‘Super Phantom’: The Israeli Next Generation F-4 That Could Outperform an F-16

The American F-4E Phantom formed the mainstay of the Israeli Air Force’s fighter fleet throughout the 1970s, and from the early 1960s until 1974 it was considered the most capable Western jet ever developed for air to air combat. 

The fighter was a third-generation heavyweight high endurance design specialized in air superiority – a predecessor to the F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor of subsequent generations. 

While Israel initially planned to phase the Phantom out of service in the 1990s, replacing it with a combination of both F-15 Eagles and lighter less costly F-16 Fighting Falcons, the economic crisis in the 1980s, extreme inflation rates approaching 30% monthly and an unsustainable defence budget of 24% of GDP meant that compromises to military modernization plans had to be made. 

It was thus decided that following the United States’ refusal to allow Israel to manufacture the F-16 in Israel under license as Turkey and South Korea were doing, that the F-4E would be seriously enhanced to meet fourth-generation standards allowing it to perform to a much higher standard in both air to air combat and in a strike role.

The first phase of the proposed upgrade program would refit the Phantom’s electronics and avionics and would integrate a Norden radar from the U.S. Navy’s A-6F fighter alongside digital processing and a full look-down/shoot-down capability. 

This would provide synthetic aperture radar mapping and ground target tracking, as well as an air to air performance equivalent to the F-16C and a considerably superior air to ground performance. Enhancements would be supplemented by the installation of a new missile computer, which had already been fitted onto Israel’s F-16 fleet, a new wide-angle display with a 30-degree horizontal field view, and a new communications system. 

Removing old wiring would further cut the overall wire weight by 30%, improving the Phantom’s thrust/weight ratio and thereby positively affecting its flight performance.

While upgrades to the Phantom proposed for the first phase were already considerable, further upgrades under the ‘Super Phantom’ program would provide the aircraft with an air to air combat capability which would exceed those of the much newer F-16. 

The upgrade was centered around the replacement of the Phantom’s J79 turbofan with a PW120 turbofan – a low maintenance fourth-generation engine that would provide significantly greater thrust than the original and provide the Phantom with very high maneuverability. In standard configuration, the original F-4E Phantom had a thrust/weight ratio of 0.86 – compared to 1.1 for the F-18 and 1.12 for the F-16. 

The new engines not only increased the Phantom’s range but provided a 1.04 thrust/weight ratio and a 27% boost to its sustained turn rate at medium altitudes. 

The Super Phantom flew at the Paris Air Show in 1987, and its performance was described by analysts as "a startling display of brute power in a series of vertical maneuvers and tight, high-g turns that were totally out of character for the aging F-4.” This would make the Israeli Phantoms by far the most capable ever developed. 

The third phase of upgrades focused more on life extension than flight performance and included structural refurbishments that would add two thousand hours of life to each airframe, installation of a 2,270L external fuel tank for further increased range, and the addition of canards on the air intakes for better maneuverability. 

The new iteration of the Phantom was considered to have surpassed the combat capabilities of the F-16. 

Overall the modernization of the Phantom under Israel ‘Super Phantom’ program was expected to cost $12 million per airframe, and the full three-phase program would reduce the aircraft’s weight by a considerable 680kg while drastically improving its performance across the spectrum. Despite the significant potential of the program, upgrades beyond the relatively inexpensive Phase One were canceled due to high costs. 

Israel was at the time developing an indigenous fighter, the Lavi, and while the program was originally intended to replace Israel's A-4 and Kfir attack jets, it had expanded in scope to include a more advanced long-range strike capability and a defensive air to air capability which would allow it to replace the F-4. 

Although procuring more Lavi jets was more expensive than upgrading existing F-4s, and the Super Phantoms had many performance advantages over the new Israeli designed jet such as speed and air to air performance, Israel needed to expand planned Lavi production to 300-400 jets for the program to better benefit from economies of scale.

While the cost of acquiring Lavi fighters was higher than pursuing the Super Phantom program, the newly built indigenous jets had the advantage of much longer service life and would provide greater benefits for Israel's own defense sector. 

Ultimately Israel would subsequently be designated a ‘strategic ally’ of the United States, allowing it to purchase U.S. jets without paying research and development costs which reduced the cost of acquiring new F-16s and reduced the appeal of an enhanced F-4. 

The Super Phantom program was canceled as a result, although relatively inexpensive Phase One upgrades would later be provided to Turkish Phantoms under the Terminator 2020 program. 

Whether Israel will attempt a similar program to enhance the F-16s in service, as the cost of the replacement F-35A jets is likely to be prohibitive to a large acquisition, remains to be seen.

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