Today the F-4 is without doubt a master at ground attack, and in reality it has spent most of it's time in action pounding things on the ground. However, the design team at McDonnel Douglas were focused on building a fleet interceptor to fulfill the US Navy's intercepter requirements . It was built to range out from the carrier and lock up bandits at beyond visual range and fire what at the time were long ranged missiles. The ability to carry the fuel needed for range and the weapon system that was required to shoot BVR missiles dictated that the F-4's airframe be very large. The F-4 was also built to be very fast and it had a two man crew. These 3 particular traits were to give the F-4 an unexpectedly long life, even if it did have some early troubles in air to air combat with the smaller nimbler MiGs.

When designed the US Navy believed that the days of the classic dogfight were numbered and that the future wouold be dominated with new hi tech weapons, the long range radar and the missile, with flighters flying at Mach 2.

The F-4 was designed to fight over water in a massive naval conflict between NATO and the Soviet pact. The liklyhood of a successful AIM-7 Sparrow hit was very high over the ocean where there was no radar clutter and when the target was  large Russian Bombers.

However, cambat against little MiGs over land in Vietnam was much more difficult and a BVR attack was not very likely to happen. It was harder for the F-4's radars of the day to track the small MiGs againsty the backdrop of the rugged Vietnamies terrain. Plus the early AIM-7 tended to malfunction. In Vietnam these problems were coupled with very restrictive rules of engagement.  The Phantom's radar/AIM-7 mix did give it a difinate advantage in a head on attack. If the pilot was sure he was facing a MiG he could fire a AIM-7 many miles out while the MiGs were only able to fire a short burst of cannon fire as they passed. The short ranged infrared missiles of the day were useless head on.

So instead of high altitude BVR interceptions that the Phantom pilots were trained for they found themselves in close in dogfights that they were not trained for. Phantom crews needed to learn how to effectivly use their aircraft, and the training of the day was not up to the task.

Once it became clear that the kill/lose ratio was 1 to1 a solution had to be found. The US Air Force had also bought into the idea that the days of dogfights were history and they did not allow F-4 crews to practice dogfighting in their expensive beyond viual rage machines. However, as a BVR platform the Phantom was failing. There were a couple of resons for this. The F-4's radar in the B, C, and D models was a generation before digital pulse doppler and it had a hard time finding little MiGs that flew low to the ground. The next problem was  caused by the fact that most of the aircraft over Vietnam were American so the rules of engagement dictated that a positive identification be made before missiles were fired. The IFF systems in use were not completely reliable. There were however a few F-4's loaded with a system called Combat Tree which could read the IFF systems the MiGs used, this allowed them to home in on the MiGs for the kill. One other thing the F-4s did have going for them were the early generation AWACS in use that often alerted the Phantoms to MiGs in the area. This alerted many a F-4 that a MiG was sneeking up on it's tail.

The bottom line was that the F-4 needed to dogfight if it were going to gain an edge over the MiG in air-to-air combat.  Luckly there were veterans in the armed services who were very experinced at dogfighting. In the Navy they took a chance and started the Top Gun program. Now Navy  crews were being taught how to fight a dogfight in the F-4, a mission it was not designed for. However the training paid off. It was found that the most effective way to fight the MiGs was at high speed and in the verticle. If a MiG turned tight the F-4 Pilot would counter in the verticle since the Mig could turn tighter in a horizontle turn. The F-4's thrust advantage also worked best against the MiGs at under 10.000 feet ASL.  When pushing the F-4 to it's limits the pilot had to be careful how he handled the plane due to the complications in aircraft handling if he wanted to avoid departure. The program was a complete success and Navy F-4's started to master the MiG's including the newer MiG-21. Randy Cunningham who was a Top Gun graduate became an Ace.

Eventually the Air Force started Red Flag in an effort to pride it's crews with advanced training. Fortuneatly the Air Force had some old salts in Vietnam who already know how to dogfight, Robin Olds led his squadron and downed so many MiGs in just one dogfight that the Vietnamies Air Force was grounded. Steve Ritchie became an Ace with 5 MiG 21 kills..

In the late 60's the missiles continued to malfunction and the pilots made it clear that they wished they had a gun for the close in fights in which they tended to find themselves. A gun pods were introduced but they actually worked much better for ground attack than air combat. The Air Force introduced the F-4E which had an internal gun which provided the Phantom with a close in weapon, although the Navy never added the internal gun to their Phantoms. Slated stabalators were introduced both in the Navy and the USAF to help improve the F-4's turn radius.

In the '70s the F-4's began recieving slats on the wings to provide even more manouverability and to slightly ease the departure problem although it cost some top end speed.  Air to air tactices emphasized the dogfight rather than BVR and the tactics of the day made the F-4 more than up for the job through the early and mid 70's. In the air to air role most of the improvements were designed to improve it's ability to dogfight, with the efforts in improving  BVR capability being found mainly in AIM-7 improvements. A camera was added to the F-4E to help with long range identification.

