The DCS Tomcat versus Hornet showdown

With Heatblur’s DCS: F-14 Tomcat due out by “winter” and Eagle Dynamics adding more features to the DCS: F/A-18C Hornet I feel like there is a kind of friendly rivalry going on in the virtual hangars of DCS World. I thought it would be fun to have a showdown between these two carrier based aircraft as they are two of the most talked about DCS World modules right now.

The Fleet Defender

F-14-07
The F-14 is the classic U.S. Navy fleet defense fighter with speed, power, and arsenal optimized that that kind of role.

I was young when I watched Top Gun on VHS with my dad and the F-14 rocketed to the top of my aircraft awareness list. The big variable geometry fleet defense fighter with its incredible sound and rugged looks held appeal and continues to this day. It is the quintessential fighter jet of the 1980s and people buying the F-14 module for DCS are going to get their money’s worth if they are looking for that combination of powerful fighter jet with 1980s nostalgia. In short, flying the F-14 comes with some performance advantages and a huge dose of personality.

The F-14 isn’t a perfect aircraft. It was well known for its tricky handling and the requirement for its pilot to work hard to ensure that they are in control at all times. Immensely powerful, the F-14 can get out of control and into difficult situations. Heatblur doesn’t hide from that legacy and you can see in the reveal trailer a F-14 doing a flat spin – an issue with the F-14.

The F-14 can be propelled up to a speed of just over Mach 2 thanks to the problematic TF30 (F-14A) and the much better F110 engine (F-14B). It also has a stated combat radius of 500 nautical miles and can climb up to 50,000 feet or more.

F-14-09
Compared to the Hornet, the Tomcat’s cockpit is a much more analog affair.

The F-14 is an aircraft with one step in the future and one step in the past. Analog systems with steam gauges and, by modern standards, a rudimentary HUD are complimented with some more advanced systems like the ability to use laser guided precision bombs and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile.

The Tomcat can sling an impressive loadout of AIM-7, AIM-9, and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. The AIM-54, in combination with the AWG-9 radar, give the F-14 an impressive ability to engage targets at extreme long ranges with a stated operational range of 100 nm. Against maneuvering targets the range will be much shorter but that doesn’t negate the fact that it can still lock on and shoot at far greater ranges than most others.

F-14-03
From Fleet Defender to ‘Bombcat”, the F-14 later gained air-to-ground capability.

Late upgrades to the F-14 also came with the ability to deploy unguided and laser guided bombs. The RIO can use the LANTIRN pod to laser designate and engage targets with precision LGBs turning the F-14 from fleet defender into a precision strike aircraft. It’s not going to come with a wide array of ground attack options but it does at least offer a few of them as an option.

We’ve talked a lot about the F-14 so now I’m going to tap into the other side of the debate and talk about the F/A-18C Hornet.

The Smart Striker

F-18-amraam-fox3
The F/A-18C lets loose with an AIM-120C.

I may have been a fan of the F-14 growing up but I got a chance to see the F/A-18 in real life many more times and the appeal of this twin engine multi-role strike aircraft captured my attention just as quickly as the F-14 did.

The F/A-18C is a jack of all trades and master of none jet that brings a whole ton of capability to the decks of aircraft carriers and the air bases of multiple nations. With the press of a button, the F/A-18C goes from air-to-air to air-to-ground mode and back again with ease. When the Hornet was new, this was a new capability, and its still a pretty impressive feat even today.

The Hornet has 400 nm of combat range, a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, and a maximum speed of Mach 1.8. Realistically the F-18 won’t be going Mach 1.8 but it will be going low to mid Mach 1 at most altitudes even when hauling some ordinance.

Although the DCS World iteration of the F/A-18C is still being developed I’m going to assume full capability for part of this discussion. The Hornet already has its full list of weapons to attack air targets ranging from the 20mm cannon to the AIM-120C and AIM-9X Sidewinder. It has a long list of guided and unguided weapon systems too including the Harpoon, Maverick, LGB, JDAM, and JSOW.

Many of the weapons the Hornet can employ are stand-off weapons meaning that the Hornet can use them at ranges that sometimes out distance air defenses. When enemy aircraft get in close, the Hornet can use its JHCMS system to lock and engage maneuvering fighters with the AIM-9X Sidewinder at previously unheard of angles.

F-18-practice-strike.jpg
The Hornet performing one of its many roles, in this case air-to-ground close air support, on the test range.

