The largest user of the Phantom was the United States Air Force.
The first production version of the Phantom for the USAF was the F-4C (initially known as the F-110A). However, the first Phantoms to be used by the USAF were actually 27 US Navy F-4Bs that were temporarily loaned to the USAF in November of 1963. These were primarily used for training. They were soon followed by production F-4Cs. The 12th TFW was the first operational user of the F-4C, receiving its first machines in January of 1964, replacing the unit's F-84F Thunderstreaks. The 12th TFW achieved initial operational capability in October of 1964. As the pace of F-4C deliveries quickened, the borrowed F-4Bs were returned to the Navy.
It was to be in the Vietnam War that the Phantom was to gain its reputation. On March 2, 1965, the bombing of North Vietnam began under the code name Operation Rolling Thunder. The F-4C was first deployed to Southeast Asia in April of 1965 when the 15th TFW deployed its 45th Tactical Fighter Squadron to Ubon, Thailand. This squadron was temporarily assigned to the 2nd Air Division. On July 10, 1965, two F-4C crews scored the USAF's first kills of the Vietnam War when they destroyed two MiG-17s over North Vietnam with Sidewinder missiles. The 45th TFS was returned to the 15th TFW in August of 1965, and the first Phantom squadrons sent to Southeast Asia on a permanent basis were the 557th, 558th, and 559th TFSs of the 12th TFW, which arrived at Cam Rahn Bay on November 8, 1965. In time, the F-4C took over the bulk of the heavy fighting over both North and South Vietnam.
On a typical mission over the North, an F-4C would carry four Sparrows, four Sidewinders, and a load of eight 750-pound bombs. At first, the bombs were dropped from medium or high-altitudes, but as SAMs became more dangerous, a shift was made to lower altitudes. Unfortunately, this technique also exposed the aircraft to small-arms fire from the ground.
For air-to-air combat, the F-4C relied on Sparrow semi-active radar homing or Sidewinder infrared-homing missiles. The AIM-7D/E Sparrow was carried in the ventral trays. In principle, the Sparrow gave the Phantom a beyond visual range capability at distances of up to 28 miles. However, such launches were very rarely permitted under the terms of the rather restrictive rules of engagement in Vietnam, lest a friendly plane be hit by mistake. When used at closer ranges, the Sparrow turned out to be virtually useless against fighter-sized targets, especially at low altitudes. The AIM-9B/D Sidewinder was usually the weapon of choice. The AIM-9D had a range of up to 12 miles, but it was generally effective only in close stern engagements in good weather and at high altitudes. In bad weather or at low altitudes, the results were less impressive, the Sidewinder often losing its lock on its target due to interference from rain or from clouds or having a tendency to lock onto the Sun or onto reflections in lakes or ponds. Ultimately, the Sidewinder scored more aerial victories in the Vietnam War than any other weapon.
On July 24, 1965, F-4C 63-7599 of the 47th Tactical Fighter Squadron was downed by a surface to air missile, becoming the first American warplane to be downed by a SAM. SAMs actually claimed only 5.7 percent of all US aircraft shot down in the Vietnam war, but they forced American aircraft down to lower altitudes where ground-based AAA and even small arms fire were much more lethal.
In the first two years of combat in Vietnam, the casualties among the first F-4C squadrons had reached almost 40 percent, for a total of 54 aircraft. Most were lost to AAA, but a few were lost in stall/spin accidents at low altitude. During close-in dogfights, when pulling high-gs or when at steep angles of attack, it was very easy to lose control of an F-4C, especially if it was carrying a centerline store. Recovery from a spin at an altitude below 10,000 feet was essentially impossible, and the only option for survival was generally for the crew to eject.
The F-4C lacked the guns of a complete fighter system, which was found to be a serious deficiency in close-in air-to-air combat. The addition of a SUU-16A gun pod on the underfuselage centerline compensated for the lack of a gun, but it seriously degraded overall performance and in addition made the aircraft somewhat unstable and difficult to recover from a spin.
