The clock is ticking on Japan’s F-4 Phantom fighters as the country prepares to draw down use of the Cold War-era jet that has been in service for almost half a century.
The disbandment of the 302 Hikotai on of the last three squadrons operating the F-4 Phantom is a fact now. On 2 December 2018, Hyakuri Airbase hosted an air show and celebrated the final day of this famous squadron operating the F-4 Phantom. Two of the unit’s F-4 Phantom painted in commemorative markings took center stage on the show.
After this show Japanese F-4 Phantom numbers will start declining rapidly with only the 301 Hikotai with F-4EJs and reconnaissance 501 Hikotai with a variety of RF-4E and RF4EJ remaining. The last flight of a Japanese Phantom is at the moment planned in the end of 2020, ending what will then be Japan’s almost 50-year association with the type.
302 Hikotai will not be disbanded as a unit; instead it will move to Misawa AB and take over the F-35A Lightning II from Rinji F-35A Lightning II Hikotai as the first operational F-35A Lightning II unit. The 301 Hikotai will follow a year later in its transition to the F-35A Lightning II and 501 Hikotai will be transformed into a fighter unit in FY2020.
In addition to the large crowd of locals who attended, the Hyakuri Air Festival also drew aviation enthusiasts from around the world, with groups from Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom among the various nationalities present at the show.
The Phantom had been a key component of many U.S.-aligned air forces for almost 60 years. With most air forces having retired their F-4 Phantom in recent years. Off the last operator Japan remains one of the most accessible places to see the Phantom still in service. In the countries of the three other operators South Korea, Turkey and Iran this is no really an option.
Mitsubishi built 138 of Japan’s 140 F-4EJ Phantom’s under licence from aerospace company McDonnell Douglas between 1971 and 1981. They were mostly similar to the F-4E Phantom used by the United States at that time, although the Japanese aircraft had their in-flight refuelling and ground-attack capabilities removed to align with Japan’s defensive policy. The F-4J Phantom equipped seven Hikotai in the JSDAF starting with 301 Hikotai at Hyakuri with the first aircrafts arriving in 1972.
An upgrade program in the 1980s saw the reintroduction of ground-attack capabilities in the form of anti-ship missiles, bombs and rockets. Improved, lightweight radar was also fitted along with an improved avionics suite. Less than a hundred F-4 Phantoms were upgraded, and were known as F-4EJ Kai (Improved) in JASDF service.
Japan also acquired fourteen RF-4E Phantom’s built by McDonnell Douglas to serve in a reconnaissance role. These, together with seventeen F-4EJs modified to the RF-4EJ standard, capable of carrying a variety of external reconnaissance pods, all operated by 501 Hikotai at Hyakuri.
Japan is introducing a fleet of forty-two F-35A Lightning II to replace the F-4 Phantom, with pilots training on the fifth-generation fighter at Misawa Air Base. Next to the first badge of F-35A Lightning II Japan is planning for a procurement of another hundred F-35 Lightning II in both the A and B variant as a counter measure for the still growing Chinese military presence.