To Israel, it was a technical marvel. To the Shah of Iran, it was the means to dominate the Persian Gulf. When the McDonnell F-4 Phantom reached Tel Aviv in 1969, it marked a dramatic shift–the first time the Israeli state, not a formal ally, received advanced military hardware from the United States. When the Phantom reached Iran a year later, it was still a class act, like the Persian nation’s famous caviar. To the two Middle East nations, not far apart yet utterly different, the F-4 Phantom was the biggest, fastest, most powerful and expensive fighter ever built.
It was, very simply, the standard against which every other fighter through the end of the century would be measured.
Not that the F-4 Phantom looked like much. It looked, in fact, like someone had stepped on the blueprints. It had bent wings, a sharply downswept horizontal tail slab, and a pointed nose with an abruptly fattened aft fuselage holding two powerful General Electric J79 engines. Those turbojet engines produced 17,000 pounds of thrust (8,120 kilograms) with afterburning.
To be used by men in a line of work usually viewed as a solo performance fighter pilot-the Phantom had two seats for two crew members. Over North Vietnam, Americans had learned that having two men aboard provided an extra set of eyes and ears, a second opinion, a second chance to see the bad guys first-although by 1969 two pilots were replaced by a pilot/radar operator team. And the two engines meant redundancy and greater prospects for survival when hit by gunfire.
In close encounters with MiGs over Hanoi, Americans learned the most bitter lesson of all. The Phantom had been designed without a gun because the Pentagon thought the age of the missile had arrived. This was a catastrophic mistake-so a 20mm M61A1 Vulcan ‘GatIing’ gun was belatedly slung under the nose of the F-4E model. The modification looked distinctly like an afterthought, its barrel poking out from nose contours that weren’t particularly streamlined anyway.
Other lessons: the Phantom carried four Sparrow radar-guided missiles in recessed bays under the fuselage, and could use them in a head-on engagement beyond visual range–a capability North Vietnamese MiGs lacked-but in ‘Nam the rules said you had to see before you could shoot. The Sparrow was good up to 15 miles or so even when this advantage was not seized; the radar-guided, AIM-4D Falcon missile (introduced with the Phantom F-4D) was useless, and fighter ace Colonel Robin Olds forebade his men to use them.
At closer range, the Phantom’s infrared heat-seeking missiles, the Sidewinders, were unmatched; this was becoming the most important air-to-air missile of the era.
Following the Six Day War of 1967, the Israeli Defense Force/Air Force (IDF/AF), or Tsvah Haganah Le Israel/Heyl Ha’Avir, needed a front-line fighter. In January 1968, the United States completed delivery of 48 aging A- 4 Skyhawks promised before the war, and President Johnson offered Premier Eshkol 20 more. But pressure built to supply Jerusalem with a newer fighter. Although Johnson was opposed, he began negotiations on October 9, 1968, after presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon came out in favor of it. On December 27, 1968, after Nixon’s election but before he took office, the announcement was made of the sale of 50 Phantoms to Israel to be delivered beginning in 1969 at a cost of $200 million.
The Phantoms began to arrive in September 1969 and were committed to battle on January 7, 1970. The first mission was led by squadron leader Samuel l Chetz, already an ace, against Soviet-constructed SAM (surface-to-air missile) and radar installations at Dahashur. Chetz, known for his aggressive spirit, was later killed in a low-level strike on a SAM site, a loss which permitted Jerusalem to reveal his name although the identities of active pilots remained undisclosed.
The war of attrition was coalescing as a struggle in which air power could help Israel compensate for its inferiority in artillery along the Suez Canal. To redress the ‘artillery gap,’ Skyhawks and Phantoms silenced Egyptian missile, antiaircraft and artillery batteries.
To a nation under siege, fiercely proud of its plucky and undaunted air arm, the arrival of the $4 million F-4E Phantom was timely. In the hands of aggressive and spirited Israeli crews, the Phantom shook Egyptian leaders who watched their air defense network being systematically picked apart in low-level strikes. Other F-4Es ranged against targets deep inside Egypt.
On July 30, 1970, Soviet pilots helping the Egyptians tangled with Israeli Phantoms in a raging dogfight over the Gulf of Suez. It was the first test of the E model Phantom’s cannon in combat. The Israelis shot down five MiG-21s. Soon thereafter, on a marathon 2,000-mile strike mission to Ras Banas, Phantoms bombed and sank a Komar-class missile boat and a 2,500-ton Z-class destroyer.
A more controversial incident occurred in February 1973. Israeli Phantoms intercepted a Libyan Boeing 727 airliner when it penetrated the Israeli-occupied Sinai Desert on a heading which suggested an intelligence-gathering mission. ‘We tried desperately to force it down, not shoot it down,’ said Maj. Gen. Mordechai Hod, IDF/AF chief. Two Phantom pilots exchanged hand signals with the Libyan pilot but were unable to persuade him to follow them to Bir Gifgafa Air Base. A Phantom fired a warning burst of 20mm. The airliner lowered its wheels but raised them again and banked in an apparent attempt to escape. The Phantoms shot it down. One hundred five of the 112 people aboard died.