Early F-4Cs had problems with leaking wing fuel tanks, these problems being so serious that the tanks had to be carefully resealed after each flight. The radar had a tendency to malfunction far too easily, the humid air of Southeast Asia being a persistent problem. Early F-4Cs also had problems with cracked ribs and stringers on the outer wing panels. Later F-4Cs were equipped with a heavier stringer and an additional wing rib. These modifications were retrofitted to earlier F-4Cs.
During the Vietnam War, F-4C crews claimed the destruction of 22 MiGs with Sidewinders, 14 with Sparrows, four with gunfire, and two by causing the MiGs to crash while maneuvering.
The RF-4C was the unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the USAF's F-4C. The armament and radar of the fighter version was removed and replaced with equipment specialized for photographic reconnaissance. The first production RF-4Cs went in September 1964 to the 33rd TRTS, a training unit based at Shaw AFB in South Carolina. The first operational unit to receive the RF-4C was the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron of the 363rd TRW at Shaw AFB, achieving initial combat-readiness in August of 1965.
As part of the 460th TRW, the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron from Shaw AFB, North Carolina was deployed to Tan Sun Nhut in South Vietnam in October of 1965. It became part of the 460th TRW. The second RF-4C squadron in action in Southeast Asia was the 15th TRS, which entered combat in February of 1967. The RF-4C flew day missions over South Vietnam and Laos until 1972. The aircraft posted an impressive record during the most intense years of the war. Heavy ground fire resulted in numerous losses, but considering the total number of missions flown, the loss rate was relatively low.
The F-4D was an improved version of the F-4C. The F-4D was ordered in March of 1964, and the first example flew on December 7, 1965. Deliveries began in March of 1966. The first deliveries were to the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Bitburg in Germany. It was later followed by the 4th TFW based at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina in January of 1967. The F-4D appeared in Southeast Asia for the first time in May of 1967, with the 555th TFS. From the spring of 1967, the F-4D gradually began to replace the earlier F-4C in combat in Vietnam. It initially appeared over Vietnam with the 8th TFW, commanded by Lt.Col. Robin Olds. The first F-4D MiG "kill" took place on June 5, 1967, when crewmen Maj. Everett T. Raspberry and Capt. Francis Gullick shot down a MiG-17 near Hanoi. The F-4D eventually destroyed 45 enemy aircraft, and the USAF's 3 Vietnam-era aces got their fifth kills in F-4Ds during the Linebacker campaign of 1972. Captain Steve Ritchie of the 432nd TFW got his fifth kill in F-4D number 66-0167 on August 18, 1972.
The F-4D deleted the Sidewinder capability on the inboard underwing pylon in favor of the Hughes AIM-4D Falcon infrared-homing missile. The infrared Falcon proved relatively unsuccessful in air-to-air combat in Vietnam, shooting down only four MiG-17s and one MiG-21 between October 26, 1967 and February 5, 1968. Combat pilots were very uncomplimentary about the Falcon, and the Sidewinder capability on the inboard underwing pylons was hastily restored. However, in fairness to the Falcon, virtually ALL air-to-air missiles proved to be troublesome in Vietnam and less deadly to enemy aircraft than anticipated.
The F-4D also tried out several new laser weapons systems.
The Westinghouse AN/ASQ-152(V)-2 Pave Spike laser target designator pod was fitted to several F-4Ds. The cylindrical *Pave Spike* laser designator pod was mounted inside one of the Sparrow missile wells on the fuselage underside. The system used television optics, which made it daylight-capable only. The Pave Spike aircraft had the capability of launching the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile.
The AN/AVQ-10 Pave Knife laser target designator could be carried on the inboard underwing pylon of specially modified F-4Ds. This pod had a stabilized head housing a boresighted TV camera and laser designator. It had a low-light television system, which made nighttime missions theoretically possible, although it is not certain that this was ever done. Attempts were made to slave the pod's optics to the aircraft radar, but these were not successful. The system operated by having the pod look in the same direction as the pilot's bomb sight, with the weapons system officer then finding the target as the pilot pointed his aircraft at it. Combat missions with the Pave Knife began on May 23, 1968, initially in conjunction with the GBU-10/B laser guided bomb. All Pave Knife aircraft were assigned to the 433rd TFS of the 8th TFW. Perhaps the most spectacular use of the Pave Knife was the dropping of a span of the Paul Doumer Bridge near Hanoi on May 10, 1972. This bridge had survived hundreds of previous attacks.
