A Very Busy Aircraft, The F-4 Phantom in the 21st Century

The F-4 Phantom has been a very busy aircraft in recent months. You can read the story here, but the BLUF is that Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed ISIS targets in Iraq on December 3, 2014. In typical Iranian fashion, Iran has both confirmed and denied that they did the bombing, but there is blurry video of some F-4 Phantoms carrying out air strikes in Iraq. Only three countries in that area still operate the F-4 phantom, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.  The bombing took place on Iraq’s eastern border with Iran, which would be quite a haul for Turkey and the entire Middle East would be screaming if Israel carried out the attack, which leaves Iran by default as the likely country of origin. While the F-4 phantom has now been in service for more than 55 years and retired by most air forces, it has been a particularly busy aircraft since ISIS came to power.

An Iranian F-4 Phantom takes off. Despite arms embargoes and Iran’s Phantoms being almost 40-years old, the Phantom remains Iran’s best fighter bomber. Photo via Wikipedia.

The F-4 Phantom saw extensive service with the United States Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in every conflict from Vietnam to the Gulf War. The United States has retired the aircraft but still converts some into aerial drones for realistic combat training. While the United States has been busy shooting down its old F-4 Phantoms, many other countries have been upgrading the F-4 into an aircraft that can confront and beat most 4th generation fighter aircraft. Notably, Israel still operates three squadrons of F-4 Phantoms that have been heavily upgraded with new avionics and engines. The success of the Israeli upgrade program has turned Israel into a leading provider of upgrade services to other nations F-4 Phantoms.

A U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom drops dumb bombs as part of a training exercise. The U.S. Department of Defense has made extensive use of the F-4 Phantom as an aerial target for realistic training of U.S. Fighter pilots. In 2013, the last U.S. F-4 Phantom was returned to service and converted to a drone. The remainder of the fleet will be used for spare parts for other nations F-4’s and the aerial target role will be filled with early model F-16 Fighting Falcons. U.S. Air Force Photo

Iran claims to have upgraded its F-4’s with indigenous engines and avionics but a close look at their aircraft shows them to look exactly how they did when delivered by the United States to the Shah of Iran in the 1970’s. The F-4 Phantom and the F-14 Tomcat remain Iran’s premier air defense fighters despite their age but arms embargoes have limited Iran’s ability to upgrade those platforms. Iran has kept it’s F-4 Phantoms flying through a program of smuggling parts, reverse engineering, and a lot of bubblegumming. This has kept Iranian F-4 Phantoms active in harassing U.S. aircraft over international waters and patrolling Iran’s borders. Just last year, an Iranian F-4 attempted to intercept a U.S. reconnaissance drone but was chased off by U.S. fighters before it could get into a firing position. With no foreseeable end to the restrictions on Iran by the international community, the F-4 could remain Iran’s main fighter and strike aircraft for decades to come.

Turkey is one of the largest F-4 Phantom operators in the world and has used its aircraft in bombing raids against Kurdish forces along the Iraqi border. All of turkey’s aircraft were heavily upgraded by Israel which has greatly enhanced the aircraft’s capabilities.  Turkey continues to use the RF-4 as its main reconnaissance aircraft and it was in this role that one of its planes was shot down by Syria in June 2012, almost bringing the two countries into conflict. As recent as April 2014, a Turkish RF-4 Phantom was involved in an altercation with Greek fighter aircraft when it was conducting operations over the Aegean Sea. Turkey continues to purchase newer and more modern fighter designs but the F-4 phantom will continue to be an important part of its air force for at least the next decade.

A Turkish F-4 Phantom making final approach to land. Turkey had all of it’s F-4 and RF-4 Phantoms modernized by IAI which has given Turkish F-4 Phantoms the ability to drop precision munitions like modern 4th generation aircraft. Turkey has limited aerial refueling capabilities and relies instead on using external fuel tanks for carrying out long range missions. U.S. Air Force Photo

Greece maintains the F-4 Phantom as a fighter bomber and the F-4 composes a large portion of its strike wings even as Greece purchases more modern aircraft models. In October 2014, Greek F-4 Phantoms participated in PARMENION 2014, an annual national defense exercise in Greece that had Greek F-4 Phantoms carrying out live bombing drills. The exercise is aimed at Turkey to show that the Greek air force stands ready to counter any aggression from their traditional geo-political rival. Greece had their F-4 Phantoms upgraded to the Luftwaffe ICE and American Wild Weasel standards by Daimler Chrysler Aerospace as IAI of Israel was already upgrading Turkey’s F-4 Phantoms. Greece has no plans to retire the F-4 Phantom in the next decade and Greece has traditionally kept small numbers of older fighter models in service for training and aggressor roles for 25-30 years after they are retired. This means that Greek F-4 Phantoms could still be flying by 2050, almost a century after the first F-4 Phantom entered service.