When the AIM-9X isn’t available, the Hornet is still a powerful contender with its fly-by-wire controls ensuring that the pilot has the ability to quickly and easily fly the aircraft to the edge of its envelope. The Hornet also has an incredible ability to pitch quickly which makes it a dangerous dog fighter.

The Hornet brings with it an impressive array of systems and sensors tied together through a partially digital cockpit interface complete with a sophisticated HUD, helmet sight, navigation system, and a long list of configurable weapons.

Sharing the deck: Hornet vs Tomcat

F-14-05
A pair of Tomcats lined up on the deck awaiting catapult launch.

So we have a good break down of the two aircraft and their respective capabilities let’s compare these two with a really basic versus back and forth comparison.

The F-14 has greater range, can engage air to air targets at a greater range, has a more powerful radar, and is faster. The AIM-54 Phoenix alone gives it an incredible ability to engage targets at long ranges.

By comparison, the F/A-18 has less range and can’t shoot air to air targets at the same distance but it can do things the Tomcat can’t including perform stand-off strike missions, employ a vast array of precision weapons outside of the Tomcat’s limited arsenal, and shoot at airborne targets at a 90 degree offset thanks to the AIM-9X and JHMCS.

The F/A-18 can be flown by a single pilot with much of the systems being automatically operated while the F-14 is a two seat aircraft requiring that second person to operate the sensors.

The F-14 has incredible power but the close in dogfight capability will likely go to the Hornet with its ease of handling and incredible pitch authority at slower speeds. The F-14 shouldn’t be counted out either being more agile than it appears and having the advantage of variable geometry wings to optimize itself to the situation.

The back and forth on these two aircraft can go on for a long time (and I’m looking forward to the comments) but I want to summarize these two aircraft. In short, the F/A-18 is designed to be smart and fire smart weapons and the F-14 is designed to be powerful and fight its way through the enemy to keep the fleet safe.

Conclusions

F-14-08
The classic fleet defender.

The big questions out in the community right now is which module should you buy? Which is better? There are no easy answers to these questions if we’re comparing these two aircraft alone. Tomcat aficionados are going to say the Tomcat while Hornet supporters will say the Hornet and the reality is that both of these aircraft offer compelling packages.

What the F-14 has that the F/A-18 doesn’t is the nostalgia factor. Load up the soundtrack to Topgun and many people will relive the sights and sounds of that movie and of one of the stars of that movie: the F-14 itself. Heatblur as a developer has tapped into that nostalgia with a soundtrack and content oriented around the F-14 in a fantastic way. We’re still months away from a full release of the F-14 but before long the F-14 will start to show up in the hands of players and that will be a great day.

F-18-cockpit-sand-storm-startup
Three multi-function displays and a sophisticated HUD and helmet sighting system distinguish the Hornet from other aircraft.

I want to conclude and suggest something else entirely in this editorial. DCS World has gone through some significant growing pains and been limited to just a few high fidelity options for many years now. That is changing with the early access of the F/A-18C and a serious effort by Eagle Dynamics to build not just the Hornet but systems and support for other future 4th gen fighter jets we’re entering an interesting and exciting new era. At the same time, Heatblur is coming along with the F-14 and a lot of great content to support it.

Together, these aircraft represent two of the greats of modern and recent carrier aviation and they form a pair of aircraft that can easily cohabitate the virtual aircraft carrier decks of many a multiplayer server or single player scenario. If that doesn’t sound like one of the greatest pieces of news for DCS World in recent history then I don’t know what is.

That’s what I think but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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26 Comments Add yours

  1. schurem says:

    Allright, i’ll bite. For me, tomcat all the way. There’s the 80s height of the cold war nostalgia for one, but the fact that the tomcat is hairy makes it far more desirable.
    By “hairy” I mean it is dangerous to fly and has a ton of systems with all kinds of interesting idiosyncracies.

    Compared to that, the hornet is boring, safe and easy.

    That said, I love my hornet to death, and will be flying it forever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      I definitely love the Hornet to death too. I’ve struggled with some of the other modules but the F/A-18C seems to fit me perfectly. At least so far. Maybe when there are more systems I’ll struggle a bit more but so far I’m really enjoying flying it.

      I can completely see the appeal of the Tomcat for the reasons that you’ve said too.