Two F-4Ds were fitted with the AVQ-11 Pave Sword precision attack sensor. This consisted of a modified AIM-9 Sidewinder seeker head as a laser spot tracker for targets designated by AVQ-12 Pave Spot laser designators carried by O-2As. The system was mounted inside a modified SUU-11 gunpod that was suspended from the right-forward Sparrow well or from the right inboard underwing pylon.
A single F-4D received the Pave Fire system mounted in a centerline pod. This system was supposed to use low-light level television and laser ranging equipment to perform dive-toss bombing missions at night. In such a mission, the attacking aircraft was supposed to dive on the target from a medium altitude, acquire and designate the target, then pull up before releasing its "dumb" bombs. However, the designation of the target was found to be more tricky than expected, and the Pave Fire system was never very successful, and only one Phantom was so modified.
A AVQ-9 Pave Light laser designator could be mounted on the left side of the rear canopy frame of the F-4D. In order to use the system, the pilot had to fly in a left turn around the target and shine the laser while other aircraft attacked it. If an emergency escape proved to be necessary, the WSO first had to dismount and store the designator before he could safely eject.
AN/ARN-92 LORAN-D equipment was fitted to Pave Phantom F-4Ds. They could be identified by a rather prominent "towel-rail" antenna on the upper rear fuselage behind the rear cockpit. A total of 72 aircraft from blocks 32 and 33 were so equipped. In Vietnam, the primary mission of these Pave Phantom F-4Ds was the seeding of the Ho Chi Minh trail with sensors, which required the precise nighttime navigational capability provided by LORAN.
The Combat Tree modification of 1968-69 permitted the retention of a full missile load while carrying electronic countermeasures gear. It did this by adding an attachment point for a countermeasures pod on the inboard pylon, which could now carry two more AIM-9J Sidewinder missiles on each side.
Under the Pave Arrow program, two F-4Ds were equipped with a Sidewinder infrared seeker mounted in a fixed pod for locating heat sources from ground targets.
The designation EF-4D was given to four F-4Ds modified for the Wild Weasel IV/V SAM suppression role. Two of them were fitted with the AN/APS-107 radar homing and warning system and a target acquisition system for AGM-78 Standard anti-radiation missiles. The other two served as test beds for the AN/APS-38 warning and attack system developed by McDonnell Douglas and later adopted for the F-4G.
The EF-4C was the initial Wild Weasel version of the Phantom. It was a modified version of the F-4C, designed in parallel with the F-105 Wild Weasel III program. This aircraft, like the modified F-100F and F-105F, was intended to detect and attack enemy surface to air missile sites. However, the entrance of the EF-4C into combat in Vietnam was delayed by numerous problems. Among these were insufficient internal space to house the electronic equipment, electronic interference between the various components of the system, and mechanical vibrations of the panoramic receiver pod that was mounted in the starboard rear Sparrow recess. It was not until 1969 that these problems were fully resolved.
The first EF-4Cs entered service in June of 1968 with the 66th Fighter Weapons Squadron, an operational conversion and tactic development unit based at Nellis AFB in Nevada. Overseas deployment of the EF-4C Wild Weasel IV began with the 67th TFS, based at Kadena AFB on Okinawa. It was soon followed by the 52nd TFW's 81st TFS based at Spangdahlem in Germany. The 67th TFS relocated to Thailand where it used its EF-4Cs during the Linebacker raids of 1972-73. The EF-4Cs suffered from certain deficiencies which limited their combat effectiveness. For example, they were unable to carry the Standard ARM. Consequently, the EF-4C was seen only as an interim Wild Weasel aircraft, pending the introduction of a more suitable type.
In an attempt to obtain a peaceful settlement to the Southeast Asia war, on October 1, 1968, the bombing of North Vietnam was halted and the Rolling Thunder campaign came to an end. Except for a few temporary exceptions (the so-called "Type III limited-duration, protective-reaction strikes"), the aerial campaign against the North was put on hold.
