WASHINGTON The Pentagon plans to destroy its dozens of retired F-14 fighter jets to deny Iran a source for desperately needed spare parts, a dramatic move though one that national security experts say is of more symbolic than practical value.
Within a day, a $38 million fighter jet that once soared as a showpiece of U.S. airpower can be reduced to shreds of twisted metal at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., the military's aircraft cemetery. Last month, a contractor finished the first phase of the effort, shredding roughly two dozen.
When it retired the F-14 last fall, the Defense Department intended to destroy spare parts unique to the Tomcat but sell thousands of others that could be used on other aircraft. It suspended sales of all F-14 parts after The Associated Press reported in January that buyers for Iran, China and other countries had exploited gaps in surplus-sale security to acquire sensitive U.S. military gear, including F-14 parts.
Among other tactics, middlemen for the countries misrepresented themselves to gain access to Defense Department auctions or bought sensitive surplus from U.S. companies that had acquired it from the Pentagon sales and weren't supposed to allow its export.
Investigators also found some sensitive items accidentally slipping into surplus auctions rather than being destroyed as they were supposed to be.
Iran is the only country trying to keep Tomcats airworthy. The United States let Iran buy the F-14s in the 1970s when it was an ally, long before President Bush named it part of an "axis of evil." Bush accuses Iran of financing terrorism and trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran's F-14s came from the first of several increasingly sophisticated versions of the Tomcat. The conventional wisdom among national security experts is that though Iran aggressively seeks parts for its fleet, even if the Middle Eastern country could get its jets off the ground, it could do little with them except perhaps make mischief in the region.
"Those planes as they age are maybe the equivalent of Chevrolets in Cuba. They become relics of a past era," said Larry C. Johnson, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the State Department in President George H.W. Bush's administration.
"Even if they can put them in the air they are going to face more advanced weapons systems," Johnson added.
Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, sees value in the demolition as an intimidation tactic, showing Iranians how far ahead the United States is in military technology.
"I think actually it can have an important symbolic effect in communication that these crazy Americans are so capable that they have so many aircraft that they can take airplanes that are three generations back and put them through some fantastic machine that eats them up," Allison said.
At last count, the military's boneyard in Arizona held 165 Tomcats, believed to be the only ones left out of 633 produced for the Navy. The others were scavenged for parts to keep others flying, went to museums or crashed, said a spokeswoman for the air base, Teresa Vanden-Heuvel.
The Navy plans to destroy all the remaining jets, Lt. Bashon Mann said.
A St. Louis-based company, TRI-Rinse, won a three-year, $3.7 million contract to render surplus equipment useless for military purposes. The work includes the recent demolition of 23 Tomcats in Arizona, accounting for about $900,000 of the contract. The military is considering using the same process on its other F-14s.
The company has developed portable shredding machinery so the Pentagon can have sensitive items destroyed on a base instead of shipping them long distances to be shredded.
The Tomcat was a strike fighter with a striking price tag: roughly $38 million. By the 1980s it was a movie star with a leading role in the Tom Cruise classic "Top Gun." But as the planes are mangled into metal chunks, the jets with a 38-foot wingspan appear small and vulnerable.
The shearing machine, which uses pincers to rip apart the planes, weighs 100,000 pounds. The shredder is 120,000 pounds. An F-14 weighs about 40,000 pounds.
As powerful as the grinding machinery is, not all of the F-14 can be shredded. The landing gear built to withstand the force of slamming onto an aircraft carrier's deck must be cut by hand with a demolition torch. It's made from steel with parts of titanium, so the shears can't cut it and the shredder can't chew it.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., considers the F-14 demolitions a good effort, but wants to go further and outlaw the sale of Tomcat parts to anyone except museums. Wyden sponsored legislation that also would ban export licenses for F-14 components, which he believes will be more effective than Pentagon policies that he said have changed over time.
"I don't think internal rules these internal initiatives based on the track record of the Department of Defense, are sufficient," Wyden said.
The House passed similar legislation in June; a Senate vote is expected later this summer. The White House hasn't said whether Bush backs it.
F-14 preservationists said the Pentagon is handling the Tomcats they obtain differently.
As a Navy pilot, retired Capt. Dale Snodgrass delivered an F-14 to Iran flying nonstop from the United States with roughly No. 68 of about 80 planes that Iran ordered.
Snodgrass said only key computers were taken out and ejection systems disabled on planes delivered to museums in past years. This year, when an F-14 went on display at a Miami museum, virtually everything was removed, leaving only a shell, said Snodgrass, now of St. Augustine, Fla.
Snodgrass is part of F-14 history. He flew Tomcats for nearly 25 years and amassed the most flight time in them of anyone: more than 4,800 hours. He was named Navy pilot of the year around the time "Top Gun" hit theaters.
Snodgrass said he understands the decision to destroy F-14s, but added that it would be nice to see some preserved."It was the biggest, the fastest, the coolest," he said. "It had presence."