Israel used the F-4 and dominated the MiGs in air-to-air combat with most of the kills being made in close in combat. They even shot down some Soviet flown MiGs. What they had problems coping with were the new Soviet ground to air missiles and most of the F-4's lost were due to SAMs.

Ironically, The German F-4F in the 70's was outfitted as a dogfighter only, it did not carry any type of medium ranged missiles! What a transformation for the F-4, from a BFR interceptor only configuation to a strictly dogfighter configuration. The 70's saw the F-4 widely exported around the world and was the decade of the Phantom for the free world.

In the mid and late '70s the next generation of fighter began to appear that were designed to build on the F-4's strengths and eliminate it's weeknesses. New fighters like the F-14 and F-15 had powerful pulse dopplar radars which when  combined with newer AIM-7 missiles made the them much more effective at BVR attacks than the pioneering F-4. They also were designed from the outset to dogfight and had better thrust to weight ratios.

In the 80's new fighters like the F-16 and F-18 with fly by wire flight control system appeared that revolutionized dog fighting even more. The computerized flight control systems would not let the pilots over g the airplanes and so the pilots could fly even more agressively. And even more important, In the late 80's the MiG 29 and the SU-27 appeared on the scene and were without doubt able to best the F-4 both in a dog fight and in BVR engagements and so after 20 years of dominance over Soviet fighters the F-4 was now at a complete  disadvantage. The new Soviet fighters were superrior in the turn, climb, accelleration and weapons delivery than  the F-4. The origional MiG-29 did have a problem of being shorter ranged than the Phantom.

In the USA the F-4 started getting fazed out in favor of new fighters. For many other air forces the F-4's overall capability was still leages better than what they had before the Phantom and replacing the F-4 was cost prohibitive. In the late 80's even with newer more capable Sparrow missiles the F-4 was at it's lowest in it's combat capability against is new apponants. It's onboard weapons systems were simply out-dated. However, due to the prohibitive costs of buying new fighters, Air Forces began modernizing their F-4 fleets and new life was given to the F-4.

In the '90s the German Air Force updated their F-4's with the APG-65 radars used in F-18 Hornets and also armed them with AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. This combination  allowed the Germans to fight in the F-4 the way in was designed to be, BVR, with cutting edge technology. Team tactics completely changed and they now switched from only being able to dogfight to  avoiding the dog fight all together and they began hitting from as far away as possible. The "Slammer' AIM-120 let the Phantoms fire their missiles from a greater distaince than is possible with the AIM-7 Sparrow and then turn away and gain separation from the bandits, rather than have to guide the missile all the way in to the target which places the F-4 in a situation where it is more likely to be hit from the enemy BVR missiles and where it is more likely to be forced into a dogfight..

Being the first none American units to recieve the active homing AMRAAM the F-4's begain terrorizing squadrons through out Europe that were used to having much better radar and missiles than the German F-4. Due to the F-4's origional size and configuration the F-4 took the new weapons system in stride and finally fufilled the vision of it's designers as a BVR missile platform. MFDs, HOTAS, and maybe most importantly of all, a HUD (rather than a simple gunsight)  provides the crews with much better weapons management. One noticeble lack of upgrade was a current IFF system.  Japan and Israel have made some similar upgrades to their aircraft, though without the AIM-120 capability.

In the next century Turkey and Greece also began to upgrade  thier aircraft. Germany, Turkey, and Greece have armed their aircraft with the AIM-120 and the aircraft are now "fire and forget" BVR aircraft when they have to fly air-to-air missions. While unlikely to be implamented due to costs, the AIM-9X and a helmit mounted sight could make the F-4 effectice once again in the close in engagement arena, after nearly 50 years of Phantastic flying! Because of the F-4's ability to carry modern weapon systems and because missile are finally living up to their promise the Phantoms huge size makes it possible to use these systems to make up for it's performance shortcomings in the dogfight role.

In my opinion what will finally spell the end for the F-4 in air combat is the era of stealth fighters like the F-22 and Euro Fighter. These fighters will have the ability to fire on the F-4 before the Phantom crew is aware that they are being tracked. Another disadvatage the F-4 operator will have is the fact that any country which can afford stealth fighter can also afford expensive support systems such as AWACS which makes their stealth fighters even more effective due to their much improved situational awareness. Lucky for the Phantom pilots, these new stealth fighters are prohibitavly expensive so there will be many older generation fighters in service for the years to come, even the old MiG-21! As the Phantom reaches it's 50th birthday in 2008 it's main mission will be ground attack and its 21st century upgrades in air to air weaponry will ensure that would be attackers will have to think twice before trying to intercept this classic warbird..
AIR COMBAT IN THE PHANTOM