During the bombing halt, the new cannon-armed F-4E was introduced to the Southeast Asia theatre. The cannon-armed F-4E was first assigned to the Southeast Asia theatre in November of 1968 when the 469th TFS/388th TFW at Korat RTAFB in Thailand converted from F-105Ds. The all-missile F-4C and F-4D had shown some serious drawbacks in the initial air-to-air battles over Vietnam. The earlier Sparrow, Falcon, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles did not perform up to expectations. They were expensive, unreliable, and vulnerable to countermeasures. Many an enemy MiG was able to escape unscathed because a Phantom-launched missile malfunctioned and missed its target. The Phantoms could carry a podded cannon mounted on the centerline, but it was relatively inaccurate, caused excessive drag which reduced the performance of the Phantom carrying it, and took up a valuable ordinance/fuel station.
The internal cannon of the F-4E was initially quite troublesome, with the ingestion of gun gases into the engine intakes causing frequent engine flameouts. It took a couple of years of experiments before the internal cannon became fully safe and reliable. Later production blocks of the F-4E had automatic wing leading-edge slats which markedly enhanced the maneuverability.
The AVQ-23A/B Pave Spike laser target designator and rangefinder system was fitted to several later F-4Es and was retrofitted to some earlier F-4Es. Also retrofitted was the AN/AVQ-26 Pave Tack infrared/laser target designator and the AN/ASX-1 electro-optical target identification system. 180 F-4Es were retrofitted with the Lear Siegler AN/ARN-101(V) system starting in the autumn of 1977.
The AVQ-26 Pave Tack pod was the first laser designation system designed to provide the capability of autonomous delivery of laser guided bombs at night. It was originally planned to equip 180 F-4Es with this system, but because of delays and development problems the actual number equipped was substantially lower. The pod was too large to be fully compatible with the F-4E, and it had to be carried on the centerline station, replacing the 600-gallon external fuel tank and taking up valuable bomb-carriage space.
The F-4E was credited with 21 MiG kills during the war. 10 were brought down by Sparrows, five with gunfire, four with Sidewinders, one with a combination of Sidewinder and gunfire, and one while maneuvering (no weapons being fired). However, most combat missions flown by the F-4E were ground-attack missions
On the night of March 29/30, 1972, twelve North Vietnamese divisions supported by armor invaded South Vietnam. On April 2, President Nixon ordered that limited bombing of North Vietnam be resumed under Operation Freedom Train. Six more F-4E squadrons were deployed from Elgin and Homestead AFB in Florida to air bases in Vietnam and Thailand in 1972 in response to the North Vietnamese invasion. In addition, F-4Ds from Holloman AFB in New Mexico were deployed to Takhli, Thailand.
On May 8, 1972, President Nixon announced that Haiphong Harbor was being mined and that most bombing restrictions against North Vietnam would be removed. The Freedom Train limited bombing campaign was replaced by Operation Linebacker, an all-out campaign to halt the invasion and bring North Vietnam to the conference table. Far fewer restrictions were in place than those imposed during Rolling Thunder
The Linebacker raids culminated in the "Christmas" B-52 raids on Hanoi during late December of 1972. A truce agreement was finally signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, ending American involvement in the Southeast Asia conflict. The last USAF victory in the Southeast Asia theatre was on January 8, 1973, when Capt. P. D. Howman and 1st Lt. L. K. Kullmann of the 4th TFS destroyed a MiG-21.
There were three USAF crew members who became aces during the Vietnam war. The first USAF ace of the Vietnam War was Captain Richard S. "Steve" Ritchie, who got his fifth kill (a MiG-21) while flying F-4D 66-7463 on August 28, 1972. The other two aces were both WSOs. Capt. Jeffery S. Feinstein flew with four different pilots to get five victories. The top ace of the war was Captain Charles B. DeBellevue, a WSO who got six kills while flying with Capts. Ritchie and Madden. He got his fifth and sixth kills on September 9, 1972.
The Phantom served with a total of 16 USAF Tactical Fighter Squadrons in the Southeast Asia theatre of operations. 5 of these flew only F-4Cs,six were first equipped with F-4Cs then converted to F-4Cs, three were exclusively equipped with F-4Ds, four had F-4Es only.
