginia Beach, VA. Special operations forces needed an aircraft that could fly for longer periods of time, and could "stay" or loiter on station, he said. Further, they needed a "striker that was precise," said Nathman.
"Their needs were a precision strike capability," he said, adding, "They needed a sensor capability and they needed the ability to work with someone that understood the urgency of their mission, which is the . . . forward air control airborne mission," he told ITN. "So, the F-14 fit that need. And that's why we were asked to provide this, and we did." Nathman could not recall where the missions took place, but said they were conducted "in a number of different places over Iraq."
But Vice Adm. David Nichols -- who took over as commander of U.S. Naval Forces in U.S. Central Command and commander of 5th Fleet in Bahrain earlier this month -- told ITN special operations with the land-based F-14s generally took place in western Iraq. Nichols spoke to ITN May 9 following a speech in Pensacola, FL, when he was still commander of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. "They did what strike airplanes always do -- they flew, dropped bombs, and controlled other airplanes dropping bombs in direct support of some of our special operations crowd," said Nichols. The missions were preplanned and rehearsed in support of special operations, he said.
The Navy was able to "accommodate a few airplanes ashore," he said, but was not specific. This suggests only a fraction of the 50 Tomcats that were sent to the Iraqi theater as five squadrons actually participated in the special operations missions.
Why the Tomcat?
Although the Navy plans to retire its Tomcat fleet as it introduces the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the F-14 has continued to provide valuable capabilities in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tomcats have a better fuel capability than F/A-18 Hornets, so F-14s can fly a bit longer and faster, according to Navy officials familiar with the aircraft. Although it depends on the particular flight profile, an F-14 can typically fly a round trip of 800 miles in about one-and-a-half to two hours without refueling, the officials said.
F-14s are suited for forward air control airborne FAC(A) missions because their cockpit is crewed by two people, leaving the backseat pilot to focus more fully on monitoring the airspace and bringing in firepower, the Navy officials said.
Because the FAC(A) mission is considered so demanding -- with crucial information being rapidly passed back-and-forth -- commanders only use two-seat aircraft for those missions, said the Navy officials. Thus, the Tomcat and the F/A-18F -- the Navy's only two-seat fighters -- are the preferred Navy aircraft for FAC(A) operations, the officials said.
The Tomcat's LANTIRN (Low-altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) system is more advanced than the F/A-18's Nitehawk targeting pods, giving Tomcats an advantage over today's F/A-18 Hornets for air-to-ground missions, the officials said. The LANTIRN pods could be used to locate targets, to guide laser-guided munitions, and to assess battle damage, the officials said.
Using the Fast Tactical Imagery system, the F-14 aircrew can transmit digital images captured from the LANTIRN pod video to another Tomcat or to the battle group commander. These images could be used for immediate attack by another aircraft, for damage assessment, for locating targets of opportunity, or simply for determining precise coordinates for targeting by other weapons. "We are kind of leading edge on that," said one of the Navy officials. Further, the LANTIRN's global positioning system allows it be used for navigation, or to locate targets and relay them to other pilots or ground controllers. LANTIRN's GPS capability, in particular, was considered important during its mission with special forces in Iraq, said the source familiar with the operation.
Operation Iraqi Freedom marked the first operational deployment of some F/A-18Fs, which were carried aboard the Nimitz (CVN-68) aircraft carrier. But for carriers without the two-seat Super Hornet, the F-14 would be a battle commander's aircraft of choice for precision strike missions because of its two-seat cockpit, LANTIRN pod, and longer range, the officials said. "That is just common sense," said one official.
The future The use of land-based F-14s in Iraq should not be viewed as a "a template or model for anything in the future," Nichols said, without elaborating further. Nathman, agreed, making a case that land-basing Tomcat's "pulled us out of who we were." Keeping Tomcats land-based would be counterproductive at a time when the Navy is placing greater emphasis on seabasing assets, explained Nathman, an experienced pilot of the F-14 and other aircraft. "I think that it's kind of an oxymoron," he replied when asked whether using F-14s shore-side should be repeated in future operations. Instead, a better way to answer special operations-like needs, Nathman suggested, is to have a netted battle space where any aircraft could deliver capability required for a certain mission, instead of having "specifically connected" air assets to special operations needs. "Their problem was so compelling that we needed to do that," he said. "But in my view, in the future you need to go to more distributed joint effects that could answer SOF needs as well as conventional needs of the maneuver on the land." Some people could "take that wrong," said Nathman, but "it's an oxymoron to argue to be more seabased and then to say 'No, no. We are just going to keep land-basing.'" But if the Navy SEALs or special forces were to run into similar difficulties on the ground again, Nathman said the Navy would be ready to provide Tomcats shore-side. "If it means land-basing F-14s, we'll land base F-14s again," said the admiral.

-- Malina Brown

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