Hughes XAIM-54 Phoenix
Long-Range Air-to-Air Missile, USA

Archive Photos 1

Hughes XAIM-54A Phoenix missile on display (5/24/2001) at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois

Overview 2

The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile (AAM), carried in clusters of up to six missiles on Grumman F-14 Tomcats, its only launch platform. The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix was the United States’ only long-range air-to-air missile. The weapons system based on Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix was the world’s first to allow simultaneous guidance of missiles against multiple targets. Both the missile and the aircraft were used by the United States Navy and are now retired, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix in 2004 and the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in 2006. They were replaced by shorter-range AIM-120 AMRAAM’s, employed on the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Following the retirement of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat by the US, the weapon’s only current operator is Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.

Background 2

Since 1951, the Navy faced the initial threat from the Tupolev Tu-4K Bull carrying anti-ship missiles. Eventually, during the height of the Cold War, the threat would have actually expanded into regimental-size raids of Tupolev Tu-16 Badger and Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bombers equipped with low-flying, long-range, high-speed, nuclear-armed cruise missiles and considerable Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) of various types.

The Navy would require a long-range, long-endurance interceptor aircraft to defend carrier battle groups against this threat. The projected Douglas F6D Missileer was intended to fulfill this mission and oppose the attack far from the fleet it was defending. The weapon needed for interceptor aircraft, the Bendix AAM-N-10 Eagle, would be an air-to-air missile of unprecedented range when compared to contemporary AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. It would work together with Westinghouse AN/APQ-81 radar.

Development 2

The Missileer project was canceled in December 1960, but in the early 1960’s Navy made the next interceptor attempt with the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, and they needed a new missile design.

At the same time, USAF canceled the projects for their land-based high-speed interceptor aircraft, which left the capable AIM-47 Falcon missile at a quite advanced stage of development.

The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix, developed for the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B fleet air defense fighter, had an airframe with four cruciform fins that was a scaled-up version of the AIM-47. One characteristic of the Missileer ancestry was that the radar sent it mid-course corrections, which allowed the fire control system to loft&rdquo the missile up over the target into thinner air where it had better range.

The General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B was canceled in 1968. Its weapons system, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix working with the AWG-9 radar, migrated to the new U.S. Navy fighter project, the VFX, which would become the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

In 1977, development of a significantly improved Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix version, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix C, was developed to better counter projected threats from tactical anti-naval aircraft and cruise missiles, and its final upgrade included a re-programmable memory capability to keep pace with emerging ECM.

In contrast to the Navy, the USAF adopted neither the AIM-47 nor the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix operationally. Its McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter planes have no similar capability at extremely long ranges. The latest AIM-120D AMRAAM has a significantly lower range of about 75 miles (121 km), but the AMRAAM is much shorter, lighter, and more flexible in its use against a wide variety of targets, including fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, patrol planes, and reconnaissance planes. The AMRAAM is also usable by a wide variety of fighter planes, including the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, Boeing F/A-18 Hornet, Lockheed F-22 Raptor, Panavia Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, Swedish-made fighters, and ground-based launchers of the U.S. Army.

Usage in Comparison to Other Weapon Systems 2

The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix/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 AWG-9 radar system carried by the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B and Grumman F-14 Tomcat was one of largest and most powerful ever fitted to a fighter.

On the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the four missiles can be carried under the fuselage tunnel attached to special aerodynamic pallets, plus two under glove stations. A full load of six Hughes AIM-54 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 four Phoenix, two Sparrow and two Sidewinder missiles.

Before the introduction of the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missile, most other US 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’s passive 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.

The Grumman F-14 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 Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix. The pilot or Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) could then launch the Hughes 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 Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles were launched, thereby maintaining situational awareness of the battlespace.

Link-4 datalink capability allowed US Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcats to share information with the Grumman E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, and during Operation Desert Shield in 1990, the Link-4A was introduced and allowed the Grumman F-14 Tomcats to have a fighter-to-fighter datalink capability, further enhancing overall situational awareness. The Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat entered service with the JTIDS that brought the even better Link-16 datalink picture to the cockpit.