Even after Anwar Sadat booted out his Russian advisers on July 18, 1972, tension persisted. Many in Israel feared that a new conflict was near.
At least, it seemed, the situation was stable in the Persian Gulf where Iran, prospering from skyrocketing oil prices, was arming itself to the teeth. The Shah said openly that he wanted to be the decisive force in his region.
Like many Washington-Tehran dealings, Iran’s acquisition of the F-4E Phantom resulted from a one-on-one conversation between President Nixon and the Shah. Nixon appears to have ignored advice that his friend and ally was devoting too much to arms and too little to domestic needs. In 1968, Iran had acquired 32 F-4D Phantoms, which had no guns but could carry gun pods. In the early 1970s, the first of 177 gun-armed F-4Es and 16 RF-4Es followed.
The Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF), or Nirou Hayai Shahahanshahiye Iran, gradually built up to 11 Phantom squadrons (two F-4D, eight F-4D], one RF-4E) at Mehrabad, Shiraz and Tabriz. The Shah, accused by some of viewing frontline military weapons as new toys, even acquired 80 Grumman F-14 Tomcats. Iran, so the rationale went, would be able to defend itself against the Soviet threat to the north while maintaining a bastion of stability along the Persian Gulf. Easily dismissed were critics who argued that Iran was really defending itself from Saudi Arabia, not the Russians, and that the Shah’s hold on his own populace was weakening. It might not have been clear who the enemy was, but the air force was rapidly equipping itself with the newest and best aircraft.
Iran’s pilots and air force personnel were not as celebrated as Israel’s, but the Iranian Air Force enjoyed close ties to the United States and had some excellent pilots. The Persian state had been flying American fighters since the 1940s, and a considerable number of Iranian pilots had been trained at bases in the United States and at Furstenfeldbruck, Germany, under the auspices of the U.S. Military Advisory Group.
On March 13, 1973, State Department officials reported that, in addition to further F-4E Phantoms already committed, Washington would sell Israel four squadrons of fighter-bombers, a mix of A-4 Skyhawks and improved F- 4Es with leading-edge maneuvering slats, TISEO (target identification system, electro-optical), and ‘man-efficient’ to be delivered by January 1974. TISEO was a Northrop-built long-range television in a cylindrical extension from the Phantom’s port wing, and was untested in air-to-air battle, although the principle-use of a zoom lens to guide ordnance visually-had planted bombs squarely in the center of Hanoi’s Paul Doumer Bridge.
The new deliveries would enhance Jerusalem’s military muscle-but January 1974, it would turn out, would be too late. With stunning swiftness, the region erupted into conflict on the eve of Yom Kippur, the traditional Hebrew Day of Atonement-October 6, 1973, with a dramatic assault by Egyptian, Syrian and other Arab forces.
An official release says that 150 Phantoms made up the fighting spearhead of the IDF/AF defensive effort as the Arabs’ surprise attack was unleashed. In the early hours of the fighting, Egyptian Tupolev Tu-16 bombers carrying AS- 5 air-to-surface standoff missiles pressed their attacks deep into Israeli territory. One Tu-16 approaching Tel Aviv on the first day of the war, October 6, was shot down by an Israeli F-4E Phantom.
Phantoms were thrown into action on both fronts and faced a variety of new threats, including vehicle-mounted SA- 6 and shoulder-mounted SA-7 Strella surface-to-air missiles. The Israelis struck decisively against Syrian SAM sites on October 7, and acknowledged the loss of one Phantom in that fighting.
On the Syrian front, MiG-17s and Sukhoi i Su-7s flew ground attack missions escorted by MiG-21s and Iraqi Hawker Hunters. Israel struck back on October 9 by sending Phantoms to bomb downtown Damascus. Seeking to neutralize the Arabs’ second front by seizing the Golan Heights and blunting Syria’s fighting potential, Israel confirmed yet another Phantom loss on October 11.
There were to be no further acknowledgments of losses despite intensified fighting over October 12-24, but Israeli authorities have consistently stated that no Phantoms were lost in air-to-air combat.
It appears that the F-4E Phantom was used primarily in the long-range strike role, with the Mirage III flying top cover, and most air-to-air engagements appear to have been fought mainly with IR (infrared) heat-seeking missiles rather than at close range with guns.
When they found themselves in closequarters fights with very maneuverable MiGs and less effective Sukhois, Israeli pilots made use of the new notion of ‘energy maneuverability’ in which the battle was fought in three dimensions without regard for the location of the ground or (to put it another way) for ‘up’ and ‘down.’ That emphasis on the importance of specific excess power, the standard of thrust-to-weight ratio reached at various conditions of speed, altitude and maneuver, although devised by Americans rather than Israelis, had arrived too late for the Linebacker campaigns in North Vietnam, and some fighter veterans still viewed it as an impertinence.
In certain maneuvering situations, the level flight .73-to-1 thrust-to-weight ratio of the F-4E Phantom could be increased to a more advantageous .9-to-1 or better and, by careful attention to energy maneuvering, the F-4E could prevail over the MG-21 even in a very close, protracted fight.
Pilot experience helped, too, and while IDF/AF pilots seemed remarkably young they enjoyed an enormous advantage in experience.
Just as Americans in Vietnam found themselves pitted against highly motivated, Soviet-trained pilots of great ability, the Israelis faced Egyptian and Syrian fliers whose talent and aggressiveness warrant mention. A fierce fighting spirit was exhibited by MiG pilots who seemed to be flying ground control intercept (GCI) with orders to engage Israeli Phantoms only when conditions of altitude, possible surprise, and relative fuel advantage favored them. On occasion, a brace of MiG-21s above a Phantom formation might make a single diving, slashing attack-using the technique of the North Vietnamese to catch the ordnance-laden F-4Es at a disadvantage.
Although the IDF/AF’s acknowledged loss of 22 Phantoms to SAMs and ground fire in the Yom Kippur War may seem small, the total, when 45 A-4 Skyhawk losses are added, is a full 20 per cent of the warplanes Israel had received from the United States.
Before the October 1973 conflict, the United States had been delivering Phantoms at the rate of two per month. When war erupted, Operation Nickel Grass followed, through which F-4Es pulled directly from the U. S. inventory were ferried to Israel and immediately thrown into battle, once modified with the Israeli-style refueling receptacle on the right front in place of the U.S.-style dorsal receptacle. One TISEO-equipped late model F-4E actually flew into combat still wearing an SJ tail code telling the world that it had just arrived from Colonel Len C. Russell’s 4th Thactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
Thirty-four Phantoms were added to Israel’s inventory through Operation Nickel Grass. Counting further purchases made after the 1973 fighting, Israel received 204 Phantoms in all.
Iran used the reconnaissance version of the Phantom to keep tabs on what was happening nearby. On a reconnaissance mission over South Yemen in 1977, an Iranian RF-4E was shot down by a rebel shoulder-mounted missile and went down in one fathom of crystal-clear Gulf water, where it remains easily seen from boats and aircraft to this day.
When the Iran-Iraq war broke out on September 23, 1980, with spectacular long-range raids, Iraqi aircraft strafed and destroyed an Iranian F-4E on the ground at Tehran. It was a bizarrelooking loss, the nose of the Phantom broken off like a bottle stem.
U.S. intelligence analysts told each other that the Ayatollah’s air arm, now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), would be destroyed with similar dispatch. The best pilots and the best maintenance people had been loyal to the Shah and had been purged. U.S. intelligence was convinced that the revolutionaries then running the IRIAF lacked the knowledge and the equipment to keep sophisticated Phantoms flying.
What’s more, the experts said, the revolutionary air arm lacked the expertise to solve problems with the avion ics–the radar. The revolutionaries would never be able to maintain something as complex as a J79 jet engine or a Westinghouse APQ-120 solid-state radar firecontrol system. The IRIAF was likely to be grounded quickly. The war would be short.
They were wrong on all counts, including being wrong about why the Phantoms were difficult to keep in the air. The real problem was tires. Some way could be found to fix the unfixable, the radar and fire-control system included, but with the West’s embargo around Iran, not even the Ayatollah could solve the problem posed by normal wear on rubber tires of a unique size. The Israelis could, however. Cooperation between Jerusalem and Tehran in keeping the latter’s Phantoms flying was one of the most unusual partnerships’in recent history.
While some air arms have no future planned for their Phantoms other than for museum display, Israel is devoting considerable effort to updating its Phantom fleet. The effort began with Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) embarking on two upgrade programs. The Super Phantom program involved the re-engining of F-4Es with Pratt & Whitney PW1120 turbofan engines, giving a dramatic increase in performance. A modified Phantom equipped with one PW1120 and one traditional J79 first flew on April 24, 1987. Subsequently, tests got underway with a Phantom with two PW1120s that appeared at the June 1987 Paris air show.
The production version of Israel’s upgraded Phantom 2000 also has new advanced multimode radar, a wide field of view HUD (head-up display), multifunction displays for both crewmen, a new computerized weapon delivery system and improved radios. In the 1990s, its one-time plans for an indigenous fighter called the Lavi having been canceled, Israel’s air arm will rely upon the F-15C Eagle for the air-to-air role, F-16 Fighting Falcon for both air and ground action, and the rejuvenated Phantom for the fighter-attack mission. The Phantom 2000 will overcome the Phantom’s principal handicap-the dramatic strides made in fighter radars since the F-4E model was introduced in 1966. Meanwhile, Israel also employs the Phantom for a variety of test missions, including development work on the Gabriel Mark 3 anti-shipping missile.
The Phantom’s combat career in the Middle East is far from over. On January 16, 1991, Iraqi forces again found themselves under attack by the bent-winged welterweights–not Iranian fighter-bombers this time, but American F-4G ‘Wild Weasels’ of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing from George Air Force Base, Calif., coming in at low level against their radar and anti-aircraft installations.
This article was written by Ronald Drucker and originally published in Aviation History Magazine.
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