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Cold War: AIM-54 Phoenix

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Cold War: AIM-54 Phoenix

AIM-54 Phoenix missiles aboard a US Navy F-14 Tomcat

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

AIM-54 Phoenix Specifications:

  • Contractor: Hughes Aircraft Company & Raytheon Corporation
  • Unit cost: $477,131
  • Power Plant: Solid propellant rocket engine
  • Length: 13 ft.
  • Weight: 1,000-1,040 lb.
  • Diameter: 15 in.
  • Wing Span: 3 ft.
  • Range: 100+ nautical miles
  • Speed: 3,000+ mph
  • Guidance system: Semi-active & active radar homing
  • Warheads: Proximity fuze & high explosive
  • Warhead weight: 135 lb.

AIM-54 Phoenix Design & Development:

Development of the AIM-54 Phoenix began in 1960, following the cancellation of the F6D Missileer and its associated AAM-N-10 Eagle missile system. A long-range missile, the AIM-54 was intended to be used against slow, non-maneuvering enemy targets such as bombers and strike aircraft that were intent on attacking US carrier battle groups. Initially dubbed the AAM-N-11, the missile was designed by a team at Hughes Aircraft and was paired with the new AN/AWG-9 radar and fire control system. As development continued, the US Navy planned to incorporate the new weapons system into the proposed F-111B.

In June 1963, the missile was redesignated AIM-54 and given the name Phoenix. Flight tests of the prototype commenced in 1965, and the first successful guided interception occurred in September 1966. While the Navy was pleased with the performance of the missile, it was less so with the F-111B. After a prolonged development process, the F-111B program was cancelled in 1968. As a result, both the AWG-9 and AIM-54 were incorporated into the US Navy's new fighter, the F-14 Tomcat. The AIM-54A was delivered in 1973, and deployed with the first F-14A squadrons the following year.

AIM-54 Breaks New Ground:

Prior to the introduction of the AWG-9/AIM-54 system, US aircraft relied on smaller, medium-range missiles. These required that the attacking aircraft keep the target illuminated with its radar for the duration of the missile's flight or tracking would be lost. As a result, the attacker lost a degree of situational awareness as they were unable to continually scan the battlefield. The introduction of the AWG-9 radar changed this dramatically. An X-Band, pulse-Doppler radar system, the AWG-9 allowed the F-14's radar intercept officer (RIO) to track up to 24 targets in its Track-While-Scan (TWS) mode.

In addition, while in TWS mode, the RIO could simultaneously attack six targets with the AIM-54. As a result, the F-14 was capable of continuing to track targets while prosecuting attacks. When launched, the AIM-54 would quickly accelerate to Mach 5 while climbing to around 80,000 ft. As it flew to the target, the missile received mid-course corrections from the AWG-9 before utilizing an on board active radar for the final terminal phase of the attack. If the AIM-54 was launched at its minimum range of around two miles, it flew directly to the target using its active radar system.

Operational History of the AIM-54:

When first deployed in 1974, the AIM-54 was meant to be used to counter Soviet bomber attacks on US carrier battle groups. The F-14 was capable of carrying six AIM-54s, with four carried under the fighter's belly and two on the wings. As the threat of Soviet strike diminished, it became more common for F-14's to only carry 2 to 4 AIM-54s as part of their standard weapons load. In 1977, work began on updating the missile. The result was the AIM-54C which entered service with the fleet in 1986.

Featuring new digital WGU-11/B guidance and WCU-7/B control sections, the AIM-54C also had a longer ranger and was better equipped to defeat electronic countermeasures. A final variant, the AIM-54 ECCM/Sealed was introduced in 1988. In addition to further enhancing the missile's electronic counter-countermeasures, the "sealed" AIM-54C did not require coolant conditioning during captive flight. As the AIM-54 was tied to the AWG-9 radar, the missile was exclusively carried by the F-14.

While the AIM-54 was carried during the 1991 Gulf War, it was not utilized as the F-14 lacked the required IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) capabilities to meet the rules of engagement that were in effect. During its long career, only two AIM-54s were fired under combat conditions by US aircraft, with neither scoring a hit. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), several Iranian F-14 pilots claimed to have scored kills with the AIM-54. Despite its limited combat record, the missile was considered a success. On September 30, 2004, the US Navy retired the AIM-54, with the F-14 following two years later.

While the AIM-54 is no longer deployed by American forces, it may still be in use with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. While the Iranians possess a small fleet of F-14s equipped with AIM-54s, there are questions regarding their operational status as a US arms embargo has prevented them from obtaining spare parts since 1979.

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