Japan’s Recon Phantoms Bow Out

 - March 18, 2020, 1:33 PM
The original camera-nosed RF-4E (foreground) was joined in JASDF service with 501 Hiko-tai by the RF-4EJ (background), a fighter adapted to carry podded reconnaissance sensors. (Photo: JASDF)

One more of the few remaining chapters in the long story of the Phantom drew to a close in early March when the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) flew its last missions with the RF-4E and RF-4EJ tactical reconnaissance aircraft. The aging McDonnell Douglas classic had served with the JASDF’s recon unit, 501 Hiko-tai at Hyakuri, for 45 years.

The squadron’s last flying day was March 9, culminating in a mixed four-ship of RF-4Es and RF-4EJs undertaking a ceremonial flypast. Fittingly, the last aircraft to land was serial 47-6901, the first RF-4E to be built for Japan and the first to be handed over. After its return, it was honored with a water salute by the Hyakuri fire department.

The JASDF bought the RF-4E in Fiscal Year 1972 to replace 501 Hiko-tai’s elderly RF-86F Sabres, at the same time as it was procuring F-4EJ fighters, the great majority of which were built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Fourteen of the RF-4E version with a camera nose were ordered, all to be built by McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. The first arrived at Hyakuri in December 1974, the squadron completing its conversion by September the following year. The Phantoms were adorned with 501’s cartoon woodpecker badge in the process.

In the 1980s a number of the JASDF’s F-4EJ fighters were put through the F-4EJ Kai upgrade, and the RF-4Es were also updated, receiving APQ-172 radar in place of the APQ-99, and more modern reconnaissance sensors. 501 Hiko-tai also gained 15 new aircraft in the shape of the RF-4EJ. These were fighters that had not undergone the Kai upgrade but were adapted instead for reconnaissance.

Although they retained the original fighter nose and an unemployed weapons capability, the RF-4EJs were modified to carry three types of podded systems on the centerline hardpoint. The options comprised a tactical reconnaissance camera (TAC) pod, tactical electronic reconnaissance (TACER) pod, and a long-range oblique photography (LOROP) pod. The latter required further modification with a dedicated viewfinder in the aft cockpit and was only applied to a small number of aircraft. Of the total of 29 RF-4E/EJ aircraft, only two were lost in crashes.

It is currently unclear as to whether 501 Hiko-tai will be reformed, at least as a manned aircraft operator. Since the fighter-tasked 302 Hiko-tai retired its F-4EJ Kais in December 2018 to be reborn as the JASDF’s first F-35A unit at Misawa, the demise of the recon unit leaves just a single squadron of Phantoms active in Japan. 301 Hiko-tai continues with the F-4EJ Kai, but during FY20 is due to retire the type and follow 302 to Misawa to fly F-35As.

The last Phantoms flying in U.S. military service—QF-4E aerial targets—were retired at Holloman AFB, New Mexico in December 2016. Elsewhere the F-4E may still be active in South Korea as its replacement, the F-35A, begins to enter service. Greece still flies F-4Es that have been upgraded to AUP “Peace Icarus 2000” standard by EADS (Airbus), while Turkey counts on Phantoms upgraded by Israel to F-4E-2020 “Terminator” standard. Perhaps as many as 50 F-4D/F-4E/RF-4Es remain operational with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.