Air Weapons: October 15, 2004


After three decades of service, the U.S. Navys AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile was withdrawn from service last month. The Phoenix entered service in 1974, after about a decade of development. The Phoenix was quite high tech for its time. The  missile could hit a target up to 200 kilometers distant. The missile was designed solely for use on the F-14 fighter, which contained the powerful radar and fire control system required to make the Phoenix work. The F-14 could track 24 targets at once, and fire six missiles, in rapid succession, at six different targets. In the first full test, four out of six targets, all over 80 kilometers distant, were shot down. The half ton missile traveled at a speed of over 1,300 meters a second and had a 135 pound warhead. It was an expensive missile, costing over a million dollars each (in 2004 dollars). The missile underwent upgrades, mainly in its electronics, in the 1980s. Over 5,000 were built, but the Phoenix never shot down anything in combat. There are unconfirmed reports of Iranian F-14s using Phoenix missiles to down Iraqi aircraft during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, and in several other incidents. Iran was the only foreign nation to receive the Phoenix, and it was rumored that American technicians disabled Irans 285 Phoenix missiles before leaving the country (when Islamic rebels overthrew the monarchy in 1979.) One Phoenix was fired during the 1991 Gulf War, at an Iraqi helicopter. It missed. The Phoenix was not designed to take down helicopters. The main target was to be Russian bombers trying to get close enough to American aircraft carriers to launch their anti-ship missiles. This it did very well in numerous tests. That scenario become moot when the Cold War ended in 1991. So Phoenix died a virgin. Other countries still pose the same kind of threat Phoenix was designed to handle, but they can be dealt with using the more modern  air-to-air missiles like the AMRAAM.




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