Phantom with Luftwaffe

Last revised December 30, 1999

The German Luftwaffe is a major user of the Phantom, being supplied with 88 RF-4E unarmed reconnaissance aircraft and 175 F-4F fighter-bombers.


The first Phantom version to serve with the Luftwaffe was the RF-4E. The RF-4E was the unarmed reconnaissance version of the F-4E. It was designed strictly for export, and never served with the USAF. The first RF-4Es were ordered by the West German Luftwaffe in January of 1969. Most of the airframe was constructed in St Louis, but German industry participated in the production of certain US-built items which were deemed too sensitive for export. The first RF-4E for Germany flew on September 15, 1970. Luftwaffe service began on January 20, 1971, with the first RF-4E-equipped unit being Aufklarungeschwader 51 "Immelmann" (AKG 51) based at Bremgarten. Other RF-4E aircraft equipped AKG 52 at Leck from September 17, 1971. A total of 88 RF-4Es were delivered to the Luftwaffe. For administrative purposes, they carried the USAF serials 69-7448/7535. Their Luftwaffe serials were 3501/3588.

Under the Peace Trout program, a Luftwaffe RF-4E was fitted with an electronic intelligence (ELINT) system based on the APR-39 in place of the nose-mounted cameras. It could be recognized by the presence of a distinctive bulge underneath the forward camera access door.

In 1978, the Luftwaffe decided that it might be a good idea to give its reconnaissance RF-4Es a secondary ground attack capability. In a program finished in 1982, all Luftwaffe RF-4Es were fitted by Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) with a weapons delivery system. They were provided with hardpoints and wiring for underwing weapons pylons. A weapons aiming site was fitted for the pilot with weapons selection switches in both the front and rear cockpits. Up to six British-built Hunting BL-755 cluster bomb units could be carried, or up to 5000 pounds of other ordnance At the same time, they were upgraded with newer cameras and were fitted with Tracor AN/ALE-40 chaff dispensors.

It had originally been intended that the RF-4E should remain in Luftwaffe service even after the arrival of the Tornado ECR, with further upgrades being provided to prolong their service lives. However, the Conventional Forces in Europe arms limitation agreement, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the unification of East and West Germany caused a change in plans. Luftwaffe RF-4Es left active service during 1993/94. AKG-51's RF-4Es were replaced by Panavia Tornados, and AKG-52 was disbanded altogether.

Some of the Luftwaffe's RF-4Es were originally scheduled to be passed along to Turkey as they left service, but a political dispute between Berlin and Ankara caused a delay. Ultimately, some 32 ex-Luftwaffe RF-4Es were transferred to Turkey. In addition, 20 ex-Luftwaffe RF-4Es were passed along to Greece.


The Luftwaffe had originally planned that the MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, eventually to emerge as the Panavia Tornado) would be the replacement for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter in both interception and strike roles. However, by 1970 it had become clear that the interceptor version of the MRCA would not be ready in time to replace the F-104G in the interceptor role by the target date of 1975. Consequently, the Luftwaffe began to shop around for stopgap measures which would fill in the gap until the MRCA interceptor could be ready.

Back in 1960, McDonnell had entered a single-seat version of the Phantom in the IFX fighter contest. The US government promised that the winning design would be exported in substantial numbers to America's overseas allies, and attracted several competing designs. However, this contest was won by the Northrop F-5E, and the concept of a single-seat Phantom was quietly abandoned. The idea of a single-seat Phantom was revived in 1971 when a proposal designated F-4E(F) and was submitted to the West German government to satisfy their requirement for an interim MRCA substitute. The F-4E(F) basically a stripped-down F-4E which was to have dispensed with Sparrow capability and was to have had a simplified and less expensive electronics suite. The West German government was sufficiently impressed by the proposal that they declared the F-4E(F) the winner of the contest, beating out such competitors as the Dassault Mirage F.1 and the Lockheed CL-1200 Lancer.

However, before the F-4E(F) could enter production, the West German government changed its mind and decided instead to purchase a more straightforward two-seat cost-reduced adaptation of the F-4E. The designation F-4F was assigned to the project. The F-4F emerged as a lighter and simpler F-4E which was significantly cheaper and incorporated major components that were manufactured in Germany. An important simplification introduced by the F-4F was the elimination of Sparrow missile capability.

175 examples of the F-4F were ordered by the West German government. The first F-4F took off on its maiden flight on May 18, 1973. The 175 F-4Fs were assigned the Luftwaffe serials 3701/3875 (and for contract management purposes were also given the USAF serials 72-1111/1285). Major components were manufactured in Germany by MBB and by VFW-Fokker. The J79-MTU-17A engines were built under license from General Electric by Motoren-und-Turbinenen-Union Munchen GmBH.

Deliveries of the F-4F to the Luftwaffe began on September 5, 1973, and ended with the delivery of 3875 in April of 1976. They equipped two interceptor wings (JG-71 'Richthofen' and JG-74 'Molders') and two ground attack wings (JBG-35 and JBG-36), all of which had previously operated the F-104G Starfighter.

Twelve F-4Fs were assigned the unofficial designation of TF-4F while they were being used to train Luftwaffe crews in the United States. These aircraft were later flown to Germany and restored to full F-4F operational configuration.

