An AIM-54A on an F-14

An AIM-54A on an F-14

The AIM-54 “Phoenix” was the only American active radar-guided long-range air-to-air missile ever developed. Some details remain classified decades later, but one fact remains and will forever shadow the legacy of an otherwise monumental piece of technology: it never hit a target in combat, and the only missiles ever fired in anger by American fighters either failed or missed the target.

Initial development of the “Phoenix” started during the height of the Cold War. In the era of interceptors, the biggest threat came from Soviet nuclear-armed bombers. For the United States Navy, the biggest threat came from those bombers, like the Tu-16 “Badger” and Tu-22M “Backfire” carrying cruise missiles. To defend its fleets and invaluable aircraft carriers carrying thousands of people, the Navy needed a long-range missile.

The result would be a missile of unprecedented range and massive explosive power. It could take to the skies at Mach 5 and dive down on its victims with a proximity fuse that delivered the payload of 135 lbs. of high explosives.

The missile was originally intended to be delivered from a traditional interceptor platform, the Douglas F6D “Missileer.” When that aircraft was cancelled without a single unit built, the Navy turned to a carrier variant of the F-111, the F-111B, in the 1960s. When that project was snuffed out, the Navy turned to the F-14 “Tomcat.”

As the project moved forward, the Air Force was developing a long-range, higher performing variant of its AIM-4 “Falcon,” called the AIM-47. When that project was abandoned, the Navy had a good base of design to go from. The AIM-54A entered service in 1974. A much-more advanced AIM-54C entered service in 1986.

The exact range of the “Phoenix” is classified, but it is believed that the missile could engage targets at more than 120 miles.

To achieve its massive range, the AIM-54 climbs as high as 100,000 feet and receives updates from the F-14’s AWG-9 or APG-71 radar mid-flight. As it approaches the target, the missile dives and actives its own radar at around 11 miles to guide the missile to the target.

The “Phoenix” was the first missile to feature “fire and forget” capability. An F-14 pilot could fire a full load of six missiles at six different targets and then leave the area while the missiles did the rest. Contemporary medium-range “Sparrow” missiles featured semi-active guidance, requiring the pilot or RIO to continuously light up one target until it was destroyed.

While an F-14 — the only airplane ever armed with the AIM-54 — could carry up to six of the missile, it rarely did. Carrying six “Phoenixes” required 8,000-pounds of launch rails, making the aircraft too heavy to land on a carrier with the full load in tact.

While there is footage of the AIM-54 destroying target drones, the missile was never successfully used in battle by the U.S. At least three missiles were fired at Iraqi MiGs in 1999, but the motors failed on two and the third missed a MiG-23.

The Navy retired the AIM-54 in 2003, ahead of the 2006 retirement of the F-14.

Iranian F-14s, at least one of which (top) is carrying the AIM-54 "Phoenix"

Iranian F-14s, at least one of which (top) is carrying the AIM-54 “Phoenix”

A total of 285 AIM-54As, along with 79 F-14’s, were exported to the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s. Iran was a close American ally at the time and an opponent of the Soviet Union. The U.S. rushed to arm the Iran with its latest military technology.

Thus, Iran is now the only country that may have the “Phoenix” in its active arsenal. However, there is no publicly-available data to support the fact that Iran is capable of operating the missile. The AIM-54 is a complicated device, and when American engineers left in 1979, it’s possible that Iran was left unable to use it. The book “Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat” by Tom Cooper is the only western account of the F-14 in combat in Iran, and it relies only on pilot interviews for its data, calling its reliability into question. In the book, pilots claim they used the “Phoenix” to score 60-70 kills in the Iran-Iraq war. Cooper writes that the Iranian F-14s were used to protect Iranian Air Force tankers and to engage Iraqi fighters at beyond visual range with the AIM-54. Iran, through its state-run English-language Press TV news service, claims it is developing a successor to the AIM-54.

Specifications

Length: 13 feet
Diameter: 15 inches
Wingspan: 3 feet
Weight: 1,024 pounds
Speed: In excess of 3,000 mph
Range: In excess of 100 nautical miles (actual range classified)
Guidance System: Semi-active and active radar homing.
Warhead: Proximity fuse, high explosive. Warhead Weight: 135 pounds
Source: U.S. Navy Fact File

Essential Reading

No matter what you do, pick up a copy of “Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat,” just know that it is based on what Iranian pilots told the author, and it’s obviously slanted.

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