Currently the F-4 has been retired in turn to make room for new generation fighters, but in Iran it continues to play an important role.
Having served extensively during the Vietnam War as a fighter-bomber platform, the third-generation F-4 Phantom jet was loved around the world. Currently the F-4 has been retired in turn to make room for new generation fighters, but in Iran it continues to play an important role. Now even Iran has gone further when deploying anti-ship missiles of Chinese origin on this American fighter platform.
For over 40 years the F-4 Phantom has been the backbone of the Iranian Air Force, used to perform a number of roles for the defense of the Islamic Republic, ranging from air superiority to reconnaissance and in recent years even strike missions against terror groups in neighbouring Iraq. The Iranian Air Force currently operates 6 squadrons of F-4s, including a reconnaissance squadron with about 6-10 RF-4Es, and five combat squadrons, numbering about 62-66 F-4D and F-4E fighters, about 13 each.
In the 1960s and 1970s when the U.S. and Iran were on friendly terms, the U.S. delivered 225 F-4D, F-4E, and RF-4E Phantoms to Iran, making it the second largest export customer. The F-4’s greatest advantage was its speed—Mach 2.5+ in some circumstances, and it’s thrust. Although not terribly maneuverable, the F-4 could engage and disengage from fights virtually at will by accelerating away from the enemy. The airframe held a number of world records, including top speed, altitude, and climbing records.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force Phantoms saw heavy action in the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s and were kept operational by overhaul and servicing from Iran’s aerospace industry. Although aging, the F-4 is a heavier, faster and can operate from higher altitudes than rival platforms such as the United Arab Emirates’ F-16E Fighting Falcons and and United States Navy’s F-18E Super Hornets, and with extensive indigenous modernisation including the integration of modern sensors, electronic warfare systems, and armaments they can present a credible threat.
Although the F-4E, the most produced version of the Phantom family, was designed primarily for the air superiority mission; but Iran later had F-14 and MiG-29 fighters, and more modern ground air defense systems; allowing the IRIAF to put the F-4 on ground attack missions. In November 2020, Iran showcased its Qased 900kg electro-optic-guided smart bombs in its annual “Defenders of the Sky” drills. The regime’s ability to potentially strike targets with significantly greater precision poses a threat to the region.
Although the F-4 platform is aging, the fighter jets can successfully outperform counterparts across the region. Iran’s acquisition of 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, Iran’s Nasr anti-ship cruise missile is a variant of the People’s Liberation Army’s C-704. The Iranian Air Force has also manufactured its own native-grown medium-range cruise missiles to launch from the F-4.
Each Phantom can deploy multiple missiles, and can do so far from Iranian coasts due to the aircraft’s relatively high endurance, large numbers of Phantoms armed for a maritime strike role can pose a significant threat to enemy warships. The high performance of the missile’s compensate for the F-4’s performance shortcomings. The Qader medium range cruise missile, derived from the Chinese C-802, is capable of striking hostile targets up to 200 kilometres away. Able to engage enemy targets at standoff ranges, the survivability of the Phantoms as well as the size of Iran’s maritime anti access area denial zone are both significantly improved.
With dozens of Phantoms in service they are set to provide a highly effective complement to the country’s other maritime anti access area denial systems. Combined with its F-14 and MiG-29 fighter squadrons, Iran’s Phantom fleet remains the backbone of its Air Force. This platform should not be underestimated.