Active Guidance 2

The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix has several guidance modes and achieves its longest range by using mid-course updates from the Grumman F-14A/B Tomcat’s AWG-9 radar (APG-71 radar in the Grumman F-14D Super Tomcat) as it climbs to cruise between 80,000 ft (24,000 m) and 100,000 ft (30,000 m) at close to Mach 5. The Hughes AIM-54 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. At around 11 miles (18 km) from the target, the missile activates its own radar to provide terminal guidance. Minimum engagement range for the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix is around 2 nm (3.7 km); active homing would initiate upon launch at this distance.

Legacy 2

The Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix was retired from USN service on September 30, 2004. The Grumman F-14 Tomcats were retired on September 22, 2006. They were replaced by shorter-range AIM-120 AMRAAM’s, employed on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Both the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and Hughes 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 US refused to supply spare parts and maintenance after the 1979 revolution; except for a brief period during the Iran-Contra Affair.

Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in US Navy service, though a large number of kills were claimed by Iranian Grumman F-14 Tomcats during the Iran-Iraq War. The USAF McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle had responsibility for overland Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, primarily because of the onboard McDonnell F-15 Eagle IFF capabilities. The Grumman F-14 Tomcats did not have the requisite IFF capability mandated by the JFACC to satisfy the Rules of Engagement (ROE) to utilize the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix capability at Beyond Visual Range (BVR). From an engineering and service standpoint, the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix could be said to be a notable success. As the only surviving member of the Falcon missile family, it was not adopted by any other nation (besides Iran), any other US armed service, or used on any other aircraft. It was heavy, large, expensive and not practical in close combat compared to the Sparrow or AMRAAM.

Variants 2

Iranian Combat Experiences with the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix 2

There is very little information available regarding Iran’s use of its 79 Grumman F-14A Tomcats (delivered prior to 1979) in most western outlets; the exception being a book released by Osprey Publishing titled Iranian Grumman F-14 Tomcats in Combat by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop. Most of the research contained in the book was based on pilot interviews.

Reports vary on the use of the 285 missiles supplied to Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88. Unverified rumors that US technical personnel sabotaged the aircraft and weapons before they left the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, imply that the Iranians might have found it impossible to fire the missiles. However, the IRIAF was able to repair the sabotage and the damage only affected a limited number of planes, not the entire fleet.

Some claim that it is unlikely that the Hughes AIM-54 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.

Others claim that the primary use of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was as an airborne early warning aircraft, guarded by other fighters. However, Cooper claims that the IRIAF used the Grumman F-14 Tomcat actively as a fighter-interceptor, and at times as an escort fighter with the Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix scoring 60-70 kills. Grumman F-14 Tomcats 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 Grumman F-14 Tomcats 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 Grumman F-14 Tomcat pilots turned on their fighters’ very distinctive AN/AWG-9 radars, which suggests that Iraqi pilots had learned to avoid the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The counter-argument is that virtually all Iraqi fighters turned and fled when confronted, regardless of the type of aircraft facing them.

According to Cooper, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was able to keep its Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighters and Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles in regular use during the entire Iran-Iraq War, though periodic lack of spares grounded at times large parts of the fleet. At worst, during late 1987, the stock of Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix 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 US. 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 Grumman F-14 Tomcats and Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles from various sources during the Iran-Iraq War, and has received more spares after the conflict. Iran started a heavy industrial program to build spares for the planes and missiles, and although there are claims that it no longer relies on outside sources to keep its Grumman F-14 Tomcats and Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix missiles operational, there is evidence that Iran continues to procure parts clandestinely. Iran claims to be working on building an equivalent missile.

American Combat Experience 2

Specifications (Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix) 2


  1. Shupek, John. Photos, copyright © 2001 Skytamer Images. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  2. Wikipedia, the free Cyclopedia, Hughes AIM-54 Phoenix


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