Between November 1980 and late 1983, Luftwaffe F-4Fs were retrofitted with inflight refuelling receptacles and were upgraded with the capability of firing the Sparrow missile as well as the ability to handle the AGM-65 Maverick and the new AIM-9L Sidewinder. They were provided with a digital weapons computer and improved electronic countermeasures equipment, cockpit displays, and all-weather systems.

F-4F/ICE is the designation given to a substantially upgraded Luftwaffe F-4F. The Improved Combat Efficiency (ICE) program was initiated in late 1983 and was originally intended to produce an interim fighter with improved capabilities that would serve with the Luftwaffe pending the introduction of the EFA (European Fighter Aircraft) into service.

Under the ICE program, the simplified AN/APQ-120 radar of the F-4F was to be replaced with the highly-capable Hughes APG-65 digital multimode radar. This radar was originally intended for the F/A-18 Hornet, and had Doppler velocity tracking capability for moving target indication. In addition, the APG-65 had the ability to distinguish targets against ground clutter and had the ability to track multiple targets at the same time. The F-4F was also to be given the capability of carrying and launching the Hughes AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.

The ICE upgrade program for the F-4F was initiated in late 1983, and initially called for the full upgrade of the 75 Luftwaffe F-4Fs belonging to the interceptor wings JG71 and JG74, with a more modest upgrade being planned for the remaining F-4Fs belonging to the fighter-bomber wings JBG 35 and JBG 36. However, the Phantom was withdrawn from the fighter-bomber role in 1990, when the full complement of Panavia Tornado aircraft was in place. Later, when JBG 36 switched to the interceptor role and was incorporated into the newly-formed JG 73, it was decided that the number of aircraft to get the full package of ICE upgrades should be increased to 110.

It was decided that the ICE program should proceed in two stages. In the first phase, all F-4Fs would receive the Honeywell H-423 laser gyro inertial navigation system, the GEC Avionics CPU-143/A digital central air data computer, and a new Mil Std 1553R digital data bus. In the second stage, the 110 interceptor aircraft would get the full package of ICE upgrades.

The first phase of the upgrade began in October 1988. The Litton ALR-68(V)-2 radar warning receiver was added to the upgrade package in 1989. The first fleet aircraft retrofits began in March of 1990. This program is now complete.

Phase 2 of the ICE program took a lot longer than expected, owing primarily to problems and delays in the AMRAAM program. The first F-4F/ICE test aircraft was F-4F 3715 (USAF 72-1125), which flew for the first time in July of 1989. It was equipped to launch the AIM-120 but not to guide it. The second test aircraft (3713, USAF 72-1123) was provided with the full suite of ICE improvements, and began flight tests in April of 1990.

The program to retrofit interceptor squadron F-4Fs began in July of 1991. It was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 1995. The first live AMRAAM launch by an F-4F took place on November 22, 1991. By July of 1992, six ICE conversions had been redelivered to JG 71 "Richthofen".

The rapidly rising costs of the EFA (now known as Eurofighter 2000) project gave the hard-pressed new unified German government a bout of cold feet. At one time, the German government had considered dropping out of the EFA project altogether, leaving their British, Italian, and Spanish partners to go it alone. Since Germany was carrying fully a third of the load, her withdrawal would undoubtedly have doomed the Eurofighter 2000 project. After much finger-pointing and arm-twisting, the German government was persuaded to continue to participate in the development phase of the project, with the final decision on whether or not Germany would actually order any production articles being deferred until after 1995. As of the posting of this article, it is still uncertain if the German government will actually order any production examples of the Eurofighter 2000. Even if they do, the Eurofighter 2000 will not enter Luftwaffe service until the year 2002 at the earliest. The F-4F/ICE will have to soldier on until least that time.

The end of the Cold War has brought about momentous changes, but none so strange as those which took place in the Luftwaffe's Jagdgeschwader 73 "Steinhoff" interceptor wing. JG 73 was formerly known as JBG 35, but was redesignated as an interceptor wing when the fighter-bomber role for the Phantom was discontinued. The second JBG-35 squadron did not become part of JG 73. It just so happened that JG-73 was also the designation assigned to to a MiG-29 unit at Preschen in the former East Germany. The two JG-73s were combined, creating a new unit with one squadron of F-4Fs and one squadron of MiG-29s, the MiGs having formerly served with the East German air force.

The Luftwaffe typically trains in the western USA, where the flying weather is much better than it is in northern Europe. For several years there was a detachment of Luftwaffe F-4Fs based at George AFB with the 20th TFTS. The Luftwaffe F-4Fs operated with US national markings and USAF tailcodes. These planes were replaced in 1978 by ten F-4Es, and the Luftwaffe F-4Fs were then returned to Germany. The detachment was redesignated the 9th FS in May 1992 and was transfered to the 49th FW at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. It then became the 20th FS in July of 1993 when its original designation was taken over by a F-117 squadron.


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  2. McDonnell F-4 Phantom: Spirit in the Skies. Airtime Publishing, 1992.

  3. Modern Air Combat, Bill Gunston and Mike Spick, Crescent, 1983.

  4. The American Fighter, Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, Orion, 1987.

  5. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  6. Boeing/McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II Current Operations, World AirPower Journal, Vol 40, Spring 2000.