Decommissioning The Trusty F-4, Koreans Pay Tribute

(MENAFN- Asia Times) The fuel flow to the F-4 (also known as Phantom II) fighters that protected the skies of the Republic of Korea with unwavering dedication for the past 55 years is about to be cut off, marking the end of the jets' intense deterrent mission on the Korean Peninsula.

It's useful to examine why the ROK and the ROK-US alliance relied on the F-4 to counter the threat from the northern Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) after the Korean War and how the plane fulfilled their needs. South Koreans owe a significant debt of security to this aircraft.

The F-4 was designed to meet a variety of operational requirements. Built by McDonnell Douglas (long since merged with Boeing), the F-4 was one of the few fighter jets used by the US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Additionally, the F-4 was a tool of military diplomacy for the United States. It was supplied to key US allies, including the ROK, the UK, Australia, Israel, and Japan, as well as to Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. Of the 12 countries that operated the Phantom, only Turkey, Greece and Iran continue to do so .

The 1968 decision to acquire

Following the end of the Korean War, the ROK had a relatively inferior air force compared with the DPRK. Before acquiring the F-4, South Korea had only a few F-86 Sabres and F-5As in its air force. The North had more than twice as many fighters, superior MiGs, with well-concealed operational bases. The DPRK could deploy up to 150 aircraft within 5-to-15 minutes .

The process of acquiring the F-4 was not straightforward. To secure air superiority over the DPRK, the ROK Air Force Chief of Staff Chang Ji-ryang proposed acquisition of the F-4 in the“Five-Year Air Force Enhancement Plan” in 1966. The following year, Prime Minister Chung Il-kwon reached an agreement with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to modernize the ROK military equipment , leading to a review of F-4 supplies.

Convincing the US to introduce this advanced weapon, a move unprecedented in Northeast Asia at the time, was challenging. The US was concerned about the impact on regional strategic balance if the ROK, which lacked second-generation fighters like the F-105, acquired the latest third-generation fighter.

A strategic shift occurred in early 1968 with the Blue House raid by the DPRK commandos and the capture of the USS Pueblo, escalating tensions on the peninsula. President Park Chung-hee requested significant military support from the United States. He pressured the United States to achieve his demands, including withdrawing South Korean troops from Vietnam. Eventually, the US promised to supply the F-4. Official discussions took place during the visit of Special Envoy Cyrus Vance , and at the April 18, 1968, ROK-US summit in Honolulu, an agreement was reached to supply 34 F-4 fighters by the end of the year.

The era of F-4 Phantom II

At that time, to effectively operate South Korea's“only” strategic asset, the F-4, the ROK Air Force set a goal to complete F-4 operational readiness by the late 1970s . They sent 112 personnel, including pilots, maintenance, and weapon specialists, to the United States to prepare for independent operation. On August 29, 1969, the 151st Fighter Squadron (F-4 Phantom II Squadron) was established as they flew the aircraft directly across the Pacific to Daegu Air Base.

Following the fall of South Vietnam in 1974 and the reduction of US forces in Korea under the Nixon Doctrine, a national defense fund-raising campaign was launched , and a substantial sum of $33.6 million (16.3 billion won) was raised in a short period. The ROK government used $13.4 million (6.5 billion won) of this amount to purchase five additional F-4 Phantoms in 1975, which upon their arrival at Daegu Air Base were named the“Pilseung Squad.”

Eighty more F-4Ds were acquired. Starting in 1976, The ROK began introducing F-4E fighters. All told , the ROK Air Force set up a total of 92 F-4D units, 27 RF-4C reconnaissance units and 103 F-4E units.

The core of air superiority on the peninsula

The Phantom was crucial in countering the DPRK and its main fighter, the MiG-21. During the Vietnam War, the Phantom had a favorable kill ratio against the MiG-21 , earning it the nickname“MiG Killer.” Its presence limited North Korean air tactics and ensured the ROK and US air superiority on the peninsula, thanks to several factors:

  • All-weather air operations: The Phantom performed all air-to-air missions such as DCA (defensive dounter air), ESCORT and air-to-ground missions such as AI (air interdiction) and CAS (close air support). Unlike previous fighters it had a rear seat for a weapons systems officer, providing flexibility in mission execution. It later evolved into a versatile all-weather aircraft with high-performance radar and navigation systems, carrying out air-to-air and air-to-ground missions until the KF-16 was fully operational in 1994 .
  • Powerful armament: In an era when the magnitude of firepower was considered crucial for strategic attacks, the Phantom's 15,000-pound (6.8-ton) payload capacity was overwhelming. Before the introduction of the long-range air-to-ground guided missile SLAM-ER with the F-15K , the Phantom's Popeye missile was the only weapon capable of bombing Pyongyang. The Popeye, with a warhead capable of penetrating 2 meters of concrete and weighing 350kg, had more destructive power than the 230kg SLAM-ER missile.
  • Strategic retaliationcapability: When the scramble siren sounded, the Phantom could be armed with a Popeye missile and accurately hit targets 112km away with a margin of error within a meter within 30 minutes. This made the Phantom a key strategic asset for immediate retaliation against North Korean provocations for decades. After the 1983 Myanmar Aung San terrorist incident, the ROK even formed a“ready-to-kill” unit with F-4E fighters to retaliate against North Korea, highlighting the strategic value and operational readiness of the Phantom.
  • Interoperability of the ROK-US Alliance: The Phantom was not just a platform but a significant example of how the ROK-US alliance overcame the dilemmas of autonomy and security. It enabled the ROK military, which had no military power after the Korean War, to gain independent capabilities. It symbolized early trust and continuous enhancement of the US alliance with its allies. The ROK and US forces improved operational interoperability by performing air operations together in the Korean theater, contributing to strategic deterrence and defense through the strong bond of the ROK-US alliance.


Asia Times

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