AIM-54 Phoenix

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The AIM-54 Phoenix missile is a long range, high speed, air-to-air missile. It was designed by Hughes as a missile to be carried by the General Dynamics F-111, it was adapted by the US Navy to be carried on their new fleet defense fighter, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The Phoenix was originally designed to kill, at long range, Soviet bombers, before they could fire short range cruise missiles at the aircraft carrier or its escorts. With that in mind, the Hughes designers gave it a range of 128 miles. The Tomcat's radar, which could reach 133 miles ahead of the fighter and 174 wide, can track up to 20 targets at one time and pick out four or six of them as targets for the Phoenix missiles. The Tomcat fired the missile, and from then on the missile's own radar took over, accelerating it at Mach 3.5 toward it's target. The main drawback to the Phoenix was that it was incredibly expensive—each missile costing about $500,000.[1]

It was very difficult to avoid a Phoenix, because the guidance system was programmed to take the missile up high, out of range of the target's radar, and then send it down at nearly Mach 4. The F-14 typically carried four Phoenixes and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

Besides the US Navy, Iran is the only other operator of the Phoenix. In 1976, the Grumman Corporation sold Iran 80 Tomcats and 633 Phoenix missiles. The missile performed with great renown in the Iranian Air Force. The first combat use of the Phoenix was on September 13, 1980, when an F-14 pilot used one to shoot down to down an Iraqi MiG-23 interceptor. It shot down many aircraft in the Iran-Iraq War, including eleven MiG-25s and five Tu-22 bombers.[2][3] In one engagement on January 9, 1981, a Phoenix was fired at a flight of MiG-23BNs on a bombing mission. The missile hit the lead plane, and the explosion downed two other MiGs and damaged the fourth, resulting in three kills for one missile. On January 29, 1981, an Iraqi Su-20 fighter-bomber was shot down by a Phoenix even though the warhead failed to explode. The missile guided right to the plane’s fuselage, and the kinetic energy of the impact was enough to cut the aircraft in two and send it crashing to the sea.[4] The exceptionally long range of the AIM-54 gave the Iranian Tomcats a huge combat advantage, in spite of their relatively small numbers. Approximately half of the victories credited to F-14s in the war fell to Phoenixes. The Iranian Air Force still operates the AIM-54.

An F-14 shows off six Phoenix missiles.

Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix

Range: 128 miles

Warhead: High explosive 132 lbs

Weight: 975 pounds

Engine: Rocketdyne Mk 47 solid-propellant rocket

Speed: (cruising) Mach 3.5

Present operators: Iran

Previous operators: US Navy


  1. US Navy Fact File--AIM-54 Phoenix
  2. Iranian Air-to-Air Victories, 1976-81
  3. Iranian Air-to-Air Victories, 1982-Today
  4. Iranian F-14 Units in Combat, by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, Osprey Publishing, 2004