During the Southeast Asia conflict, a total of 442 USAF F-4s (plus 83 RF-4Cs) were lost. 33 of these were shot down by MiGs, 30 were lost to SAMs, and 307 were lost to AAA and small arms fire. Nine were destroyed on the ground during enemy mortar and sapper attacks, and 63 were lost in various accidents.
A total of 107.5 MiGs were claimed by Phantom crews during the Southeast Asia war, which was about a 3:1 overall superiority in air-to-air combat. However, combat results were initially not nearly so favorable. As late as December of 1966, the victory:loss ratio was only about 1:1--much, much poorer than that which was achieved in Korea. The Air Force did what later came to be known as a "root cause analysis" to determine the reason for the disappointing air combat results. Part of the problem was that the Sparrow, Falcon, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles were not nearly as effective against enemy MiGs as had been hoped. However, the primary cause was traced to inadequate training. Most American pilots serving in Vietnam were relatively inexperienced in air-to-air combat, having never fired their weapons even in training before going over the North for the first time. Statistical analysis showed that a pilot was most likely to be shot down during his first few missions. If he managed to survive these, he was likely to be able to survive the remainder. In order to correct this deficiency, both the USAF and the US Navy created "agressor" training squadrons which would simulate air-to-air action so that a new pilot would make his first mistakes during training rather than in actual combat. This training paid off during the Linebacker operation of 1972, during which a 6:1 superiority over the MiGs was achieved.
Following the end of the conflict in Vietnam, the USAF Phantoms began to be replaced by later equipment, and Phantoms were passed along to Air Force Reserve units or to the Air National Guard. The F-4E began be supplanted by the newer F-15 starting in 1975 and by the F-16 starting in 1979. With the USAF in Europe, the last F-4Es were with the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem in Germany which re-equipped with F-16s in 1978. The last two F-4E squadrons in the Pacific theatre were converted to F-16C/Ds in 1989. The TAC kept its F-4Es a bit longer, not relinquishing its machines until the early 1990s.
The 334th TFS/4th TFW based at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina was the last active duty USAF unit to give up its Phantom fighters, trading in its F-4Es for F-15E Strike Eagles on December 28, 1990.
The Air Force Reserve did not get its first Phantoms until October of 1978, when the 915th Airborne Early Warning and Control Group at Homestead AFB in Florida was redesignated the 915th Tactical Fighter Group and F-4Cs were assigned to its 93rd TFS. F-4Ds were given to four other reserve squadrons. In 1984, the 93rd TFS traded in its F-4Cs for F-4Ds. The 456th TFS at Carswell AFB in Texas began to receive F-4Es in 1988. Shortly thereafter, Air Force reserve squadrons began to replace their Phantoms with F-16A/Bs. The last USAF reserve squadrons traded in their Phantoms in 1991.
The last version of the Phantom to enter service with the USAF was the F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft, which did not enter service until well after the Vietnam War was over. F-4G was the designation applied to 116 USAF F-4Es which were converted to the Wild Weasel anti-SAM configuration. The first F-4Gs went in April of 1978 to the 35th TFW based at George AFB in California.
At the time of Desert Storm, the F-4G was still the only Wild Weasel aircraft available to the USAF. The F-4Gs of the 35th TFW played an important part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when they cut a path through Iraqi air defenses during the initial attack on January 17. During the war, only one F-4G was lost. It was 69-7571, which crashed on January 18, 1991. It was not actually lost as the result of any enemy action, but because it simply ran out of gas. Coming back from a target it missed the orbit of the tanker it was to refuel from. There was not enough fuel to fly past the tanker and then circle back to line up for refuelling, so the pilot decided to land at Al Kharj Airbase, Saudi Arabia. As luck would have it, heavy earth moving equipment had accidentally cut the runway landing lights and the base was covered in fog. The F-4G was right over the runway, made several passes but couldn't see it. So, the crew members ejected and 7571 bellied in.
