The U.S. Navy Planned to Turn the F-14’s Lethal Phoenix Missile Into a Carrier-Launched Defence System

Entering service from 1974, the AIM-54 Phoenix air to air missile developed for defence of the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups is almost unanimously considered the most capable missile of its kind to be fielded during the Cold War. The missile was the first and for 15 years the only one in the world with active rather than semi active radar guidance, providing an effective ‘fire and forget’ capability as fighters launching them could break lock and evade while the missile guided itself to the target. This alone provided a very significant advantage over all rival missile types. The advantage was compounded by a massive 60kg warhead, which proved sufficient to destroy small formations of fighters with a single hit, a well as an unrivalled 190km range. The AIM-54’s very large size, however, meant only the U.S. Navy’s heavyweight F-14 Tomcat fighters could carry them while all other American fighters such as the F-15 used much less potent AIM-7 missiles. Aside from relying on semi active radar guidance, the AIM-7 also had smaller warheads, just 36 percent of the range at 70km, and were significantly slower. 

Although the Soviet Air Force was set to field a superior missile to the AIM-54, namely the R-37 with active radar guidance and an even higher speed and longer 400km range, this was only set to enter service around 1995 and was cancelled due to the superpower’s collapse and Russia’s subsequent economic decline. The AIM-54 demonstrated its unique performance advantages during the Iran-Iraq War, with Iran having been the only country willing to acquire the world’s most expensive and heaviest fighter the F-14 and making extensive use of its unique air to air missile to dominate the skies. The Phoenix's unique performance advantages were intended primarily to secure the U.S. Navy’s carrier grounds from long range missile strikes by Soviet bombers, but it also proved highly capable against small fighter sized targets even at longer ranges. Its success led the U.S. Navy to consider developing a variant that could be launched from the decks of its surface ships to complement the coverage of overflying F-14s and provide an additional layer of air defence.

The Sea Phoenix program which began in the early-mid 1970s involved integrating the F-14’s AN/AWG-9 fire control radar - the most capable of any fighter in the world at the time - onto aircraft carriers. The program was intended to replace the Sea Sparrow which was similarly an adaptation of the AIM-7 for fleet defence. Launching the AIM-54 from surface ships would have had a number of disadvantages over those launched from F-14s. Launching from fast and high flying fighters contributed considerably to the missiles’ ranges, and the F-14’s own very high endurance meant that they could launch the missiles from very far out to sea a long way from their carrier groups. Despite its shorter range the missile would nevertheless have been potentially valuable to provide an additional line of defence for carriers beyond the outer line provided by the F-14s. Three 12-cell launchers were set to be installed on each carrier providing 360-degree coverage, and would have been relatively simple to develop with 27 of the 29 major components of the system needing almost no modification to be adapted for use on ships. 

With the F-14’s AWG-9 capable of tracking up to 24 targets in track-while-scan mode and engaging up to six with Phoenix missiles, the Sea Phoenix would have inherited this capability. It would have likely been able to fire more missiles simultaneously, since the restriction of six missiles was due not to avionics but rather to their sheer weight meaning the Tomcat could not carry more. The Sea Phoenix system reached an advanced testing stage at the Naval Weapons Center China Lake in California, and in 1974, “successfully detected and tracked multiple targets at both high and low altitude from the ship’s deck.” It was reportedly tested both from ships and from ground based launchers, with the U.S. Marine Corps being a potential client for the latter. The program’s high cost, the AIM-54’s relatively limited capabilities at shorter close-in ranges, and the imminent development of the AEGIIS defence system, all contributed to ultimately canceling the Sea Sparrow program. The F-14 itself, although seeing its performance improved considerably with the induction of the F-14D variant in 1991, would itself see a very early retirement in 1991 alongside the last AIM-54 missiles in the U.S. Navy in 2006 due to its high operational costs and the perceived lack of a threat from near peer adversaries with the Soviet Union having collapsed. This left the Iranian Air Force as the sole remaining operator of the AIM-54, which it retired in the mid-2010s in favour of an improved indigenous derivative, the Fakour 90, which remains the most lasting legacy of the Phoenix missile program today. 

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