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Air-to-Air Missiles: AIM-54 Phoenix

The AIM-54 Phoenix is a long-range air-to-air missile with both semi-active and active radar. Used exclusively by the U.S. Navy on the F-14 Tomcat, the Phoenix was the first missile capable of simultaneous guidance against multiple targets. Known in the Navy as the "Buffalo" because of its size, the Phoenix climbed from its launch altitude to cruise at 80,000 to 100,000 feet, and from there dove at high speed at its designated target. Although the Phoenix was rarely used in combat and has no confirmed kills, it was in service for decades and finally retired officially on 30 September 2004, though remained in service on F-14s until they were retired in 2006.

USS Kitty Hawk Aviation Ordnanceman complete installation of an AIM-54 Phoenix long range air-to-air missile, on an F-14 Tomcat assigned to the Black Knights of Fighter Squadron One Five Four (VF-154), 17 April 2001
USS Kitty Hawk Aviation Ordnanceman complete installation of an AIM-54 Phoenix long range air-to-air missile, on an F-14 Tomcat assigned to the Black Knights of Fighter Squadron One Five Four (VF-154), 17 April 2001.

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AIM-54 Phoenix Air-to-Air Missile Development

US Navy F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 1 (VF-1), Wolfpack, Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, CA, firing an AIM-54 Phoenix missile, 1991
US Navy F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 1 (VF-1), Wolfpack, Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, CA, firing an AIM-54 Phoenix missile, 1991.

In the 1950s the U.S. Navy needed a long-range missile to combat potential threats from Soviet aircraft against its carrier battle groups. The first project was the F6D Missilier, designed to have vastly superior range than the AIM-7 Sparrow.

After the Missilier project was canceled in December 1960, the Navy began developing the F-111B and needed a new missile for the aircraft. Hughes began design and development of a new long-range missile under the designation AAM-N-11, using the Missilier radar that provided mid-course corrections and an airframe with four cruciform fins based on the AIM-47, a project canceled by the U.S. Air Force.

In June 1963 the AIM-54 designation was given to the Hughes missile. Prototyping began in 1965, with successful guided interception tests concluded in September 1966. The F-111B was canceled in 1968, but the AIM-54 and its AN/AWG-9 all-weather, multi-mode X-Band pulse doppler radar system were adopted for a new Navy fighter project, the F-14 Tomcat. Despite the long-range capability of the AIM-54, the Air Force did not adopt the missile.

The first production Phoenix, the AIM-54A, was delivered in 1973, in time for deployment with the first F-14A squadron in 1974. The F-14 carried up to six AIM-54s, on LAU-93/A launchers on the F-14A/B or LAU-132/A launchers on the F-14D.

The Phoenix with its AWG-9 radar system represented the world's first success at multiple tracking and launch. Up to 24 targets could be tracked and as many as 6 AIM-54s could be launched at almost the same time using Track While Scan (TWS) radar. The pilot or radar intercept officer (RIO) on a F-14 could fire the AIM-54 when launch conditions were satisfied.

The Phoenix used several guidance modes, implementing mid-course updates from the AWG-9 radar (later upgraded to AN/APG-71 radar on the F-14D) during ascent to its cruising altitude of 80,000 to 100,000 feet. The Phoenix used the high altitude to dive at extreme speed toward its target. Its onboard radar activated at 11 miles from the target to provide terminal guidance. Minimal engagement range was about 2 nautical miles, and in this case active homing was used from the start.

The AIM-54A carried a 132 lb. MK 82 blast fragmentation warhead, detonated by a fusing system using a MK 334 radar proximity, an IR proximity, and an impact fuse.

In 1986 the AIM-54C was introduced, using digital electronics and improved ability to counter cruise missiles. It had the new WDU-29/B warhead, which provided increased effectiveness. The AIM-54C also included internal temperature compensation, getting rid of the need for the F-14 to supply temperature compensation liquid. Such missiles are referred to as "sealed."

Phoenix missiles with improved ECCM capability along with the "sealed" feature were known as the AIM-54C ECCM/Sealed. Other improvements included a reprogrammable memory and new software for the signal processor. Both these changes were retrofitted on older AIM-54Cs.

A total of more than 5000 AIM-54 Phoenixes were manufactured, with approximately half being AIM-54Cs. The AIM-54 ECCM was used from 1988 until the official retirement of the missile in 2004.

AIM-54 Phoenix Operational History

Members of Weapons Department on board USS Enterprise (CVN 65), build and transport AIM-54 Phoenix long-range, air-to-air missiles to staging areas in the ships hanger bay, and flight deck, in the Central Mediterranean, 22 Feb 1999.
Members of Weapons Department on board USS Enterprise (CVN 65), build and transport AIM-54 Phoenix long-range, air-to-air missiles to staging areas in the ships hanger bay, and flight deck, in the Central Mediterranean, 22 Feb 1999.

Despite 30 years of active service from 1974 through 2004, the AIM-54 is not credited with a single kill. Only two confirmed combat launches are recorded for the Phoenix.

On 5 January 1999, two F-14s fired two AIM-54s at Iraqi MiG-25s near Baghdad. The motors on both missiles failed, and neither reached its target.

On 9 September 1999, another F-14 fired one AIM-54 at an Iraqi MiG-23 that was flying south into the No-Fly Zone from Al Taqaddum air base west of Baghdad. The missile missed its target, though the Iraqi MiG did reverse course and head back north.

After the retirement of the AIM-54 and the replacement of remaining stores with the AIM-120, the Phoenix in variant forms remains in use by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.

Characteristics of the AIM-54 Phoenix

Power PlantSolid propellant rocket motor
Length13 ft.
Diameter15 in.
Wing Span36 in.
Weight1,000 - 1,040 lbs.
SpeedMach 5
Range100 nm.
Warhead132 lb. MK 82 blast fragmentation or WDU-29/B with AIM-54C
Guidance systemSemi-active and active radar homing

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