How the F-4 Phantom Fighter Went to War for Israel

F-4 Phantom
March 28, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: IsraelF-4F-4 PhantomAviationMilitaryDefense

How the F-4 Phantom Fighter Went to War for Israel

The arrival of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom in Israel in the late 1960s marked a pivotal moment in the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) history, significantly enhancing its operational capabilities amid rising regional tensions.


Summary: The arrival of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom in Israel in the late 1960s marked a pivotal moment in the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) history, significantly enhancing its operational capabilities amid rising regional tensions. Designed as an all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor and heavy bomber, the F-4 Phantom was a technological marvel of its time, setting world records for speed and altitude. Israel's acquisition of the Phantom, amid Egyptian President Nasser's hostilities, was crucial for its defense strategy, especially during the 1967 Six Day War and the subsequent conflicts. The F-4s, known for their acceleration and thrust, played a key role in air combat, notably in the "bear trap" operation against Soviet-assisted Egyptian forces and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where they demonstrated their superiority against Egyptian MiGs.

The F-4 Phantom: Israel's Supersonic Guardian of the Skies

When the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter first reached Israel in the late 1960s, it marked the first time the Jewish state would receive advanced military hardware from the United States. 


The all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor and heavy bomber saw extensive combat during the Vietnam War. Serving as America’s primary air superiority fighter during this time period, the Phantom set at least 15 world records, including for speed and absolute altitude. Israel’s interest in acquiring the Phantom in the mid-to-late 1960s coincided with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s increasingly hostile rhetoric. The Israeli Air Force’s procurement of the Phantom would help ensure the country’s survival throughout the next decade.

An Overview of the F-4 Platform

The F-4 Phantom can be traced back to the early 1950s, when McDonnell Aircraft first showcased its proposal for the “Super Demon” naval fighter. The U.S. Navy was already satisfied with the upcoming Vought XF8U-1 and Grumman XF9F-9 at the time, and it passed on the F3H Demon’s would-be replacement. McDonnell went back to work and developed its design into the all-weather fighter-bomber we know today as the F-4 Phantom.

McDonnell’s new prototype was designed to be powered by a pair of J79-GE-8 engines and to carry the AAM-N-6 Sparrow III radar-guided missile. Air intakes were also featured, with one fixed ramp and one variable ramp to enable speeds between Mach 1.4 and Mach 2.2. Early on in the Phantom’s production timeline, its radar was upgraded to the Westinghouse AN/APQ-72 to improve visibility and space in the cockpit. 

The airframe exceeded Mach 2.0 in its first test flight, a huge feat for the Navy and for the Phantom's manufacturer. Perhaps the F-4’s greatest capability was its acceleration and thrust, which allowed pilots to engage and disengage from dogfights at will.

How Did Israel Procure the F-4 Fighters?

Following the 1967 Six Day War, the Israeli Air Force recognized the need for a new front-line fighter. The first fifty F-4E Phantoms entered the service in 1969. They were delivered despite the Pentagon’s evaluation that the sale would harm U.S.-Arab relations, and against the prospect of a U.S.-Soviet agreement to limit arms sales to the region. 

The three-year period following the Six Day War saw Israel at the receiving end of consistent Egyptian-launched barrages. Equipped with its new fleet of F-4 Phantoms, the Israeli Air Force felt it was better positioned to strike deep inside Egypt’s territory.

Operational History in Israel

As a Soviet client state, Egypt possessed sophisticated Soviet-designed surface-to-air missile systems. Additionally, the USSR began to deploy its MiG-21 fighters to carry out defensive air patrols over the Egyptian border. While the MiG-21 was a formidable airframe at the time, the Phantom’s capabilities enabled Israeli pilots to use tactics that would ultimately lead to the downing of some 100 Soviet fighters. 

In fact, the aerial “bear trap” created by the IAF’s Phantom fleet in its Operation Rimon 2.0 remains one of the defining strategies of the Jewish state’s military history.

During this operation, four armed French-designed Mirage III jets commenced a reconnaissance mission. At the same time, other Mirages flew alongside a fleet of Phantoms, roaming undetected along the Sinai border. When the Soviet jets assisting the Egyptians took the bait, they were attacked by the Phantoms firing from below.

Israel’s fleet of F-4 Phantom jets also played a pivotal role in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When Egypt launched its surprise attack against the Jewish state, more than 200 aircraft participated in the opening strike of the war. In response, the IAF quickly rallied a pair of F-4 Phantoms to respond, not realizing the extent of the initial attack. In just a few minutes, the two F-4s shot down seven Egyptian-flown MiGs, forcing the remaining Egyptian jets to disengage.

In the 1980s, Israel’s F-4s began the Kurnass 2000 modernization program, which included the incorporation of updated avionics. 

Although Israel’s fleet of F-4 Phantoms retired from service in the early 2000s, these legendary airframes remain a revered component of the Jewish state’s military history.

About the Author: Maya Carlin 

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.

Email the author: [email protected].