The RF-4C was also still in service at the time of Desert Storm. In response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 106th TRS of the 117th TRW of the Alabama ANG was deployed to Sheika Isa in Bahrain. This unit was relieved by the 192nd TRS of the Nevada ANG. Later, this unit was joined by RF-4Cs from the USAF's 12th TRS/67th TRW and the 28th TRS/26th TRW. Many of these planes were veterans of combat in Vietnam. When the first strikes against Iraq took place on January 17, 1991, the RF-4Cs were in action from the start. At first, they were limited to daylight operations, flying over Kuwait almost every day in search of Republican Guard units. They flew over Baghdad looking for such targets as rocket fuel plants, chemical weapons plants, and command and communications centers. The RF-4Cs were repeated diverted from other photographic missions to go and look for Scud launchers hiding in western Iraq. None were lost in action, although one (61-1044) was lost in a pre-war accident.
Following the end of Desert Storm, all of the remaining RF-4Cs were withdrawn from USAF service. However, several RF-4C remained in service with the Air National Guard. The 192nd RS of the Nevada ANG finally turned in its last four RF-4Cs on September 27, 1995, their planes being flown to Davis-Monthan AFB for storage. This brought the era of RF-4C service with United States armed forces to an end.
The F-4G was the last version of the Phantom to remain in front-line service with the USAF. Following Desert Storm and the general defense drawdown after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, many USAF F-4Gs were turned over to the Air National Guard. On April 12, 1991, the Department of Defense announced that the F-4Gs would all be reassigned to ANG units. The 90th FS at Clark AB in the Philippines was scheduled to convert from F-4E/Gs to F-15Es and move to Alaska. The 35th FW at George AFB in California was to be inactivated, and the 52nd FW at Spangdahlem AB in Germany was to lose all of its F-4Gs. The F-4Gs were to be transferred to the Idaho and Kentucky ANG.
The 190th TRS of the Idaho ANG began its conversion from the RF-4C to the F-4G in June of 1991. Another RF-4C ANG unit, the 192nd TRS of the Nevada ANG, had been scheduled to convert to the F-4G (and had even painted F-4G 69-7580 in its distinctive "High Rollers" insignia), but the Defense Department changed its mind in April of 1991, and the Idaho ANG was the only ANG unit to operate the F-4G.
Combat experience during Desert Storm indicated that the phaseout of the F-4G was premature, and a new active duty squadron, the 561st FS of the 57th FW, was activated at Nellis AFB. The parent unit of the 561st was redesignated 57th Wing in April 1993. The 52nd FW at Spangdahlem in Germany continued throughout 1993 to deploy to Incirlik in Turkey in support of the enforcement of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. These F-4Gs returned to Germany at the end of 1993. The 81st TFS, 52nd TFW returned their last F-4Gs to the USA on March 18, 1994. These planes were the last US-operated Phantoms to be based in Europe.
However, the need to provide Wild Weasels to support Operation Southern Watch in Saudi Arabia and Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey resulted in the 52nd FW retaining a few F-4Gs until February 1994 and in the assignment of F-4Gs to the re-activated 561st FS at Nellis AFB in Nevada instead of to the 192nd FS of the Nevada ANG.
Coalition forces enforce the no-fly zone from bases in Saudi Arabia. Wild Weasel support was initially supplied by the F-4Gs of the 52nd FW. In April 1993, the Idaho ANG took over this responsibility and was assigned to active duty in Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch, the enforcement of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. One of the ANG F-4Gs had to fire an AGM-88 HARM missile in response to a threatening Iraqi radar site near Basra. The Idaho ANG F-4Gs were later transferred to Incirlik AB in Turkey to support Operation Provide Comfort II. Overall, there were a total of four deployments to the Gulf. The last such deployment returned to the USA in December of 1995.
The F-4G was replaced by the F-16 in its Wild Weasel role. The last active USAF F-4G squadron, the 561st Fighter Squadron, was inactivated at Nellis AFB and its planes placed in storage. On April 20, 1996, the last F-4Gs were withdrwawn by the 124th FW of the Idaho ANG and were consigned to the boneyards at Davis Monthan AFB. This marked the final departure of the Phantom from active service. The only Phantoms now remaining with the USAF are drones.