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F-4 Fades Away Very Slowly
by James Dunnigan
August 11, 2013

On June 29th Germany retired the last of its 263 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers after 41 years of use. A third of these were used mainly for reconnaissance, but most were expected to do ground support and air defense. This retirement is part of a growing trend. In 2010, also after 41 years of service, South Korea retired the last of its 222 F-4s. South Korean F-4s (and F-5 fighters) were replaced, over the previous 15 years, by 40 F-15K fighter-bombers and 180 F-16s.

Not everyone has been eager to retire its F-4s. Iran bought 225 F-4 Phantom jets in the 1970s, and several dozen are still operational. Spare parts are obtained via a smuggling network, with some of the less complex parts manufactured inside Iran. This effort is the result of decades of sanctions that prevent Iran from buying new jet fighters. Other countries continue to use F-4s because the aircraft are sturdy and still effective as bombers.

Of the 5,195 F-4s manufactured, some eight percent are still in service, plus a hundred converted to be unmanned targets for the U.S. Air Force. The F-4 is a 1950s design that, for its day, was quite advanced. The two seat, 28 ton F-4 is still a credible fighter bomber, able to carry eight tons of bombs and missiles. Normal combat radius is about 700 kilometers. The average sortie lasts about two hours.

The F-4 was also one of the first jet fighters to be quite safe to fly. Combat aircraft have, for decades, been getting more reliable, even as they became more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time the F-4, most of which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours. Contemporary Russian aircraft (MiG-21/23/27) had a rate 10-20 times higher. The two-seat F-4 was popular with its pilots (and back-seat weapons officers) and was one of the few aircraft to serve widely on aircraft carriers as well as from land bases. The F-4 has been upgraded many times and, when equipped with modern electronics and missiles, it is still lethal and competitive. The F-4 has been in service for 53 years so far and will probably hit 60 before the last of them are gone. 

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