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The F-4 Phantom: from Pain to Menace

Updated: Apr 26

The Long Odyssey of the West's Defining Cold War Aircraft

Article written in cooperation with Aleph Alumnus Federico Pasotti

When the F-4 Phantom II entered service in 1962, it was arguably the most advanced fighter jet in the world. Large for a fighter, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 and enough ordnance points to level a small country whilst still having a couple of pylons free for self-defense missiles, it represented the epitome of the next frontier of aerial combat. Unfortunately for it the rest of the world hadn't gotten the news of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) being king yet. The plane thus initially struggled, finding itself in situations where a more gun-focused platform, nimble and agile, would have performed much better. In later years, improvements in radar technology and missiles enabled it to truly play to its strengths. It is still used today by some relatively top-tier militaries such as South Korea and had been occupying a very relevant niche up until the 1990s.

In this article, we’ll look at what the reasons for the initial pains were, and what made the F-4 Phantom II a menace once technology turned aerial combat into the playground of one of the most legendary - and absolutely bonkers - fighter jets in history.

The Engines - In Thrust We Trust

Although the United States, as the Korean War had shown, was unmistakably more advanced than the Soviet Union in all things warfare; the initial Soviet setbacks were rapidly being compensated for, ushering in an era of fierce technological competition.

In the mid-1950s the United States Air Force (USAF) began operating the very first supersonic fighter, the North American F-100 Super Sabre. It was equipped with a single Pratt & Whitney J57-P-7 engine, an axial flow turbojet capable of pushing the plane to a speed of Mach 1.25.

But it was only in 1958 that a true, purpose-built supersonic fighter took to the skies. That plane was the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, and it was destined to revolutionize the art of aerial combat for decades to come.  It was a brick of a plane, powered by two gigantic General Electric J-79 turbojet engines, each capable of generating up to 8136 kg of thrust pushing the plane at the top speed of Mach 2.2 (from Paris to Berlin in just about 20 minutes). It is not by chance that the F-4 was the plane of choice when NASA engineers needed a plane able to chase and monitor rockets and missiles during launch tests at Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

USMC F-4 Phantoms fly over Vietnam
USMC F-4 Phantoms fly over Vietnam
The Phantom, affectionately nicknamed “Rhinoceros” by its pilots, could carry more than 8000 kg of weapons across 9 hardpoints and was designed to carry out beyond-visual-range strikes using radar-guided missiles. However, the weight and the focus on payload versatility meant that performance during dogfights was not up-to-par with the light and agile Mig 21s: its majestic heft and the high drag associated with its bulky airframe made it less maneuverable and more than a little bit clumsy.

This is exactly where the J79s came into play. The two formidable engines supplied the F-4 with enough thrust to turn a school bus into a race car: the never-seen-before high-speed acceleration capability allowed it to disengage at will from almost any dogfight, partially making up for the relative lack of maneuverability.

The J79 engines had the advantage of very snappy reaction times as the pilot increased or decreased the throttle. This can seem like quite an irrelevant characteristic at first glance, but provided an extremely useful tool both in war and in peace time. It saved many lives, both by allowing pilots to escape disadvantageous positions in dogfights and by giving a fair amount of leeway in complicated maneuvers. An example was a navy pilot who, after having missed the arresting gear of the aircraft carrier, was saved by the short response time of the engines - managing to gain back lift by setting full afterburner and avoided paying a visit to the fishes down below.

he main drawback of the J-79s was that they produced a huge amount of black smoke while not afterburning, which made it relatively easy to be spotted. However, this issue was eventually addressed and solved with a further variant of the engines on the F-4S.

The Avionics - Do No HARM

The avionics were some of the key components and enablers of the Phantom’s technological advantage over its Marxist adversaries. For conciseness’ sake, we’ll look at three components of the suite the F-4 was equipped with: the Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), the ordnance guidance computer and its radar.

