The Phantom held the unique distinction of being the first true Joint Strike Fighter, with the Navy and Marines being joined by the US Air Force, which saw the potential of the Phantom’s versatile load carrying capability and performance.
On May 27, 1958, the Mighty F-4 Phantom first took wing. Designed as a Carrier Based Interceptor, the Phantom eventually performed just about every other mission possible, from bombing to dogfighting, photo reconnaissance, and anti Surface to Air Missile (SAM) Wild Weasel Missions. The Phantom also held the unique distinction of being the first true Joint Strike Fighter, with the Navy and Marines being joined by the US Air Force, which saw the potential of the Phantom’s versatile load carrying capability and performance.
Operating in the skies over North Vietnam against more nimble North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiG-17s and 21s, the Phantom would initially suffer from being overly reliant on its all-missile battery and superior technology. The Navy recognized this and revived its Fleet Air Gunnery Unit into a new Fighter Weapon’s School, better known today as TOPGUN. There, a new generation of Aviators were trained in classic air combat maneuvering techniques against dissimilar aircraft. In addition, the two-man crew concept was also perfected, with backseaters serving as an essential set of extra eyes both inside and outside the aircraft. Many a Phantom Phlyer owe their lives to their Backseaters as numerous reports consistently illustrated.
When meeting the NVAF again in 1972, the Navy’s Phantom community achieved a tremendous victory loss ratio thanks to this “software” upgrade of its Aviators. The Air Force chose a “hardware” upgrade, installing a 20 mm Vulcan internal gun in its ultimate Phantom variant, the F-4E, and improving its missiles and systems. One system in particular proved crucial, the Combat Tree hostile Identification Friend Foe (IFF) identifier enabling airframes equipped with this system to locate Soviet made IFF systems and sort them out in the crowded skies of Vietnam. This reduced the risk of “own goals” and enabled the Phantom’s Radar Guided Sparrow missile system to be used in a manner which maximized its effectiveness as a weapon’s system.
Despite these technical improvements the Air Force’s ratio remained roughly 2-1 vs the 5-1 post Rolling Thunder Navy ratio. This in turn influenced the USAF to implement its Red Flag Adversary Training system post-Vietnam, something which greatly improved USAF performance in Desert Storm as a new generation of Aviators were trained by Vietnam era Phantom Veterans.
Overseas, the Phantom would become a major export success, and see action in Israeli hands from 1969’s War of Attrition, to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The latter conflict saw the Phantom take some of its most grievous losses against Soviet made Surface to Air Missile systems. Yet from these losses newer combat techniques evolved as squadrons adapted to the environment, and improved their tactics by utilizing what IAF 107 SQD Commander Yftach Spector called “physics” vs electronics.
By the 1970s the Phantom was seen as “The” plane of the Free World, with export orders swelling the total production of the F-4 to over 5,000 machines. By this time Phantoms had regularly fought Soviet made MiG-21s over North Vietnam and the Middle East, while Greek and Turkish Phantoms consistently clashed over the Aegean Sea as both nations continue to do the same with their F-16s to this day.
The Phantom would also become the backbone of the Iranian Air Force, both pre and Post Shah, with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) managing to use its Phantom force to hold the line against Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran. Utilizing hard learned Vietnam and Israeli tactics, Iran’s Phantom force maintained rough parity with Iraq’s Air Force till the end of the conflict, despite a dwindling number of airframes and spares sporadically topped up by various means fair and foul. Indeed, Iran operates the Phantom to this day, both out of necessity and for the sheer capability the Phantom provides.
Flying its twilight combat missions in US Service during Desert Storm, the Phantom remains in service in a dwindling number of Air Forces worldwide. For me the Phantom’s J79s howl resonated like an echo of the Vietnam war, as we were fortunate enough to grow up on the island of Oahu where the final Active-Duty USMC Phantom squadrons and the Hawaii Air National Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron operated the F-4 during my childhood.
I hope this article may in some small way honor the sacrifice of all lost in the F-4 in Peace and War, and the service of those fortunate enough to fly, fight and return from the many wars fought by the Phantom.
To all who ever flew the Phantom, front seat or back, this song is for you. From Dick Jonas.
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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps