Nicknamed the “Flying Anvil”, the tandem-seat F-4 Phantom II twin-engine supersonic jet interceptor was used extensively in Vietnam as an attack fighter platform. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force have all operated the third-generation jet fighter since it first entered service in the 1960s. The McDonnell Douglas platform has set records of 16 speeds, altitude and climb from time to time, making it one of the most versatile aircraft of its time. Weighing nearly 30,000 pounds unloaded, the F-4’s heavy chassis could carry thousands of pounds more ammunition than its predecessors.
F-4 multirole in the air
The Phantom II performed four crucial roles at the time of its design, including interdiction, air superiority, close air support and fleet defense. However, the lack of an integrated platform cannon and reliance on newly introduced substandard missiles clouded its track record in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, improvements helped increase the lethality of the Phantom in every branch of the military. The Air Force improved the maneuverability of its fleet by upgrading wing slats, and the Navy established the Top Gun training program to promote air combat training. Finished 5,000 F-4 platforms were delivered throughout their service life in the United States, and their sub-variants are still in use today.
Unlike the F-14 Tomcat, whose only foreign customer was Iran, the Phantom II was distributed worldwide. Israel’s success in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 could in part be attributed to the capabilities of the platform. During the same period, the United States granted Iran 225 Phantoms in an effort to gain anti-Soviet support in the region. However, like the history of the F-14 Tomcat, the Phantom II passed into adversary hands after the Iranian revolution in 1979.
F-4 Continuation of upgrades
While the United States stopped distributing the F-4 platform to Iran after the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, its air force was able to maintain and even advance fighter jets through modifications and new defense partners. In November 2020, Iran present its 900 kg Qased electro-optically guided smart bombs during its annual “Defenders of the Sky” exercises. The regime’s ability to potentially strike targets with significantly greater accuracy poses a threat to the region.
According to Defense Intelligence Agency, Iran’s current F-4 fleet should alarm its adversaries. “To complement its long-range strike capabilities, Iran could also attempt to use its regional proxies and limited air strike capability to attack an adversary’s critical infrastructure. Iran maintains an aging inventory of fighter jets – such as decades-old American F-4 Phantoms – which it could attempt to use to attack regional adversaries. However, these older platforms would be more vulnerable to air defenses than modern combat aircraft.
Although the F-4 platform is aging, fighter jets can successfully outperform their counterparts in the region. from iran acquisition advanced air-launched anti-ship missile systems is a threat. These armaments from U.S. adversaries, including China, continue to help elevate the mission set of their F-4 fleet to an armed maritime strike role. For example, the Iranian Nasr anti-ship cruise missile is a variant of the People’s Liberation Army C-704. The Iranian Air Force also manufactured its own indigenous medium-range cruise missiles to be launched from the F-4.
Combined with its F-14 and MiG-29 fighter squadrons, Iran’s Phantom Fleet remains the backbone of its air force. This Vietnamese-era rig should not be underestimated.
Maya Carlin, now editor of the Middle East in 1945, is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has lines in numerous publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.