The RWR - as the name may suggest - alerted the pilot of any radar signature that was illuminating the plane and allowed him to properly react to radar-guided threats such as Surface-to-Air missiles or other planes.

Later variants of the F-4 were also equipped with ordnance guidance computers, essentially very powerful calculators that could either display the impact point of dumb bombs or compute the release point for a set target.

But most importantly, the Phantom was mounted with one of the first look down/shoot down capable radars, the AN/APQ-120. This system used the Doppler effect - reading the shift in the radar wave coming from hitting a moving target - to get a lock in situations where normal radars would have been hampered by ground clutter. And since a radar missile is only as good as the radar guiding it, the AN/APQ-120 was a key enabler of the weapons suite of the Phantom.

The Missiles - It Knows Where It Is

Being the first dedicated missile boat, the F-4 was extremely reliant on its missiles being able to get into the wrong end of the tailpipe of the MiG-21 and explode in spectacular fashion. To achieve this, it was able to mount three different kinds of missiles: infrared, anti-radiation and semi-active radar-homing.

The AIM-9 Sidewinder was - and still is, since the Americans still haven’t changed its name despite having gone through 20-something different versions - a short-range air-to-air heat seeking missile. In the first years of the Vietnam war, the Sidewinder was still in its development infancy, and it lacked most of the knick-knacks that make it one of the better heat-seekers today. Hampered by low maneuverability, a fairly insensitive seeker (incredibly the Americansfailed to put air conditioning on something) and a very rudimentary leading computer, the AIM-9B was only good at taking down opponents that were unaware, almost stalled out or with the maneuverability of a drunk russian-piloted strategic bomber. Unfortunately for it, the MiG-21s it was facing in the skies above French Indochina were - at least most of the time - neither of those. Most of these issues were later addressed in the following versions, with relevant improvements in seeker technology, maximum pull and burn time.

The AGM-45 Shrike was the weapon of choice to carry out enemy radar suppression missions, being able to lock-on radio signal emitters such as anti-aircraft radars or communication centers. Basically a bomb with rudimentary guidance fins and a fairly inadequate rocket booster, it required the aircraft to enter the range of the enemy air defenses and dodge the missiles, since it was actually slower than the anti-air weapons it was supposed to counter. Again, these shortcomings were addressed in later versions, but the characteristics of the AGM-45 made sure that the pilots running such missions had to be by far the bravest in the USAF.

Last but not least, the AIM-7 Sparrow was - and once again still is, since these bad boys still are used on ships, planes and ground batteries - a medium-range, semi-active radar homing air-to-air missile, designed to operate in beyond visual range (BVR) environments and shoot down the enemy before they can even be seen by the eyeball Mk.1. The first versions suffered from the same shortfalls in terms of maneuverability of the Sidewinder, but they were less impactful since the Sparrow was radar-guided.

Fortunate Son

During the Vietnam war, the US Air Force and the Navy fielded the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-105 Thunderchief, the F-8 Crusader and the F-4 Phantom, but most air-to-air victories went to the F-4 - also due to it being the most technologically advanced of the bunch. No offense meant to the last gunfighter, but by the time the war in Vietnam started, missiles were king - and no one did the whole missile-boat thing better than the Phantom.

It is worth noting that at the time, dogfighting and maneuverability were not taken into serious consideration when it came to designing new aircrafts and little effort was made in teaching pilots air combat maneuvering. Supersonic flight, BVR and long-range interceptor capabilities were instead given more importance, due to the eventuality of a nuclear war.

However when the pilots were forced to stick to the dogfight, the speed of the furball was most of the time subsonic, and maneuverability and angle of attack became crucial since the pilots needed to get on the tail of the enemy jets.

