The Magazine

The Ultimate Export Control

Why F-14s are being put into a shredder.

Jul 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 42 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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John Walker Jr. of the infamous Walker family spy ring was once asked how he had been able to pass some of the nation's most heavily guarded communications codes to the KGB for so long without being detected--almost 18 years, until he was caught in 1985. Walker's answer was both revealing and troubling.

"Kmart has better security than the Navy," was his response.

Fast-forward to 2007 and you wonder if that situation has changed much in the last 22 years. For decades the Navy's most formidable fighter aircraft was the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, immortalized in the 1986 Tony Scott-Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer film Top Gun. In its day the F-14 was the king of the hill in fighter aircraft technology. Its Hughes AN/AWG-9 radar could track up to 24 targets simultaneously. Its AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile, also made by Hughes, could shoot down aerial targets at a then-unthinkable range of 80 miles.

This technology was considered to be of such strategic importance that only one foreign purchaser was ever allowed to procure the F-14: the Imperial Iranian Air Force that existed during the reign of the shah, which bought 79 of them.

When the monarchy fell in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the ensuing takeover of the U.S. Embassy severed all relations with Washington, the United States imposed an embargo on the sale of any spare parts for the F 14s. This was intended to keep the ayatollahs from maintaining and operating their arsenal of American-made warplanes.

Iran's aerospace industry and intelligence services then embarked on what has become a nearly three-decade shell game of trying to find ways to covertly or illegally procure parts for the F-14. Not surprisingly, incidents of spares "disappearing" from storehouses at Subic Base in the Philippines and other Navy installations worldwide became regular occurrences.

Numerous middlemen operating from shadowy front companies ordered parts for the Iranian Tomcats.Some of these fronts have ended up in the U.S. courts over the years, but the Iranians have had far more successes than failures in getting their hands on what they need. During Iran's air show last year--27 years after the embargo was first imposed--several Iranian aerospace enterprises openly displayed overhauled components for the F-14 that they manage to keep acquiring parts for up to this day.

As long as the F-14 remained in U.S. Navy service, American defense plants would keep churning out spare parts for them--and therefore there would always be a pool of components available for the Iranians to try to get their hands on. However, once the aircraft was retired and the production lines shut down, conventional wisdom held that this would make it much harder for Iranian agents to get the spares they need. Exactly the opposite has turned out to be the case.

Last year, the F-14s were retired, and the remaining aircraft and spare parts stockpiles were moved from U.S. Navy inventory to the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). It is the DLA's job to try to sell used military hardware in pieces or as scrap in order to recoup some of the taxpayer's money. There are some components in the F 14 that would be common with other airframes of the same era and could be sold for that purpose. (The F-14's TF-30 engine, for that matter, is also used in the F-111, still being flown, though not for much longer by the Royal Australian Air Force.) On the other hand, some parts are unique to the F-14 and would need to be kept under lock and key and sold only for scrap. Unfortunately in the case of the F-14, no one seems to have been paying attention to what parts are being sold, and to whom.

The recent history of F-14 spares sold from DLA's boneyards and excess stockpiles suggests that some real-world incarnation of the lovably incompetent Sergeant "I see nothing" Schultz from TV's Hogan's Heroes has been in charge of verifying the destination of these spare parts.

In one publicized incident, the paperwork from an Iranian agent for illegally purchased F-14 parts passed under the DLA's nose, but the parts were then seized by Customs agents before they could be shipped to Iran. The spares were sent back to DLA, which, instead of putting them under guard, promptly sold them to another middleman working on behalf of the Iranians. The fact that these spare parts were now identified as being on Iran's wish list should have warranted some extra scrutiny when a second buyer came looking for them. What's more, the Customs Service evidence tags from the first seizure were still attached to these items--they were literally red-flagged--which makes the act of selling them to a second Iranian agent inexcusable.