the f-4 phantom in israeli service

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (Kurnass)


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The American F-4s transferred to Israel under "Nickel Grass" quickly brought the depleted Phantom squadrons back to full strength, and under "Peace Echo V" a further 48 Phantoms were supplied to the IAF. The new aircraft allowed the formation of a fifth Phantom squadron and in July 1974 the 105th "Akrav" (Scorpion) squadron replaced its aging Sa'ars with the newly supplied F-4s.
Only a month after the end of the war, IAF Phantoms were once again flying against Egyptian MiGs. In a unique engagement which took place during late November 1973, Israeli Phantoms engaged MiG-21s flown by North Korean pilots which had arrived to assist Egypt. The four planes, two of them from the 107th "Orange Tail" squadron, managed to down a single MiG, while another MiG was brought down by an Egyptian SAM. Despite the formal end of the war, Syria would not tolerate Israel's continued control of Mount Hermon and waged a war of attrition against Israeli forces on the Golan. Exchanges of fire regularly took place across the border throughout late 1973 and early 1974. Only after an extensive bombing campaign during April and May, carried out by IAF Phantoms and Skyhawks, did the shelling of Israeli forces cease.
The years after the Yom-Kippur War saw a gradual shift of IAF attention from the Egyptian and Syrian fronts to Lebanon and Palestinian terrorists based there. After their expulsion from Jordan in 1970, the Palestinian organizations settled in Lebanon and made it their base for anti-Israeli operations around the world. IAF Phantoms were in the forefront of Israeli operations against Lebanon-based terrorists, striking at strongholds located throughout the war-torn country. By 1977 however, the new F-15 Eagles supplied to the IAF had replaced the Phantom as the IAF's premier interceptor and the type was seldom employed as a fighter, playing mainly an attack role. On March 14th 1978 Israel launched operation "Litany" in retaliation to a terrorist attack which killed 35 Israelis. The operation, an armoured incursion into southern Lebanon in order to cleanse the region from terrorists, begun with an IAF pounding of Palestinian strongholds. The Phantoms took an important part in these attacks, striking at Palestinian positions, armour, anti aircraft artillery and even seaports and other naval targets. More Phantom strikes took place during June,July and August 1979, as well as during August and December 1980. After Syrian MiGs attempted to intervene in a December 31st 1980 attack, a pair of MiG-21s were downed by the F-4s' F-15 Eagle escorts. 1981 saw a further increase in fighting between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon, resulting in an increase in Phantom strikes. On an April 26th strike one Phantom was damaged by ground fire but managed to return to its home base, while on May 28th two SA-9 batteries were destroyed near the city of Sidon. Large scale fighting broke out again in July and for a ten days the IAF conducted an intensive bombing campaign against Palestinian targets. This campaign ended with an American brokered informal ceasefire which lasted until June 1982.

