US Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot who fired a Phoenix missile against an Iraqi MiG-23 explains why the AIM-54 missed its target

US Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot who fired a Phoenix missile against an Iraqi MiG-23 explains why the AIM-54 missed its target

By Dario Leone
Aug 28 2023
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Using their F-14 Tomcat (much-improved) Link-16 datalink, LCDR Coby ‘Coach’ Loessberg and his RIO obtained their targeting data from the supporting E-2C powered up their APG-71 and quickly set up an AIM-54C launch…

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In the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox, Saddam stated that he no longer recognised the legitimacy of the No-Fly Zones and brazenly challenged patrolling Operation Northern Watch/Southern Watch (ONW/OSW) aircraft by moving mobile SAM batteries and AAA weapons into the exclusion zones. Both were used in the coming months, and Iraqi combat aircraft also started to push more regularly into the ‘Box’.

As explained by Tony Holmes in his book US Navy F-14 Tomcat Units of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the adoption of this more aggressive stance by the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF), almost resulted in a US Navy Tomcat claiming its first Phoenix missile kill when, on Jan. 5, 1999, two F-14Ds from VF-213 fired two AIM-54Cs at two MiG-23s that had penetrated the No-Fly Zone. The Iraqi jets had already turned back north and were making a high speed run for home by the time the Tomcats got to fire their missiles at very long range. Although neither hit their targets, one of the MiG-23s crashed because it was critically short on fuel.

Iraq’s open defiance to OSW meant that coalition aircraft patrolling in the ‘Box’ were now regularly locked up by fire-control radar and engaged by AAA and unguided SAMs on a near-daily basis. In the post-Desert Fox world, these violations provoked a swift, but measured, response. Retaliatory missions, dubbed Response Options (ROs), allowed No-Fly Zone enforcers to react to threats or incursions in a coordinated manner through the execution of agreed strikes against pre-determined targets such as SAM/AAA and command and control nodes.

US Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot who fired a Phoenix missile against an Iraqi MiG-23 explains why the AIM-54 missed its target
F-14D Tomcat and F/A-18C Hornet

On Sep. 9, 1999, following significant opposition to recent patrols, CVW-2, embarked in USS constellation (CV-64), launched Operation Gun Smoke. Some 35 of 39 AAA and SAM sites targeted for destruction in the ‘Box’ were eliminated in a series of precision strikes that saw the largest expenditure of ordnance in a single day since Desert Storm. The F-14Ds of VF-2 played a leading role in this campaign, from dropping LGBs to lasing for AGM-65s fired from F/A-18s.

The unit also got to fire a single AIM-54C at long range against an IrAF MiG-23.

As explained by Tom Cooper in his book In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000, on Sep. 14, 1999 VF-2 launched a single F-14D – BuNo 164349, Modex NE102 – crewed by LCDR Coby ‘Coach’ Loessberg with LCDR Michael `Spock’ McMillan. Acting as a wingman was a single F/A-18C from VFA-151, piloted by LT Ron ‘Semi’ Candiloro. The two jets had spent three hours on the CAP station when two MiG-23MLs appeared out of Tammuz AB. Loessberg turned into the threat, accelerating, as he went – while trying not to leave the slower Hornet too far behind. Then, using the (much-improved) Link-16 datalink, he and his RIO obtained their targeting data from the supporting E-2C powered up their APG-71 and quickly set up an AIM-54C launch. Because his jet was not yet equipped with Link-16, Candiloro was taken by surprise when he saw the big Phoenix missile separating from the Tomcat and stampeding up and away. Finally recognising the threat, both MiGs promptly broke and turned away towards north, doing their best to exit the engagement envelope of the AIM-54. Loessberg concluded:

VF-2 F-14D print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-14D Tomcat VF-2 Bounty Hunters, NE100 / 163894 / Last Tomcat Cruise, 2003

The Phoenix missed because they turned and ran not long after we fired. This was confirmed via IRST. The shot was not taken a in the heart of the envelope. Had we been able to achieve the optimum speed and altitude at launch we might have been able to improve our probability-of-kill.

“The MiGs headed north, we were approaching the border of the NFZ, and I knew my wingman was rapidly approaching bingo fuel state. We were a defensive counter-air mission so we accomplished our mission.

“Once we were safely heading south and knew there was no longer a threat, I had to quickly get on the optimum flight profile to safely get Semi back to the S-3 tankers that were waiting for us. I do remember being a little concerned about that and communicating to the E-2 the urgency of having a tanker waiting for him.”

In the Claws of the Tomcat: US Navy F-14 Tomcats in Air Combat against Iran and Iraq, 1987-2000 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

US Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot who fired a Phoenix missile against an Iraqi MiG-23 explains why the AIM-54 missed its target
A U.S. Navy Grumman F-14D Tomcat from fighter squadron VF-2 Bounty Hunters passing the bow of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV-64) after having been launched from one of the waist catapults.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Tom Cooper


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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