The AIM-54 was originally developed in the early 1960s for the canceled F-111B naval variant, and based on the Eagle project for the canceled F6D Missileer. Both were based on the idea of long-range, slow-cruise, non-maneuvering missile carriers to counter long-range bombers carrying low-flying cruise missiles. It had no use for close-range air superiority.
Most other U.S. 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 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 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 AIM-54. The pilot or Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) could then launch the 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 Phoenix missiles were launched, thereby maintaining situational awareness of the Battlespace.
Link-4 datalink capability allowed U.S. Navy Tomcats to share information with the E-2C Hawkeye AEW aircraft, and during Desert Shield in 1990, the Link-4A was introduced and allowed the Tomcats to have a fighter-to-fighter datalink capability, further enhancing overall situational awareness. The F-14D entered service with the JTIDS that brought the even better Link-16 datalink "picture" to the cockpit.
By comparison, the AIM-120 AMRAAM radar-guided, medium-range air-to-air missile uses an on-board computer, made possible by digital technology, to compute a collision course to the target. It can be updated by the launching aircraft, before also using an active seeker in its final phase.
The AIM-54/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 missile is equipped with a conventional warhead. The airframe is a scaled-up version of the USAF AIM-47 Falcon with 4 cruciform fins. 4 can be carried under the fuselage tunnel attached to special aerodynamic pallets, and 1 under each glove station. A full load of 6 Phoenix missiles and the unique launch rails weigh in at over , about twice the weight of Sparrows, so it was more common to carry a mixed load of 4 Phoenix, 2 Sparrow and 2 Sidewinder missiles. Depending on the source, there are reports that an F-14 could not be recovered on a carrier with all 6 missiles, but only 2 or 4.
The Phoenix was designed to defend the Carrier Battle Group against a variety of threats including cruise missiles, and its range and loiter capability provided defense in depth. During the height of the Cold War, the threat included regimental-size raids of Tu-16 Badger and Tu-22M Backfire bombers equipped with high-speed cruise missiles and considerable Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) of various types. The upgraded Phoenix, the AIM-54C, was developed to better counter projected threats from tactical aircraft and cruise missiles, and its final upgrade included a re-programmable memory capability to keep pace with emerging threat ECM. It is thought that the Phoenix was based on the similar AIM-47 missile. The AIM-47 was developed for the experimental Mach-3 Lockheed YF-12 interceptor version of their venerable SR-71 Blackbird.
The U.S. Air Force adopted neither the AIM-47, nor the AIM-54, operationally. The Air Force had no similar capability with the F-15 Eagle until the introduction of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The latest model, AIM-120C-7, has a range of 72 miles (120 km), still significantly less than the retired AIM-54.
The associated AWG-9 radar system carried by the F-111B and F-14 Tomcat was one of largest and most powerful ever fitted to a fighter.
Despite the much-vaunted capabilities, the Phoenix was rarely used in combat, with only two confirmed launches and no confirmed targets destroyed in U.S. Navy service, though several kills were claimed by Iranian F-14s during the Iran–Iraq War. The USAF F-15 Eagle had responsibility for overland Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties in Desert Storm in 1991, primarily because of the onboard F-15 IFF capabilities; the Tomcat did not have the requisite IFF capability mandated by the JFACC to satisfy the Rules of Engagement (ROE) in order to utilize the Phoenix capability at Beyond Visual Range (BVR). From an engineering and service standpoint, the Phoenix could be said to be a notable success. However, as the only surviving member of the Falcon missile family, it was not adopted by any other nation (besides Iran), any other U.S. armed service, or even supported by any other aircraft. It was heavy, large, expensive and not practical in close combat compared to the Sparrow or AMRAAM.
In recent years, Iran claims to have developed its own version of the Phoenix, equivalent to the AIM-54C version.
There were also test, evaluation, ground training and captive air training versions of the missile; designated ATM-54, AEM-54, DATM-54A, and CATM-54. The flight versions had A and C versions. The DATM-54 was not made in a C version as there was no change in the ground handling characteristics.
Little to nothing is known about Iran's use of its 79 F-14A Tomcats (delivered prior to 1979) in most western outlets; the exception being a book released by Osprey Publishing titled "Iranian F-14 Tomcats in Combat" authored by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop. Most of the research contained in the book was based on pilot interviews and though it may be the only book devoted to the topic of Iranian F-14s, it is not without its critics.
Reports on the use of the 285 missiles supplied to Iran , during the Iran–Iraq War, from 1980-88 vary. It is rumored that U.S. technical personnel sabotaged the aircraft and weapons before they left the country following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, making it impossible to fire the missile. However, the IRIAF was able to repair the sabotage and the damage only affected a limited number of planes; not the entire fleet.
Some western sources claim that it is unlikely that the 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.
Most informed sources claim that the primary use of the F-14 was as an airborne early warning aircraft, guarded by other fighters. However, Cooper claims that the IRIAF used the F-14 actively as a fighter-interceptor, and at times as an escort fighter with the AIM-54 scoring 60-70 kills. F-14s 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 F-14s 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 F-14 pilots turned on their fighters' very distinctive AN/AWG-9 radars, which suggests that Iraqi pilots had learned to avoid the F-14. The counter-argument is that virtually all Iraqi fighters turned and fled when confronted, regardless of the type of aircraft facing them, although the USAF had much better success engaging Iraqi fighters with their F-15 Eagles in the same vicinity where Tomcats operated.
According to Cooper, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force was able to keep its F-14 fighters and AIM-54 missiles in regular use during the whole of the Iran–Iraq War, though periodic lack of spares grounded at times large parts of the fleet. At worst, during late 1987, the stock of AIM-54 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 USA. Iran managed finally, to find a clandestine buyer that supplied the it with batteries - though those did cost up to $10,000 USD each. Iran did receive spares and parts for both the F-14s and AIM-54s 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 F-14s and AIM-54s operational, there is evidence that Iran continues to procure parts clandestinely.