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AIM-54 Phoenix
AIM-54 6 Pack.jpg
Type Long-range air-to-air missile
Place of origin United States
Service history
In service 1974-present
Used by United States Navy (retired)
Production history
Manufacturer Hughes Aircraft Company
Raytheon Corporation
Unit cost $477,131 USD
Produced 1966
Weight 1,000–1,040 lb (450–470 kg)
Length 13 ft (4.0 m)
Diameter 15 in (380 mm)

Warhead 135 pounds (61 kg), high explosive
Proximity fuze

Engine Solid propellant rocket motor
Wingspan 3 ft (910 mm)
100+ NM (115+ mi, 184+ km)
Flight ceiling 100,000 ft (30 km)
Flight altitude 80,000 ft (24 km)
Speed Mach 5
Semi-active and active radar homing
F-14 Tomcat

The AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile, carried in clusters of up to six missiles — formerly on the U.S. Navy's and currently on the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force's F-14 Tomcat interceptors/multi-role fighters: which is the only aircraft capable of carrying it.

The AIM-54 was originally developed in the early 1960s for the canceled F-111B naval variant, and based on the Eagle project for the canceled F6D Missileer. Both were based on the idea of long-range, slow-cruise, non-maneuvering missile carriers to counter long-range bombers carrying low-flying cruise missiles. It had no use for close-range air superiority.



The Phoenix missile was the United States' only long-range air-to-air missile, and its first missile capable of multiple-launch against more than one target.

Most other U.S. 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 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.

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

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 U.S. 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

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 80,000 ft (24,000 m) and 100,000 ft (30,000 m) 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 during which it activates its active radar to provide terminal guidance. By comparison, the AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided, medium-range air-to-air missile uses an on-board computer, made possible by digital technology, to compute a collision course to the target. It can be updated by the launching aircraft, before also using an active seeker in its final phase.

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 1,000 lb (500 kg) missile is equipped with a conventional warhead. The airframe is a scaled-up version of the USAF AIM-47 Falcon with 4 cruciform fins. 4 can be carried under the fuselage tunnel attached to special aerodynamic pallets, and 1 under each glove station. A full load of 6 Phoenix missiles and the unique launch rails weigh in at over 8,000 lb (3,600 kg), 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.

Long range fleet defense missile

AIM-54 Phoenix seconds after launch (1991)

The Phoenix was designed to defend the Carrier Battle Group against a variety of threats including cruise missiles, and its range and loiter capability provided defense in depth. During the height of the Cold War, the threat included regimental-size raids of Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22M Backfire bombers equipped with high-speed cruise missiles and considerable Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) of various types. The upgraded Phoenix, the AIM-54C, was developed to better counter projected threats from tactical aircraft and cruise missiles, and its final upgrade included a re-programmable memory capability to keep pace with emerging threat ECM. It is thought that the Phoenix was based on the similar AIM-47 missile. The AIM-47 was developed for the experimental Mach-3 Lockheed YF-12 interceptor version of their venerable SR-71 Blackbird.

The U.S. Air Force adopted neither the AIM-47, nor the AIM-54, operationally. The Air Force had no similar capability with the F-15 Eagle until the introduction of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The latest model, AIM-120C-7, has a range of 30 miles (48 km), still significantly less than the retired AIM-54.

The associated 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.


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 United States refused to supply spare parts and maintenance after the 1979 revolution; except for a brief period during the Iran-Contra Affair (see F-14 Tomcat for more details).

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

Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in U.S. Navy service, though a large number of kills were claimed by Iranian F-14s during the Iran–Iraq War.[citation needed] 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) in order 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. However, as the only surviving member of the Falcon missile family, it was not adopted by any other nation (besides Iran), any other U.S. armed service, or even supported by any other aircraft. It was heavy, large, expensive and not practical in close combat compared to the Sparrow or AMRAAM.


An AIM-54A "Phoenix" missile on display at Grumman Memorial Park in New York.
The original version to become operational, in 1974 and exported to Iran.
Improved version, better able to counter cruise missiles. Superseded the AIM-54A from 1986.
AIM-54 ECCM/Sealed
Improved to include electronic counter-countermeasure capabilities, does not require coolant conditioning during captive flight. Used from 1988 onwards.
Because the AIM-54 ECCM/Sealed receives no coolant, Tomcats carrying this version of the missile may not exceed a certain 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.

Iranian combat experiences with the AIM-54 Phoenix

An F-14A Tomcat fighter aircraft from the U.S. Navy "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School, San Diego, painted like an Iranian fighter for adversary training.

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" authored by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop.[1] Most of the research contained in the book was based on pilot interviews and though it may be the only book devoted to the topic of Iranian F-14s, it is not without its critics.

Reports vary on the use of the 285 missiles supplied to Iran[2], during the Iran–Iraq War, from 1980-88. It is rumored that U.S. technical personnel sabotaged the aircraft and weapons before they left the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, making it impossible to fire the missile. However, the IRIAF was able to repair the sabotage and the damage only affected a limited number of planes; not the entire fleet.

Some western sources 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.

Most informed sources 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. The counter-argument is that virtually all Iraqi fighters turned and fled when confronted, regardless of the type of aircraft facing them, although the USAF had much better success engaging Iraqi fighters with their F-15 Eagles in the same vicinity where Tomcats operated.

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 whole of the 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 USA. Iran managed finally, to find 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.[citation needed] Iran started a heavy industrial program to build spares for the planes and missiles,[citation needed] 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.[3]

American combat experience

  • In training, the Phoenix hit a target drone at a range of 212 km (in January 1979, in Iran).
  • On January 5, 1999, a pair of U.S. F-14s fired two AIM-54 at Iraqi MiG-25s southeast of Baghdad (both missed).[4]
  • On September 9, 1999 another U.S. 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.[5]


AIM-54C 350px.gif


  • Primary function: Long-range air-launched air intercept missile
  • Contractor: Hughes Aircraft Company and Raytheon Corporation
  • Unit cost: US$477,131
  • Power Plant: Solid propellant rocket motor built by Hercules
  • Length: 13 ft (4.0 m)
  • Weight: 1,000–1,040 pounds (450–470 kg)
  • Diameter: 15 in (380 mm)
  • Wing span: 3 ft (910 mm)
  • Range: In excess of 100 nautical miles (120 mi; 190 km)¹
  • Speed: 3,000+ mph (4,680+ km/h)
  • Guidance system: Semi-active and active radar homing
  • Warheads: Proximity fuze, high explosive
  • Warhead weight: 135 pounds (61 kg)
  • Users: USA (U.S. Navy), Iran (IRIAF)
  • Date deployed: 1974
  • Date retired (U.S.): September 30, 2004
Note 1: Actual range classified

See also

Related lists


  1. ^ "Book: Iranian F-14 Tomcat Units in Combat". Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  2. ^ "Iranian Air Force F-14". Retrieved 3 February 2010. 
  3. ^ Theimer, Sharon. "Iran Gets Army Gear in Pentagon Sale". Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  4. ^ DoD News Briefing January 5, 1999
  5. ^ Tony Holmes, "US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom", Osprey Publishing Limited (2005). Chapter One – OSW, p. 16 and 17.
  6. ^ Navy Fact file. AIM-54 Phoenix Missile.

External links



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