A squadron of U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantoms take part in a heritage flight in 2005. A number of F-4 Phantoms are now privately owned and operated in the United States. If you have a few million dollars sitting around, you to could own an F-4 Phantom. U.S. Air Force Photo

Several nations maintain large stockpiles of F-4 Phantoms. Germany retired the last of its F-4 Phantoms in 2013 but continues to operate some in the aggressor role for training and for experiments. Given the expansion of the Russian military and the outbreak of hostilities in the Ukraine, Germany will likely maintain all of its F-4 phantoms in storage for the foreseeable future. South Korea also has a large stockpile of F-4’s and continues to maintain some in active service with the rest in ready reserve in case of a war with North Korea. Japan has traded its RF-4 Phantoms for a new build reconnaissance version of the F-15 Eagle but like Germany and south Korea, maintains its F-4 Fleet in ready reserve in case of a regional conflict with China.

Japanese F-4 Phantoms take off together. Japan is in the process of transitioning away from the F-4 Phantom but will keep a large stockpile of the aircraft in ready reserve for years to come. U.S. Navy Photo

Despite its growing age, the F-4 Phantom remains an important air-superiority and ground attack fighter in the world and will likely remain so well into the 21st century. The cost of buying newer, 5th generation fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, now estimated to cost $116 million per an aircraft, will likely force smaller air forces, like Greece and Turkey, to keep the F-4 in service longer than expected while they slowly procure enough of the F-35’s to secure their national security. Regardless, the F-4 is now an aircraft that can deliver precision munitions and utilizes the latest technology to maintain superiority over almost all Russian and Chinese built fighter-platforms. All of this means that the F-4 Phantom will remain a very busy aircraft for the forseeable future.

4 Comments

  • JoeSnow says:

    They won’t be in service for much longer. Eventually the airframes will become so stressed that they will break up if pushed too hard, especially if they are patching them up with bubblegum and bailing wire like the author suggests instead of making proper repairs. 40 years is a long time for a jet fighter to keep flying. Even their F-14 Tomcats are flying past the end of their useful service life. They might be good for keeping the local tribes from rising up, but against any country with even a halfway decent air force, they lose.

  • Bruce Bickhaus says:

    I flew it.

  • Ralph Mcculley says:

    I kind of agree with joesnow, I fly a 1974 Cessna skyhawk and I still get freaked out sometimes because of cracks in the dash and how old the frame looks. Just imagine the stress that those big beauties went through. And I believe those crappy third world countries don’t even have the resources that the Collins Foundation has to restore its Phantoms.

  • George C says:

    There are a few mistakes in this article.
    1) Israel no longer operates F-4 Phantoms. Their last operational Phantoms were retired in 2004.
    2) SEVERAL privately-owned, operated Phantoms in the US? Try JUST ONE. The Collings Foundation maintains and flies an F-4D painted up like Steve Ritchie’s F-4 ride from Vietnam. The US government simply won’t let any other non-military foundation operate the plane… that’s it, PERIOD.
    The other F-4s being flown recently in the US were QF-4s. They flew a few that were slated for target practice at airshows until recently. Gee, what happened to those planes? (Sarcasm)
    The F-4 is the latest “privately-operated” US jet fighter. All other private jets are MiGs (-15, -17, -21, -29), F-104s, A-4s, and F-86. Plus, probably T-33 (F-80 variant). I know a few T-38s are also privately owned. There’s supposed to be a privately owned Harrier or two as well — older GR3-era Harriers, not the Mark II’s the US Marine Corps still operates.
    It’s just horrendously expensive to maintain and operate these planes let alone pay the fuel bills. Generally only multi-millionaires or corporations have private jet fleets with trainers and the less advanced fighter jets.
    I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a military jet later than the F-4 ever operate with a civilian outfit. Heck, the private aggressor squadons generally fly mixes of A-4s and training jets. The government just won’t let them operate anything older than that…
    3) I seriously doubt anybody’s going to be flying F-4s much past 2030 if even that far.
    The Iranian planes are barely holding together… The Greeks have less than two-dozen left in service… The only reason they haven’t been retired is cost and because of the Greek financial crisis.
    Japan and South Korea probably have the next largest operational fleets of F-4s after Turkey but they want to get out of the F-4 game ASAP, too, but have bought into the F-35 scheme to upgrade their fleets because everybody wants a piece of the stealth pie even if it wrecks the balance of their military budgets!
    Crazy world but honestly the F-4 is just getting worn out. The last plane was built in Japan in 1981! The average of these planes is closer to 50 years now… Sheer airframe fatigue if not being overmatched later types will drive them out to pasture sooner than I think this article optimistic estimates. (We only kept them operational in the US past 1980 because it was just too expensive to replace them with jets that cost on average AT LEAST 4-6 times more than the F-4E did in 1970s dollars.) It’s wishful to think they’ll be in service for another thirty years. The framelife of these planes can’t be more the 4000 hours, maybe extendable to 6000 hours with rebuilds but past that forget it!

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