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Japan Retires F-4 Phantom. Coming Soon: More F-35s.

F-4 Phantom
McDonnell Douglas (Mitsubishi) F-4EJ Kai Phantom II

Originally designed and developed for the U.S. Navy by McDonnell Douglas in the late 1950s, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) finally retired their Cold War era F-4 Phantoms over 50 years after the first F-4 batch was received from the United States.

In 1971, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries delivered license-built F-4 airframes, dubbed F-4EJ in Japanese service, to the JASDF. Though most F-4EJ have long since been retired, a few escaped the axe and perform a rather odd mission — some F-4EJs are equipped with a “sniffer” particle collection pod that takes air quality samples, measuring environmental pollutant — as well as keeping an eye, or rather a nose, on North Korean nuclear tests. But, the time has come to retire the last of the Phantoms.

The Skies of Vietnam:

The F-4 made its combat debut over Vietnam. When it first flew combat sorties in 1961, it was arguably the world’s most capable fighter-bomber aircraft that could also carry out interceptor missions in a pinch. The powerful twin-engine plane set 16 altitude, speed, and time-to-climb records, including what was at the time a world speed record of 1,604 miles per hour, or Mach 2.09.

So great was the F-4’s thrust, American pilots could disengage from combat against North Vietnamese planes on a whim, simply accelerating away and to safety at Mach 2+ speeds. Thanks in part to their high speed, the first production run of F-4’s lacked any onboard cannon, as aerospace engineers had assumed traditional autocannons would be useless at such high Mach 2+ speeds. The F-4 Achilles’ heel was low-speed flight, however.

At lower speeds, the F-4 flew like a stone and was easily outmaneuvered by smaller MiG-19s and MiG-17 which were much nimbler at low speeds. Once the shortcoming was fixed — by installing an onboard 20mm cannon — American F-4 Phantom combat losses dropped.


In order to comply with Japan’s constitutionally mandated self-defense military posture, Japan’s domestically-built F-4’s were neutered, lacking any ground-attack capabilities, and unable to take on additional fuel while in-air. However, despite the previous defense stance, Japan’s military capabilities — particularly those in the air — are set for a big upgrade.

Earlier this summer, the United States Department of State cleared the way for Japan to acquire an additional 105 F-35 stealth fighters in a $23 billion sale, which if it comes to fruition, would be the second-largest Foreign Military Sale ever.

According to a notice posted by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, a part of the Department of Defense responsible for providing financial and material assistance to American allies, the deal “will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving the security of a major ally that is a force for political stability and economic progress in the Asia-Pacific region. It is vital to U.S. national interest to assist Japan in developing and maintaining a strong and effective self-defense capability.”

Furthermore, the notice stated that the “proposed sale of aircraft and support will augment Japan’s operational aircraft inventory and enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defense capability. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s F-4 aircraft are being decommissioned as F-35s are added to the inventory. Japan will have no difficulty absorbing these aircraft into its armed forces.”


Leapfrogging over many airframe designs for the F-35 will put a powerful American-aligned capability in the heart of Asia. Coupled with Japan’s Izumo-class “aircraft carriers,” actually helicopter destroyers that could support F-35 operations, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’ capabilities are set to expand in a big way.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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