AIM-54 Phoenix

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Template:Infobox weapon The AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile (AAM), carried in clusters of up to six missiles on F-14 Tomcats, its only launch platform. The Phoenix was the United States' only long-range air-to-air missile. The weapons system based on Phoenix was the world's first to allow simultaneous guidance of missiles against multiple targets. Both the missile and the aircraft were used by the United States Navy and are now retired, the AIM-54 Phoenix in 2004 and the F-14 in 2006. They were replaced by shorter-range AIM-120 AMRAAMs, employed on the F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Following the retirement of the F-14 by the U.S. Navy, the weapon's only current operator is Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. Brevity code "Fox Three" was used when firing the AIM-54.


Since 1951, the Navy faced the initial threat from the Tupolev Tu-4K 'Bull' carrying[1] anti-ship missiles. Eventually, during the height of the Cold War, the threat would have actually expanded into regimental-size raids of Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22M Backfire bombers equipped with low-flying, long-range, high-speed, nuclear-armed cruise missiles and considerable Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) of various types.

The Navy would require a long-range, long-endurance interceptor aircraft to defend carrier battle groups against this threat. The projected F6D Missileer was intended to fulfill this mission and oppose the attack far from the fleet it was defending. The weapon needed for interceptor aircraft, the Bendix AAM-N-10 Eagle, would be an air-to-air missile of unprecedented range when compared to contemporary AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. It would work together with Westinghouse AN/APQ-81 radar.


An AIM-54A launched from the NA-3A-testbed in 1966

The Missileer project was cancelled in December 1960, but in the early 1960s Navy made the next interceptor attempt with the F-111B, and they needed a new missile design.

At the same time, the USAF canceled the projects for their land-based high-speed interceptor aircraft, the North American XF-108 Rapier and the Lockheed YF-12, and left the capable AIM-47 Falcon missile at a quite advanced stage of development, but with no effective launch platform.

The AIM-54 Phoenix, developed for the F-111B fleet air defense fighter, had an airframe with 4 cruciform fins that was a scaled-up version of the AIM-47. One characteristic of the Missileer ancestry was that the radar sent it mid-course corrections, which allowed the fire control system to "loft" the missile up over the target into thinner air where it had better range.

The F-111B was canceled in 1968. Its weapons system, the AIM-54 working with the AWG-9 radar, migrated to the new U.S. Navy fighter project, the VFX, which would later become the F-14 Tomcat.

In 1977, development of a significantly improved Phoenix version, the AIM-54C, was developed to better counter projected threats from tactical anti-naval aircraft and cruise missiles, and its final upgrade included a re-programmable memory capability to keep pace with emerging ECM.[2]

Usage in comparison to other weapon systems

The AIM-54/AWG-9 combination was the first to have multiple track capability (up to 24 targets) and launch (up to 6 Phoenixes can be launched nearly simultaneously); the large Template:Convert missile is equipped with a conventional warhead. The AWG-9 radar system carried by the F-111B and F-14 Tomcat was one of largest and most powerful ever fitted to a fighter.

On the F-14, the 4 missiles can be carried under the fuselage tunnel attached to special aerodynamic pallets, plus 2 under glove stations. A full load of 6 Phoenix missiles and the unique launch rails weigh in at over Template:Convert, about twice the weight of Sparrows, so it was more common to carry a mixed load of 4 Phoenix, 2 Sparrow and 2 Sidewinder missiles.

Before the introduction of the Phoenix missile, most other US aircraft relied on the smaller, less-expensive AIM-7 Sparrow; classified as a Medium Range Missile (MRM). Guidance for the Sparrow required that the launching aircraft use its radar to continuously illuminate a single target for the missile's "passive" seeker to track, or guidance would be lost. This method meant the aircraft no longer had a search capability while supporting the launched Sparrow, effectively reducing situational awareness.

The Tomcat's AWG-9 radar was capable of tracking up to 24 targets in Track-While-Scan mode, with the AWG-9 selecting up to six priority targets for potential launch by the AIM-54. The pilot or Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) could then launch the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles when launch parameters were met. The large Tactical Information Display (TID) in the RIO's cockpit gave an unprecedented amount of information to the aircrew (the pilot had the ability to monitor the RIO's display) and, importantly, the AWG-9 could continually search and track multiple targets after Phoenix missiles were launched, thereby maintaining situational awareness of the battlespace.

Link-4 datalink capability allowed US Navy Tomcats to share information with the E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, and during Desert Shield in 1990, the Link-4A was introduced and allowed the Tomcats to have a fighter-to-fighter datalink capability, further enhancing overall situational awareness. The F-14D entered service with the JTIDS that brought the even better Link-16 datalink "picture" to the cockpit.