      Like

    2. boxcarleader says:

      i agree i about the tomcat but even though i have the hornet im not a fan of MFDs alot of my simming has been in WW2 and i love analog… so 14 all the way i have a feeling that my Hornet Module will not be unpacked seriously for a long while … i mainly bought it because of the module

      Like

  2. Bonkers says:

    The Hornet is a lot of fun to fly, and when we get some more A/G weapons in place it will be one of the most capable aircraft in DCS. Not only is it the only truly multi-role click-pit in the game, it’s also going to be the only SEAD capable platform on the Blue side, since the AV-8B is limited to the AGM-122 and doesn’t get the HARM, Standard ARM, or Shrike. The Hornet is highly capable and versatile, but it’s also fairly simple to learn and operate, with a relatively low workload on the pilot. Learn this plane and you can do just about anything you want.

    The Tomcat is the gosh darn mother-forking Tomcat. I know that the Tomcat isn’t going to be as easy to operate as the Hornet, or have the multi-role capability of the Hornet. But it’s the Tomcat. It goes faster. It goes louder. It’s got steam gauges. It’s 1986 again and we’re playing with the boys. Take me on your mighty wings tonight, fly me to the danger zone, and take my breath away.

    I’ll take both, thanks. The old and the new. Until we get the A6-E Intruder; then I’m going all Grumman, all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Well said Bonkers! I think this encapsulates the whole discussion perfectly: The Hornet is great for a large number of quantifiable reasons and the Tomcat is awesome because its the Tomcat. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

      1. boxcarleader says:

        if the A-6 intruder shows up one .. im gunna buy it and two im gunna wish i could give my F-18 to some player who has no money and really really wants it because the only reason i have the F-18 is the SEAD capability

        Like

  3. Mischiew Rithe says:

    I will never be able to choose, those are both must-have beasts. Two completely different styles, as you both said, with each its appeal.

    But the Tomcat allegedly had the first microprocessor! (check firstmicroprocessor dot com) Talk about nostalgia for a geek hooked into DCS 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Thanks for that information! I had no idea that the Tomcat had one of the first microprocessors (apparently anyways). That very much goes along with this idea of being one step in the past and another step into the future.

      Like

  4. Eviscerador says:

    To be honest there is no contest. The F/A-18 is more versatile, easier to fly and you can push the envelope to the limits. The Tomcat on the other way will probably require a lot more of dedication just to fly it and her analogic and two seat design will make it a pain in the arse to play alone (we will see how good Jester is)

    BUT, what the Tomcat will give us is the incredible multiplayer experience of having your friend as a RIO. Having flown the Gazelle in MP I know this alone will make the module worth.

    So I will play the Hornet in SP or in MP when I’m alone, but you can bet I will jump into the Cat cockpit (Whatever seat, I don’t mind) any ocassion I can fly it with a virtual squadron mate.

    In the meantime I’m flying the A-10C, which still is the flagship and the best module out there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      That two seat multiplayer experience isn’t something I touched on well in my piece so thank you for bringing that up. That’s a really good point and I can see a lot of people being interested for that very reason.

      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about the A-10C. I don’t have that module but it always looks like a blast when flying it. I’m concerned about the complexity despite my great experiences with the Hornet (and I still have the Harrier and Viggen to learn plus I want to brush up on my M-2000C at some point too).

      Like

      1. boxcarleader says:

        SHAM!!! if you are worried about the A-10C fly the A-10A to get a feel for the aircraft first .. the hardest part is remembering all the controls.. but it is a devastating platform once you have it down. the A-10A has the gun the mavericks and the non LGB ordinance once you get it down you will just have to learn the Lightning pod and LG weapons.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Eviscerador says:

        The A-10C is complex to learn but a joy to fly. Once you get all the HOTAS controls as a second nature, you will be able to do everything fast and smoothly.

        The Viggen is fast, the harrier is a blast, but the A-10C has the firepower, the range, the endurance and the avionics to just do everything better than the latter… IF you don’t need speed on the mix.

        Also, GAU 8 Avenger is your best friend. A Winchester A10C is still a force to be reckon with, capable of just blasting a whole APC convoy with a few well placed bursts.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. TJR says:

    I have been waiting for the MAC release to buy anything from DCS, but I figure why not try and learn the largest/heaviest fighter to ever get catapulted off a moving ship……. DANGER ZONE. Tomcat all the way, maybe because some of my first memories are watching Gulf War 1?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      MAC is going to be a great entry point for the series and it does ship with that other big large powerful American fighter, the F-15C Eagle. That’s a lot of fun too but I suppose its not the same as having the F-14!