F-4s stored at the IAF Museum, click to enlarge
F-4s stored at the IAF Museum

On June 3rd 1982 Palestinian terrorists shot and criticly wounded the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov. Israel retaliated on June 4th by sending 8 Phantoms from the "Orange Tail" squadron at Ramat David to attack Beirut's football stadium which had been used as a ammunitions and explosives dump by the Palestinian organizations. Soon fighting erupted along the Israeli-Lebanese border and on June 6th Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to destroy the entire terrorist infrastructure throughout southern Lebanon. Operation "Peace For Galilee" which had initially been planned as a two day, 40km incursion into Lebanon nonetheless evolved into a full scale war which took the IDF as far north as Beirut and which brought about heavy fighting with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon.
Although by now surpassed by both the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Phantoms nonetheless played a decisive role in operation "Peace for Galilee". The first three days of the operation saw Israeli forces pushing north into Lebanon, sweeping any Palestinian resistance aside. The IAF's chief concern during this period was the support of the land offensive, attacking ahead of the advancing ground forces, striking artillery positions, ammunition dumps, training camps and enemy armour. Among the many targets attacked by Phantoms during the first days of the war was Beaufort. A Crusader fortress controlled by the PLO and overlooking much of northern Israel, it had become a symbol of the terrorist threat.
The defeats suffered by the Palestinian forces and the continued advance of the IDF north towards areas under Syrian control forced Syria into the conflict. The first days of the operation saw only a limited attempt by the Syrian Air Force to intervene in IAF opeartions but by June 9th it became clear that the Syrians would have to be prevented from interfering with the anti-terrorist operations taking place. IAF freedom of action was hampered by the huge Syrian SAM array contructed in the Bekaa valley east of Beirut, and as more missiles were brought in and installed every day, the IAF soon decided to attack and disable this threat. During two hours on June 9th, IAF fighter bombers destroyed 14 of the 19 SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 batteries in the valley, disabling a further 3. Great success was also achieved in the skies above the valley, with dozens of Syrian MiGs downed by the F-15s and F-16s flying top cover for the attacking aircraft. The IAF did not lose even a single aircraft and one Phantom even crew received a citation for their conduct during the attack. After completing their mission, the crew sighted an SA-6 battery and despite having already dropped their bombload, destroyed it using the F-4's cannon. Nine years after their defeat by the Syrian SAMs on the Golan Heights, The IAF's Phantoms exacted their revenge on the SAMs during these two hours of June 9th 1982.
June 9th also saw the last IAF Phantom victory to this day. A pair of Phantoms on patrol with an Eagle pair encounted two Syrian MiG-21s and managed to down one (the other was shot down by an Eagle). Phantom strikes against Palestinian and Syrian targets continued a further two days until noon on June 11th when a ceasefire came into effect. The end of the war however, did not end the fighting between Israel and local guerillas and Israeli Phantoms have since continued to attack terrorist positions in Lebanon. On July 24th 1982, only a few weeks after the end of the war, the IAF lost a Phantom during an attack on SA-8 batteries in the Bekka Valley. The aircraft's weapons system officer was killed and the pilot was captured by the Syrians and later returned to Israel. Another Phantom was lost on October 18th 1986 after a malfunctioning bomb exploded upon release during an attack against terrorist positions near Sidon. The pilot was rescued by an AH-1 Cobra gunship, hanging on to the helicopter's landing skid, but the WSO Ron Arad was captured and has been held in captivity ever since.

In 1980, with no apparent replacement in sight, the IAF begun looking into ways to upgrade its Phantoms and extend their service life. While the IAF was launching its Kurnass 2000 program, Israel Aircraft Industries offered the IAF an upgrade program of its own design, the Super Phantom. The ambitious Super Phantom would have had its J79 engines replaced by PW1120 turbofans, as well new canard planes and a new avionics suite. On July 30th 1986 Phantom no. 334 took to the air with its right engine replaced by a PW1120 and on April 24th 1987 the same aircraft took off with both engines replaced. Budget constraints however, forced the IAF to adopt the more modest Kurnass 2000. Phantoms refitted to Kurnass 2000 standard underwent many changes and had their wiring, fuel tanks and hydraulic systems replaced. The Norden APG-76 Synthetic Aperature radar replaced the former APQ-120 radar and a Kairser wide-angle head up display was added as well. The aircraft's avionic suite was also greatly updated with a new mission computer, multifunction displays, new communications gear and more. Modifications to the two Phantoms allocated to the program were carried out at the IAF's Central Maintenance Unit. The first Kurnass 2000 prototype took off on July 15th 1987 and the IAF begun extensive testing of the aircraft on August 11th. On April 9th 1989 the 201st "The One" squadron received the first production Kurnass 2000, the serial upgrading of the IAF's Phantom fleet having taken place at Israel Aircraft Industries' facility at Ben Gurion Airport. February 1991 saw the first operational sortie of the Kurnass 2000, striking terrorist positions in Lebanon. The type which now equips a number of squadrons has since regularly participated in IAF strikes on Lebanon, most notably operation "Accountability" in July 1993 and operation "Grapes of Wrath" in April 1996.
Israel has been the Phantom's largest operator outside the U.S. and after more than 30 years of service, the Kurnass 2000 upgrade promises to keep Israeli Phantoms flying well into the third millenium. In more than 30 years of service, IAF Phantoms have been credited with 116.5 aerial kills.

super phantom at the IAF museum, click to enlarge
Super Phantom at the IAF Museum

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