By Seth Marshall
Designed in the late 1950s, the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II became one of the most prolific fighter aircraft of the Cold War. Serving in numerous air forces around the world, the aircraft saw extensive service in a number of large regional conflicts, including the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, and the Iran-Iraq War.
The origins of the F-4 began in the 1950s. Originally, the goal of the program was to increase the performance of the F3H Demon, an aircraft already in the Navy’s inventory. In 1955, the Navy requested that McDonnell provide two YA-H1s, as the F-4 was then referred to, from an all-weather single-seat fighter armed with cannons to an all-weather two-seater fighter armed with missiles and no cannons. The aircraft at this juncture became known by the designation F4H-1. Development continued through the late 1950s and the Phantom made its first flight on May 27, 1958. Soon after its first flight, the new fighter began setting records. On December 6, 1959, it set a new absolute world altitude record of 98,556ft. Less than two years later on December 5, 1961, it set a sustained altitude of 66,443ft over a 25km course. An additional record set in 1961 was the world speed record, set at 1,604 mph on a 15km course.
While the Phantom had begun breaking records, some aerodynamic instability in the design were revealed during flight testing. Before production began, several changes to the original design were implemented. The outer halves of the wings were modified to have a twelve-degree dihedral, meaning that those sections of the wings were angled up twelve degrees. Additionally, flaperons, a type of aileron, and leading-edge slats were added. The horizontal tail surfaces were given a twenty-three-degree anhedral, meaning that the wings were angled downwards, in order to accommodate for the airflow coming from the wing. Following the modifications, the first production F-4s were some of the largest and heaviest fighter aircraft produced up to that time. It was just over 58 feet long from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 38.5 feet, and with a height of 16.5 feet. Powered by two General Electric J79 engines producing 17,900lbs of thrust in afterburner, the production Phantom was capable of a maximum speed of 1450mph. The massive amount of power made the Phantom capable of carrying large amounts of ordnance- up to 16,000lbs of external stores including bombs, missiles, external fuel tanks, and nuclear weapons.
Production began in 1961 with the F-4B. Initially, only the Navy and the Marine Corps bought the Phantom. However, under pressure from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was insisting on standardization across services, the Air Force evaluated a pair of F-4s in 1962. Initially referred to by the Air Force as the F-110 Spectre, the first F-4Cs were delivered to the Air Force in 1963.
Not long after the first F-4s began to arrive in operational units, US involvement in the Vietnam conflict began to dramatically escalate. After several air-to-air engagements, it quickly became apparent that the F-4 had a number of problems. At the time of the Vietnam conflict, air-to-air missiles were still in their infancy and frequently did not work. “Studies showed that 45 percent of Vietnam-era AIM-7s and 37 percent of AIM-9s failed either to launch or lock on, and after evasive maneuvers, the probability of achieving a kill fell to eight percent and 15 percent for the two types, respectively. The Falcon missiles were even worse, and the Pentagon later withdrew them from service.” Additionally, the MiGs that the Phantom encountered in Vietnam were very different types of aircraft. The three designs most commonly seen overVietnam, the MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 were all developed as interceptor aircraft- they were much lighter, far more maneuverable (particularly in the case of the MiG-17), and armed with several cannons. Consequently, the Phantom had to engage enemy aircraft at subsonic speeds where it was at a disadvantage. Because of the failure of many missiles to lock on to their targets, let alone hit them, as well as the nature of the dogfights taking place in the skies above Vietnam, many pilots found themselves wishing that the Phantom had been equipped with a built-in gun. An interim fix came about in the form of a gun pod suspended under the belly of the aircraft; however, this was a temporary fix, as the gun pod had no gun sight, requiring the pilot to judge aim based on the trajectory of the tracers. Eventually, when it came to designing the F-4E, the 20mm General Electric Vulcan M61 cannon was included.
