Fourteen RF-4EJs were delivered to the JASDF from November 1974. The aircraft were similar to the RF-4C, but had an indigenous radar warning receiver, whilst other equipment not available for export to Japan was also replaced with indigenous designs. The RF-4EJ entered service with 501 Hikotai at Hyakuri in the reconnaissance role and were later supplemented by an additional 15 F-4EJs that were converted to RF-4E standard in 1991.
During its service life the RF-4 carried a variety of camera equipment ranging from high-altitude cameras such as the KA-55A, KA-87 and KS-91; and low-altitude equipment such as the KA-1 still picture camera, the KA-56 panoramic camera, and the KS-72 reconnaissance camera. As with the F-4EJ, the RF-4 version went through the Kai program, with 12 of the original aircraft and eight of the converted F-4EJs undergoing upgrade. Included within the upgrade was replacement of the AN/APQ-99 radar with the more advanced and improved AN/APQ-172; a new INS system; an IFR reconnaissance system; digital cockpit displays and a VHF radio.
Some six years after entering service, an incident occurred over Hokkaido that would have a major impact on the F-4EJ fleet, as its lack of a look-down radar showed up a major flaw in its capability as an interceptor. The 6 September 1977 started like any other normal day, but shortly after 1pm, Okushiri radar picked up an unknown contact approaching Hokkaido, 180kms west at an altitude of 20,000ft and a speed of 850 km/h. Ignoring warnings from the Okushiri controller, the ‘bogey’ continued on unabated, and was now within 20kms of the Japanese coastline.
Mitsubishi licence produced the F-4EJ for the JASDF, building a total of 138 Phantoms between 1971 and 1981. They differed in many ways to the F-4E flown by the US Air Force - they were powered by a pair of licence produced Ishikawajima-Harima J79-IHI-17A afterburning turbojets and also lacked leading edge slats, as it was deemed that the improvement in acceleration outweighed the loss of maneuverability for the F-4EJ's role with the JASDF. The aircraft also lacked an air-to-air refuelling capability, as well as the AN/ASQ-9A nuclear weapons controller, AN/ASQ-91 bombing computer, and AN/ARW-77 Bullpup missile guidance system, which left the F-4EJ greatly limited in its air-to-ground capabilities compared to the USAF F-4E.
Having spent its whole JASDF service career with 501 Hikotai at Hyakuri, the RF-4EJ was finally retired after 45 years on 9 March 2020. To celebrate the occasion, a four-ship flight of RF-4EJs performed a ceremonial flypast over the air base, including aircraft #47-6901, the first RF-4EJ built for Japan and the first to be handed over.
© JASDF, Hyakuri
The JASDF ordered the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II in 1968, eventually taking delivery of 140 F-4EJ and 14 RF-4EJ, the majority of which were built under licence by the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation. Six Hikotai (Squadron) were equipped with the F-4EJ, these being 301 Hikotai at Nyutabaru, 302 at Naha, 303 and 306 at Komatsu, 304 Hikotai at Tsuiki, and 305 at Hyakuri. The sole squadron equipped with the RF-4EJ reconnaissance version was 501 Hikotai at Hyakuri. A small number of F-4s were also operated by the Hiko Kaihatsu Jikkendan (Air Development and Test Wing – ADTW) at Gifu air base, which should continue to fly the type until the end of March 2021.
Two F-4EJ's of 302 Hikotai on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duties at Chitose air base, were scrambled to intercept the intruder. The Phantoms were vectored towards the intruder, however the target then descended and only five minutes into the scramble, both the Phantoms and radar stations monitoring the situation lost the bogey on their radar screens.
November 2020 saw the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) withdraw the last of its frontline F-4 Phantom IIs. Having given almost 50 years of service, and with Hyakuri air base being a Mecca for Phantom fans around the world, we couldn't let the event go by without a quick look back at the 'Spooks' service in the Far East.
501 Hikotai 'Recce Birds'
The last squadron flying the Phantom, the 301 Hikotai ‘Samurai’ prepared two specially painted aircraft for the F-4EJ farewell. One aircraft (#37-8315) displayed yellow and black bands on the upper fuselage, wings and external fuel tanks, a shark’s mouth and ‘Go for it!! 301sq’ on the air intakes, along with the Japanese Common Toad from the unit’s insignia on the vertical fin.
After studying several potential replacements for the Phantom, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II was finally selected in 2011, which saw 302 Hikotai become the first JASDF F-35A Squadron at Misawa Air Base, converting from the F-4EJ Kai on 29 March 2019. Disbandment of 501 Hikotai in March 2020 saw 301 Hikotai become the sole remaining operator of the F-4, left to soldier on until 2021 when transition to the F-35A was scheduled. However, on 20 November 2020, the JASDF announced the early retirement of their remaining F-4EJs, concluding the Phantom's 48-year career in the JASDF Air Defence Command.
A small number of F-4EJs were also operated by the Hiko Kaihatsu Jikkendan (Air Development and Test Wing – ADTW) at Gifu air base, which should continue to fly the type until the end of March 2021. One of their aircraft is captured (photo, right) on approach to Gifu in a 'clean' configuration - meaning that the aircraft is not carrying any weapons or droptanks. The ADTW unit badge is clearly seen on the Phantom's vertical stabiliser.
Phantoms Phorever !
© JASDF - Hyakuri
An F-4EJ Kai from 302 Hikotai, armed with 2 x AAM-3 missiles, heads out to the runway at Hyakuri on a QRA sortie
The 15 F-4Es that were converted to RF-4E standard carried no internal cameras as on the RF-4EJ, but instead were equipped with a TACER (electronic reconnaissance pod with datalink), TAC (pod with KS-135A and KS-95B cameras), D-500UR IR detection system, and the LOROP (Long-Range Oblique Photography) pod, with a KS-146B camera. The RF-4Es also retained the 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon in the nose, which along with a different colour camouflage scheme made them easily identifiable from the RF-4EJs. One of the RF-4Es is captured during a sortie over Japan (photo, left).
The F-4EJ entered service with the JASDF from 1971 onwards. McDonnell Douglas (McDD) built the first two aircraft, with the next 11 being assembled in Japan from kits supplied by McDD, Mitsubishi constructing the remainder over the next nine years, with production ending on 20 May 1981. Due to Japanese military limitations prohibiting air-to-ground ordnance, the F-4EJs were delivered without the AN/AJB-7 bombing computer system and also did not have a probe or receptacle to enable air-to-air refuelling.
The second aircraft (#07-8436) had blue, cyan, white and black bands on the upper fuselage, wings and external fuel tanks, a shark’s mouth, ‘Phantom Forever’ on the air intakes and ‘Thank you Phantom II’ on the upper surface of the wings, along with the Phantom ‘Spook’ on the vertical stabiliser.
At approximately 1.35 pm a brief radar return showed the target east of Okushiri island, however it quickly disappeared again, and at 1.49 pm Hakodate Airport, the unidentified aircraft circled the airport twice before landing, overshooting the runway by 800 feet. It was only then that all became clear – a Soviet MiG.25P Foxbat flown by Lieutenant Belenko, a pilot with the 513th Fighter Regiment, 11th Air Army, based in Chuguyevka, Primorsky Krai, had defected to Japan, and the JASDF had failed to intercept the intruder - a sobering wake-up call indeed.
The MiG.25 incident led to the JASDF acquiring Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, and deciding that the Phantoms would need need to undergo a modernisation program, with the JASDF also selecting the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle to supplement the F-4EJs. Thus the F-4EJ Kai program was born, which involved an upgraded AN/APG-66J Doppler-Pulse radar -giving it a
301 Hikotai was one of the original squadrons equipped with the F-4EJ at Nyutabaru, and was also the last Hikotai to operate the type until its withdrawal. One of its F-4EJ Kai aircraft is captured (photo, left) as it departs for a sortie. The unit's 'Frog' emblem can clearly be seen on the aircraft's vertical fin.
lookdown/shootdown capability; AN/ASN-141 inertial navigation system; Kaiser head-up display; HOTAS; as well as the J/APR-6 radar warning receiver; AN/APX-76A IFF; and an AN/ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser. The aircraft also had its J/AYK-1 central computer reinstated, enabling it to dispense the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), thus giving it an air-to-ground capability and the ability to carry an AN/ALQ-131 ECM pod. The F-4EJ Kai first flew on 17 July 1984 and entered service on 24 November 1989 with 306 Hikotai, later equipping 301 and 302 Hikotai. In total, 96 F-4EJs were upgraded to Kai standard.
'The Last Samurai'
The F-4EJ Kai is born