Entering service in the U.S. Air Force in 1960, the F-4 Phantom served as America’s primary fighter until the 1980s with over 5000 airframes produced over 23 years and exported to ten clients across four continents. Although initially a troubled aircraft, which was intended primarily for long range bomber interception and struggled to engage Soviet-built MiG-17s over Vietnam, adaptations to the design culminating in the F-4E in 1965 produced an air superiority fighter that was without rival in the Western world. The aircraft’s operational costs were low enough that the U.S. Air Force could afford to field the F-4 as it primary fighter, in contrast to its successor the F-15 Eagle which was acquired in much smaller numbers, but were still too expensive for mosts American defence clients with the cheaper and lower end F-5 Freedom Fighter and F-5E Tiger II exported as cheaper options.
Many countries still opted for and were granted permission to purchase the F-4, in particular those in strategically important positions such as frontline NATO members Turkey, Greece, Britain and Germany, Japan and Iran on the frontlines with the USSR’s Asian regions, and Israel which faced Soviet-aligned Arab states such as Syria and Iraq. Of the F-4’s eleven overseas clients four continue to operate the aircraft, the newest of which are still over 40 years old, with all expected to replace their Phantoms before 2030. Japan and Egypt, too, operated F-4s until 2021 and 2013 when they were belatedly retired for replacement by the F-35 and MiG-29M fighters. Of the remaining four F-4 operators, a look at the sizes and roles of their remaining fleets and the likely aircraft which will replace them in service provides insight into how the Phantom could finally leave operational service and how it will likely spend its final years.
South Korean F-4 Phantoms: Likely Replacement with F-35A Fighters
The Republic of Korean Air Force (ROKAF), the official name of the air force of South Korea, currently fields nine squadrons of third generation F-4E and F-5E/F Vietnam War era fighters, which form a very significant proportion of its fleet of 23 fighter squadrons. The F-4E perviously formed the elite of the Korean fleet, and is heavier and more costly to operate than any of its aircraft other than its F-15K Slam Eagles and new F-35A Lightning II stealth jets. The F-4’s relatively high operational costs and limited performance compared to simpler more modern designs such as the KF-16 have led to it being phased out of service faster than the lower maintenance F-5 despite its superior capabilities. Only a single squadron of 30 F-4E fighters, which have been domestically refurbished and modernised, remains in service. It is expected that these will be replaced by the F-35A, of which the country is set to field 60, with the indigenous KF-21 stealth fighter expected to enter service later in the decade after the last Phantoms are retired. The KF-21 is expected to replace many of South Korea’s remaining older fighters classes likely including much of its F-5 and F-16 fleets. South Korea is expected to be the next F-4 operator to retire the class from service likely by the middle of the decade.
Greek F-4 Phantoms: Likely Replacement with Rafale or F-35 Fighters
Greece is one of the largest defence spenders in NATO as aa proportion of its GDP, and fields a single squadron of 34 F-4E Phantoms alongside ten squadrons of lighter fourth generation fighters – eight of F-16s and two of French Mirage 2000s. Greek F-4s are the most capable in the world in terms of air to air performance, and integrate modern AIM-120 AMRAAM active radar guided air to air missiles providing superior beyond visual range capabilities to many fourth generation aircraft. As Greece moves to modernise its fleet further, the F-4 remains the most likely fighter to be phased out of service duet to both its age and its higher operational costs than the country’s other fighters. The Hellenic Air Force’s receipt of second hand Rafale fighters from France, a portion of them as aid, could lead to the aircraft replacing the F-4s in service. The country has also sought to acquire F-35As from the United States, which could then replace the Mirage 2000s in service, while F-16s are modernised to the F-16V standard with fifth generation level avionics to allow them to remain relevant.
Turkish F-4 Phantoms: Likely Replacement with F-16 Block 70 Fighters
Turkey is currently by far the largest foreign operator of the F-16 Fighting Falcon with ten squadrons in service between them fielding 250 fighters, while the F-4 and F-5 form two additional squadrons the former primarily for ground attack roles and the latter for training. The Turkish Air Force was initially set to replace its F-4s with F-35As, which it produces over 900 parts for domestically and was set to acquire over 130 of. The country’s expulsion from the F-35 program has left the F-4’s replacement highly uncertain. The country has sough to acquire additional F-16s from the United States, namely the F-16 Block 70/72 which boasts ‘4+ generation’ capabilities far superior to those currently in service, but also reached advanced stages in talks to acquire heavier Russian Su-35 fighters. There is also a possibility that the country may purchase neither of these, and instead focus on its questionable TF-X fifth generation fighter program which is expected to rely very heavily on technology transfers from foreign partners due to the country’s very limited technological base. The TF-X is expected to be significantly less capable than the Su-35 or F-35. With the TF-X expected to struggle, and an acquisition of Russian fighters remaining unlikely, F-16s are the most likely candidate to replace the F-4 in the Turkish fleet.
Iranian F-4 Phantoms: Likely Replacement with Stealth Drones, JF-17 Bl. 3, J-10C, Su-35, or Indigenous Fighters
The Iranian Air Force is by far the largest operator of the F-4 Phantom, and is the only remaining operator of the older F-4D variants which flies alongside larger numbers of more modern F-4Es. F-4s form five of the country’s seventeen fighter squadrons, with an additional squadron of RF-4E reconnaissance jets also operational for a total of around 70 Phantoms in service. They are the second most widely used fighters after the F-5, of which an estimated 80 are in service. Iran is expected to look to the Chinese J-10C ‘4++ generation’ fighter, and possibly the lighter JF-17 Block 3 which uses similar avionics and weaponry, to modernise its fleet. These would both have significantly lower operational costs than the F-4, meaning replacing the Phantoms would effectively pay for itself over time. Another option for fleet modernisation is the acquisition of heavyweight Su-35S fighters, which figures in the Iranian Air Force leadership noted was being considered in September 2022 with a potential order for up to 60 airframes. These would have operational costs far higher than the F-4, and likely force a contraction of the Iranian fleet if acquired to replace them.
Iran’s ability to produce all spare parts and weaponry for its Phantoms domestically, and to refurbish and modernise the aircraft, means the Iranian Air Force may be loathe to part with the Phantoms and again become reliant on foreign sources for upgrades and parts. The F-4 may remain in service until the country develops an indigenous fighter capable of replacing it. The Iranian Air Force began to field the Kowsar lightweight fighter, based on the American F-5, from 2018, which are expect to gradually replace F-5s in service. With a heavier indigenous fighter also having been announced, possibly from a similar weight range to the F-4, it remains a significant possibility that the Phantoms are being retained in service until this program produces a viable domestic replacement. Another possibility is that Iran’s large combat drone industry, which has produced formidable combat proven stealth designs, could provide an unmanned successor to the F-4 leveraging what is perhaps the greatest strength of the country’s defence sector.