During the Vietnam War, USAF F-4s claimed to have shot down 107 MiGs while losing 33 of their own aircraft. Navy F-4s had a better kill-ration, shooting down 40 MiGs while losing seven. Additionally, Marine Corps F-4 pilots claimed an additional three MiGs shot down. However, MiGs were not the greatest threat to American aircraft over Vietnam- with large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) such as the SA-2 and a tremendous amount of AAA guns, 474 F-4s from all branches of service were lost to ground fire. The high loss rate to missiles and AAA fire was due to the increasing usage of the F-4 as a fighter-bomber- supporting friendly troops on the ground in close-air-support missions and interdiction missions brought the Phantoms down to much lower altitudes, making them more susceptible to ground fire. As a result of experience in the Vietnam War, both the Air Force and Navy implemented their own programs to increase pilots’ capabilities to survive a dogfight- the Navy started its Fighter Weapons School, more popularly known as TOPGUN, and the Air Force began incorporating the Red Flag exercise to bolster its existing Weapons School. Additionally, the Air Force worked to improve its Weapon System Evaluation Program (WSEP) to resolve the problems with its air-to-air missiles.
In the years that followed the Vietnam War, the Phantom was upgraded several times. In the 1970s, F-4Es began to be modified to the F-4G standard in order to make them suitable for the Air Force’s Wild Weasel mission. These types of aircraft were tasked with supression of the radar systems used by enemy anti-air systems. Over thirty years after it was designed, a number of F-4Gs took part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, carrying out Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission to eliminate air defense radars in Iraq. Five years later, the US Air Force became the last branch of the US military to retire the Phantom. However, the F-4 continued to soldier on with the US military in a different role- worn-down Phantoms were converted to target drones (QF-4s) and expended over target ranges. Over 200 F-4s were converted to target drones and continued to be operated until August 2016, when their role was finally taken over by early-model F-16s.
While the US military was the primary user of the Phantom, it was by no means the only one. Hundreds of Phantoms flew with over a dozen air forces around the world: Australia, Egypt, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey all flew F-4 Phantoms. The two most prolific foreign users of the Phantom were Israel and Iran.
In late December 1968, an agreement was reached to sell 50 F-4s to the Israeli government for $200 million. Eventually, Israel would purchase over 200 F-4s from the US. The Phantom would subsequently take a main role for the IAF during the War of Attrition in the early 1970s and during the Yom Kippur War. The Israeli Phantoms were first involved in combat on July 30, 1970. During a dogfight over the Gulf of Suez, several Phantoms shot down five MiG-21s. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Phantoms saw heavy use, frequently engaging in dogfights with Egyptian and Syrian fighters. However, Arab forces had by this time been equipped with large numbers of Soviet-built SAM systems, including the SA-2, and these took a toll on IAF Phantoms- at least 33 were shot down by the missiles. As Israel began purchasing more modern fighters such as the F-15 and F-16 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, IAF Phantoms were increasingly used as strike aircraft rather than fighters. Upgraded through the 1980s, the IAF continued to fly the Phantom until retiring it in 2004.
The largest foreign user of the Phantom was Iran. Prior to the revolution, Iran purchased nearly 230 F-4s of various models. In the 1980s, Iran obtained an additional 23 used Phantoms from the US through the clandestine “Iran-Contra” agreement. These aircraft were procured during the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988. Iranian F-4s, along with other American-built aircraft purchased prior to the revolution, were heavily relied upon during the conflict with Iraq. The IRIAF’s ability to maintain and successfully operate the fighter came as a surprise of Western intelligence, who did not think that the Iranians had the ability to keep the complex aircraft in the air, particularly given the purge of western-trained pilots and mechanics that had occurred following the revolution. Though precise records are difficult to obtain, it is known the Iranian Air Force used Western-built aircraft to great effect, including the F-4, though it seems the F-14 was Iran’s primary air dominance fighter aircraft. Still, several Iranian F-4 pilots are thought to have shot down several Iraqi aircraft during the war. Nearly 30 years after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the F-4 remains one of the main aircraft of the IRIAF, and has seen recent action in air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. In 2009, it was reported that the IRIAF continues to operate 82 F-4s.
Though it entered service 56 years ago, the F-4 remains in service with several air forces around the world, including Greece, Iran, South Korea, and Turkey. With 5,195 aircraft built, the Phantom is one of the most numerous jet fighter aircraft ever built. Out of the numerous aircraft types that were developed as so-called third generation fighters, perhaps none saw as much action nor as much service as the F-4. It remains today an iconic aircraft of the Cold War.
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