Active guidance

AIM-54 Phoenix seconds after launch (1991)

The Phoenix has several guidance modes and achieves its longest range by using mid-course updates from the F-14A/B AWG-9 radar (APG-71 radar in the F-14D) as it climbs to cruise between Template:Convert and Template:Convert at close to Mach 5. Phoenix uses its high altitude to gain gravitational potential energy, which is later converted into kinetic energy as the missile dives at high velocity towards its target. At around Template:Convert from the target, the missile activates its own radar to provide terminal guidance.[3] Minimum engagement range for the Phoenix is around Template:Convert; active homing would initiate upon launch at this distance.[3]


An AIM-54 Phoenix being attached to an F-14 wing pylon. Note the forward fins have not been installed yet (2003)

The AIM-54 Phoenix was retired from USN service on September 30, 2004. F-14 Tomcats were retired on September 22, 2006. They were replaced by shorter-range AIM-120 AMRAAMs, employed on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Both the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix missile continue in the service of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, although the operational abilities of these aircraft and the missiles are questionable, since the US refused to supply spare parts and maintenance after the 1979 revolution, except for a brief period during the Iran-Contra Affair.

Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in US Navy service, though a large number of kills were claimed by Iranian F-14s during the Iran–Iraq War. The USAF F-15 Eagle had responsibility for overland Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties in Desert Storm in 1991, primarily because of the onboard F-15 IFF capabilities. The Tomcat did not have the requisite IFF capability mandated by the JFACC to satisfy the Rules of Engagement (ROE) to utilize the Phoenix capability at Beyond Visual Range (BVR). From an engineering and service standpoint, the Phoenix could be said to be a notable success. As the only surviving member of the Falcon missile family, it was not adopted by any other nation besides Iran, any other US armed service, or used on any other aircraft. It was heavy, large, expensive and not practical in close combat compared to the Sparrow or AMRAAM.{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst||date=__DATE__ |$B= {{#invoke:Category handler|main}}{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}[citation needed] }}


An AIM-54A "Phoenix" missile on display at Grumman Memorial Park in New York State.
original model that became operational with the U.S. Navy in about 1974, and it was also exported to Iran in modest numbers before the Iran hostage crisis beginning in 1979.
Also known as the 'Dry' missile. A version with simplified construction and no coolant conditioning. Did not enter series production. Developmental work started in January 1972. 7 X-AIM-54B missiles were created for testing, 6 of them by modifying pilot production IVE/PIP rounds. After two successful test firings, the 'Dry' missile effort was cancelled for being "not cost effective".[4]
lone improved model was ever produced. It used digital electronics in the place of the analog electronics of the AIM-54A. This model had better abilities to shoot down low and high-altitude antiship missiles. This model took over from the AIM-54A beginning in 1986.
AIM-54 ECCM/Sealed round
more capabilities in electronic counter-countermeasures. It did not require coolant conditioning during flights on board F-14s and not fired (the usual situation). Deployed beginning in 1988.
Because the AIM-54 ECCM/Sealed received no coolant, F-14 Tomcats carrying this version of the missile could not exceed a specified airspeed.

There were also test, evaluation, ground training, and captive air training versions of the missile; designated ATM-54, AEM-54, DATM-54A, and CATM-54. The flight versions had A and C versions. The DATM-54 was not made in a C version as there was no change in the ground handling characteristics.

Sea Phoenix
a 1970s proposal for a ship launched version of the Phoenix as an alternative/replacement for the Sea Sparrow point defense system. It would also have provided a medium range SAM capability for smaller and/or non-Aegis equipped vessels (such as the CVV). The Sea Phoenix system would have included a modified shipborne version of the AN/AWG-9 radar. Hughes Aircraft touted the fact that 27 out of 29 major elements of the standard (airborne) AN/AWG-9 could be used in the shipborne version with little modification. Each system would have consisted of one AWG-9 radar, with associated controls and displays, and a fixed 12-cell launcher for the Phoenix missiles. In the case of an aircraft carrier, for example, at least three systems would have been fitted in order to give overlapping coverage throughout the full 360°.[5]Template:Page needed Both land and ship based tests of modified Phoenix (AIM-54A) missiles and a containerised AWG-9 (originally the 14th example off the AN/AWG-9 production line) were successfully carried out from 1974 onwards.[6] Incidentally a land based version for the USMC was also proposed. It has been suggested that the AIM-54B would have been used in operational Sea Phoenix systems, although that version had been cancelled by the second half of the 1970s. Ultimately, a mix of budgetary and political issues meant that, despite being technically and operationally attractive, further development of the Sea Phoenix did not proceed.
Fakour 90
on February 2013 Iran reportedly tested an indigenous long range range air to air missile[7]; on September 2013 it displayed Fakour 2013 on a military parade which looked almost identical to AIM-54 Phoenix.[8]

Iranian combat experiences with the AIM-54 Phoenix

Two F-14 Tomcats of the IRIAF, armed with different types of air-to-air missiles, including AIM-54 Phoenixes.

