Attrition: Phantom Fades Slowly

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December 28, 2020: In November 2020 Japan finally retired the last of its F-4 Phantom fighters. This came after these locally built fighters had been a common sight over Japan for 48 years. Japan first acquired the F-4 in 1972 and imported 14 for reconnaissance while building 138 locally as air defense fighters. Japan upgraded a hundred of its F-4EJs in the 1980s with more modern electronics and improved structural components so that these aircraft would be competitive for another decade or more. That upgrade also added aerial refueling and the ability to use bombs and missiles against land and naval targets. The last F-4 built was one of the Japanese F-4s in 1981. The last Japanese recon F-4s retired in early 2020 and an air defense squadron was the last one to lose its F-4s. Japan is replacing the air defense and recon F-4s with F-35A stealth fighters.

Since the 1990s most users have retired their F-4s. In mid-2013 Germany retired the last of its 263 F-4 fighter-bombers after 41 years of service. A third of these were used mainly for reconnaissance, but most were expected to do ground support and air defense. 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, 3-4 percent are still in service, plus a hundred converted to be unmanned targets for the U.S. Air Force. The last of these targets was gone by 2016. The U.S. Air Force was the largest F-4 user, receiving 2,874 and using them until 1996. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps received 1,264. The navy retired its last F-4 in 1987 and the marines in 1992. Export customers bought the rest and currently only Greece, Turkey and Iran have any operational F-4s and most (except for Iran) consider them second-line fighters. For Japan the F-4s were first line interceptors until the end.

The F-4 “Phantom” is a 1950s design that, for its day, was quite advanced. Initially the F-4 was the navy “Fleet Defense Fighter” and it was during the Vietnam War that its usefulness as a bomber was discovered. The two-seat, 28-ton F-4 was a credible fighter bomber, able to carry eight tons of bombs and missiles. It entered service with the navy in 1961 and with the air force several years later. Normal combat radius is about 700 kilometers. The average sortie lasts about two hours. F-4s saw a lot of combat during the Vietnam War and 741 were lost, most of them to ground fire and accidents. F-4s downed 107 enemy aircraft over Vietnam.

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 58 years so far and may reach 70 before the last of them are gone.

 


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