On the other hand, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force (VPAF) could count on several MiGs – MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 – that were generally light-weight, agile and nimble. The most effective was the MiG-21, flown by 13 of the VPAF’s 16 aces

USN F-4 Phantom drops bombs on vietnamese positions
USN F-4 Phantom drops bombs on vietnamese positions
Most of the sorties flown by the US were ground attack or close air support missions, while the Vietnamese pilots were doing their best to stop them from reaching their targets and delivering their payload. Despite the Viets’ best efforts, the numbers’ imbalance meant that just about half of these interceptions resulted in a mission kill or were able to force the American pilots to scuttle their ordnance and engage in a dogfight.

The main issue with the F-4 was that it was operating outside the mission parameters it was designed for, and it was not equipped with an integral gun system to use in situations in which the missiles could not perform (which was not exactly uncommon, as we have already seen above). At the same time, the pilots were not properly trained to dogfight. After some initial losses to the smaller and nimbler MiGs in close combat, the US realized that some changes had to be made, and later versions of the Phantom saw the addition of leading-edge slats, while the F-4E also got an internal 20mm Vulcan cannon

It should also not be forgotten that while the MiGs were flying over friendly territory and held the terrain advantage, the US held the advantage when it came to electronic warfare and signal jamming, often causing the VPAF pilots to lose connection with their controllers.

As in all air campaigns in history, doubts persist to this day concerning the respective kill claims. While it is realistic to believe that the ratio was in the Americans’ favor, the statistics range from 2:1 to 15:1, according to different sources or phases of the war and - more importantly - to the Phantom variants considered.

On the SEAD of Power

In the heat of the Vietnam War, American aircrafts and pilots were being shot down by the dozen by a new threat - Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). And that is when - from the burning husks of the American fighters - a new concept began to take shape: the “Wild Weasel”.

Taking after the animal’s ability to duck and weave around, above and behind cover, the term refers to any aircraft tasked with the mission of suppressing enemy air defense systems (SEAD) by either destroying them or forcing them to shut down their radars, increasing the chance of survival for the following airstrikes.

In practice, a Wild Weasel aircraft would enter contested airspace and bait enemy air defenses to light it up with the radars, allowing it to lock on the radar signal and destroy them by means of a very angry anti-radiation missile (ARM) being shoved right through the radar dish of the AA installation.

After some partially unsuccessful attempts to employ the F-4C and the F-105, a further modification of the ground-attack variant F-4E of the Phantom, the F-4G, became the “Advanced Wild Weasel”. In place of the gun, it was equipped with the APR-38 Radar Homing and Warning Receiver and an upgrade of the back seat cockpit, allowing for the management of the electronic combat environment.

The squadron service of the F-4Gs began in 1978, and it saw heavy and successful use in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm with only one loss, and across several other deployments in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

By the time it was removed from service in 1996 - more than 30 years after being introduced - the F-4G was the last operational variant of the Phantom II in the US forces.

From Phantom Pain to Phantom Menace

If we look back at the operational history of the F-4 series, stretching across more than six decades and almost all continents, the key success factor of the airframe was the versatility it provided, with ample internal space for different systems and upgrades, a great payload capability and a flight profile that was never the best but always good enough to be relevant. During the Vietnam War - what is considered to be the most challenging era for the plane - all five aces across the US forces were flying on an F-4. And even now, with the last airframes being close to retirement it is still considered to be a more than capable aircraft, and comfortably seats in the pantheon of the greatest fighter planes of all times.


Tom Clancy, Fighter Wing: a Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing

Magazine, S., & Joiner, S. (n.d.). What Couldn’t the F-4 Phantom Do? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from

Benolkin, M. (2024). McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II Loadouts. Cybermodeler Online.

United States Navy Navail Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Air Intercept Missile (AIM)-7 Sparrow technical specifications,

Countering MiGs: Air-to-Air Combat Over North Vietnam. (n.d.). National Museum of the United States Air ForceTM.

How effective the F-4 Phantom was in the skies of Vietnam? (2023, September 22).

McDonnell Douglas F-4G Wild Weasel. (n.d.). National Museum of the United States Air ForceTM.



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