There is very little information available regarding Iran's use of its 79 F-14A Tomcats (delivered prior to 1979) in most western outlets; the exception being a book released by Osprey Publishing titled "Iranian F-14 Tomcats in Combat" by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop.[9] Most of the research contained in the book was based on pilot interviews.

Reports vary on the use of the 285 missiles supplied to Iran,[10] during the Iran–Iraq War, 1980–88. Unverified rumors that US technical personnel sabotaged the aircraft and weapons before they left the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution imply that the Iranians might have found it impossible to fire the missiles. However, the IRIAF was able to repair the sabotage and the damage only affected a limited number of planes, not the entire fleet.

Some claim that it is unlikely that the Phoenix was used operationally. First, as difficult as the missile and fire control systems were to operate, Iran had hired many American technicians. Upon leaving, they took most of the knowledge about how to operate and maintain these complex weapon systems with them. Also, without a steady supply of engineering support from Hughes Aircraft Missile Systems Group and corresponding spares and upgrades, even a technically competent operator would have extreme difficulty fielding operational weapons.

Others claim that the primary use of the F-14 was as an airborne early warning aircraft, guarded by other fighters. However, Cooper claims that the IRIAF used the F-14 actively as a fighter-interceptor, and at times as an escort fighter, with the AIM-54 scoring 60–70 kills. F-14s were often used to protect IRIAF tankers supporting strike packages into Iraq, and scanned over the border with their radars, often engaging detected Iraqi flights. Also, some F-14s were modified into specialized airborne early warning aircraft.

Supporters of these claims point to the fact that, in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi fighter pilots consistently turned and fled as soon as American F-14 pilots turned on their fighters' very distinctive AN/AWG-9 radars, which suggests that Iraqi pilots had learned to avoid the F-14.

According to Cooper, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was able to keep its F-14 fighters and AIM-54 missiles in regular use during the entire Iran–Iraq War, though periodic lack of spares grounded at times large parts of the fleet. At worst, during late 1987, the stock of AIM-54 missiles was at its lowest, with less than 50 operational missiles available. The missiles needed fresh thermal batteries that could only be purchased from the US. Iran found a clandestine buyer that supplied it with batteries — though those did cost up to $10,000 USD each. Iran did receive spares and parts for both the F-14s and AIM-54s from various sources during the Iran–Iraq War, and has received more spares after the conflict. Iran started a heavy industrial program to build spares for the planes and missiles, and although there are claims that it no longer relies on outside sources to keep its F-14s and AIM-54s operational, there is evidence that Iran continues to procure parts clandestinely.[11]

Iran claims to be working on building an equivalent missile.[12]

American combat experience

An AIM-54 hitting a QF-4B target drone, 1983.

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  • On January 5, 1999, a pair of US F-14s fired two Phoenixes at Iraqi MiG-25s southeast of Baghdad. Both AIM-54s' rocket motors failed and neither missile hit its target.[15][16]
  • On September 9, 1999 another US F-14 launched an AIM-54 at an Iraqi MiG-23 that was heading south into the No-Fly Zone from Al Taqaddum air base west of Baghdad. The missile missed, eventually going into the ground after the Iraqi fighter reversed course and fled north.[17]


A technical drawing of AIM-54C

The following is a list AIM-54 Phoenix specifications:[18]

-*Actual Range Classified

See also


Related lists


  3. 3.0 3.1 "AIM-54". (2004) Directory of US Military Rockets and Missiles. Retrieved 28 November 2010.
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  12. {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=citation }}.
  13. A Country Study of Libya. (1987, December). US Department of State. Chapter 5, Encounters with the United States. Retrieved 28 November 2010.
  14. Magnuson, Ed; Chavira, Ricardo; Van Voorst, Chavira. (1989, January 16). "Chemical Reaction: The US presses Libya over a nerve-gas plant". Time Europe. Retrieved 28 November 2010.
  15. DoD News Briefing January 5, 1999
  16. Parsons, Dave, George Hall and Bob Lawson. (2006). Grumman F-14 Tomcat: Bye-Bye Baby...!: Images & Reminiscences From 35 Years of Active Service. Zenith Press, p. 73. ISBN 0-7603-3981-3.
  17. Tony Holmes, "US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom", Osprey Publishing (2005). Chapter One – OSW, pp. 16–7.
  18. Template:Cite web

External links

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