      Like

      1. TJR says:

        My only question is will the volleyball game be DLC?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Błażej Seremak says:

    F/A-18C Lot 20 is an aircraft from 1998.
    F-14A – form 1974.
    F-14B – from 1988.
    Tomcat is 10 – 24 years older plane than Hornet, suitable for Cold War scenarios/servers.
    Both are fantastic, but Hornet will not have RED full fidelity counterpart in the near future so personally i prefer Tomcat.
    cheeers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      REDFOR does need something to match up against both F/A-18 and F-14 at some point in the full fidelity realm. That may prove tricky given the current realities but I’m holding on to some hope.

      Like

  7. boxcarleader says:

    Seremak i think that is a critical point to be made i have seen numerous videos of the Hornet talking about how its all that and a bag of chips but in reality its about 10 years newer than other planes in the game .. and that is the difference between the F-86 and The F-4 Phantom … enough said F-14 All the way i would like the challenge

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      I hadn’t thought about that perspective of the F-86 in relation to the F-4 and the F-14 in relation to the F/A-18C.

      It’s interesting too because there’s such an enormous leap between the F-86 to F-4 in all respects. The F-14 to F/A-18C see the biggest leaps in the systems and in the arsenal rather than the aircraft itself. It’s going to be great to put both of these on the ramp and fly them together.

      Like

  8. LF_Manu says:

    Nice writeup!
    Well I want to share my opinion. In terms of capabilty I want to add gameplay too. It’s easier to enjoy Air to ground aircraft in DCS. The AI is less important, the bombs and rocket mechanics are good whereas when you have AA aircraft you depend on missiles, AI, FM from the enemy planes and a large list. Now the Hornet is getting lots of fixes for the radar but it’s a long way till we have the full feature complete AA features and all of the mechanics depending on that. The plus is that the Hornet is a great AG platform too and so far, the emplyment it’s good. You will have better time on AG than on AA and that it’s common to other modules. The Mirage after a long way is somewhat decent but now is going to get revamped to be more realistic and the problem of missiles still appears on almost every plane.

    This Tomcat might be the exception. The RIO is a great feature that can be revolutionary. Having an AI with realistic patterns do the job for you or assiting you to improve the SA (Remember how bad visibilty in DCS is) or even sharing a cockpit will make a great experience with Heatblur own Phoenix missiles. Missiles I hope will be a great representation of the real thing. I think all of this will be a gamechanger and the first AA module to be fully enjoyed singeplayer and multiplayer.

    In terms of capabilties I think it will be competitive. The Sparrows are still a great weapon and in case of a R77 a Phoenix can give you time, lots of time although you’ll need a good RIO.

    Besides, there is an important thing. The Tomcat is releasing a full or almost full aircraft while the Hornet still needs years of additions and fixes.

    I have both but I will be enjoying the Tomcat till the Hornet is complete.

    Like

  9. Belphe says:

    Great article! Can’t wait for the Tomcat – that’s why I’m currently flying the Hornet 😉 Anyway, AFAIK it is the LANTIRN pod that lets laser-guided bombs to be delivered, not the TARPS which is a reconnaissance pod.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Thanks for the comment. You’re absolutely right about the TARPS and LANTRIN. I’m going to blame it on cold meds I’ve been on 😉

      Like

  10. boxcarleader says:

    I Have a question that i have not found a solid answer too (i have not looked too hard as im playing IL2 with friends atm… is the sweep system on the F-14 based off airspeed or by pilot control… also i think that as with other full fidelity modules i think that Heatblur verified the Aim-7 while working it up so we may have a more effective Aim-7 in game… at least i hope they did… and based on my previous post the fact that the F-18 is 10 years newer with the Aim-9X will probably be offset a bit by the fully modeled Aim 54 giving the hornet an edge and long and short range while the Tomcat will have the edge at extreme and mid range combat seeing as how the aircraft was built with both the Aim-54 and Aim-7 in mind

    Like

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      As I recall from reading about the F-14 over the years, the wing sweep is controlled automatically based on airspeed, however, the pilot has the ability to override the sweep system as necessary. I don’t know what the details are for that.

      The AIM-7 will be whatever the AIM-7 in DCS World is. ED has made some changes to the AIM-7 (perhaps more changes to come?) recently and added more variations. I haven’t had enough time to notice what the differences are but I’m sure someone will be checking closely… and I’ll be happy to report 🙂

      Like

  11. boxcarleader says:

    also i think a lot of capability and play-ability especially online will be heavily dependent on the AI i would even venture a guess that the modules success will depend strongly on the AI as i know with my scheduled it is hard to meet up with people on a constant basis to fly …

    Like

  12. Huckle says:

    Generally I don’t have much interest in aircraft that first flew after 1970, too much magic box equipment, so the Tomcat is a good analogue choice for me.

    Like

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