In the frequent criticisms of the F-35, it is often compared to the F-4 Phantom, another “do-everything” plane that ended up being used in all roles for both the US Navy and Air Force. The idea goes that since the F-4’s performance ended up being poor, so will the the F-35.
An example can be seen in this op-ed.
“What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.
The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.”
This is a huge oversimplification, and also ignores the context that illustrates just how revolutionary the F-4 turned out to be. While not minimizing its imperfections, a closer look at the Phantom shows that it not only that many of the criticisms are unfair, but also that it acheived something more than the sum of the parts.
The Gun Debate
The legend goes “super-tech Pentagon thought that the Phantom didn’t need a gun, so it suffered until the gun was finally brought back”. The truth is much more complex. Marshal L. Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam mentions both that pre-war, many crews actually supported losing the gun. And there was a justification even during the early phases of the war-that a cannon would just make fighter crews try to get into dogfights with agile MiG-17s that, gun or not, would not end in the F-4s favor.
The justification was flawed, but it was still there, and was not just mere technological hubris. (Incidentally, the Americans, Europeans, and Soviets all built gunless interceptors in the same time period, showing that this trend was not unique to the Pentagon.)
But even with the gun, most of the kills went to missiles. The platforms on both sides that scored their kills with guns-the American F-105 and North Vietnamese MiG-17, did so because they had no choice. F-4 guns, both the jury-rigged external pods and internal models, offered some opportunities but did not change the basic dynamics of aerial combat. The malinged AIM-7 scored the bulk of American victories, and the AA-2 Sidewinder copy was the North Vietnamese weapon of choice.
In 1972, gunless Navy F-4s, backed by air combat training, excellent radar support in their area of operations, and largely facing weaker MiG-17s, scored their best group of kills yet. Air Force F-4s with guns, facing a larger and better-trained group of MiG-21s, initially foundered, with kills dropping to a negative ratio even by the USAF’s own admission. There is more to it than those initial claims, but it shows that the cannon was no cure-all.
Beyond the Gun
Beyond the stories of the gun, the dogfighting losses, and even the record of the F-4 in Vietnam as a whole, the context of its birth shows its true power.
From World War II to the 1960s, military aircraft development was a frenzied rush. Jets were appearing and getting faster and faster-aircraft were contorted into strange shapes as designers tried to take advantage of the possibilities. Aircraft would enter service, be slammed into rapid production runs that were as much to make up for the very high accidental loss rates as they were to build up the numbers, and then quickly drop out almost as soon as they went in.
There were lasting successes, like the A-4 Skyhawk. But these were drowned out by the mixture of flashes in the pan and utter duds that dominated 1950s tactical aviation. Enter the F-4. The plane began service as a fleet defense interceptor, to shoot down attacking aircraft and missiles threatening the carrier. Thus it was meant to operate in a more BVR-friendly environment (over the water with lavish radar backing) and was unlikely to close to gun-range. Yet it ended up making history in a different role.
Through its journey into becoming a multi-service, multirole “good enough” plane, the Phantom achieved something that had been lacking for much of the jet age-stability. The plane would be a fixture on American carrier decks and air bases alike for two decades, and remained in service with foreign customers for considerably longer.
Through the F-4’s imperfect and somewhat inadvertent pioneering of the multirole aircraft, it set the stage for deliberate designs to follow. Having the ability to both engage in the aerial combat role of a fighter and carry a large and/or long distance payload was extremely important. Pioneering the use of both radar missiles and smart bombs that are now ubiquitous, it provided a needed building block for those game-changers.
And its own service was not a terrible one. In addition to Vietnam, it served effectively in the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq Wars. Among American pilots, even after its vulnerabilities through nearly a decade of war were revealed, it had its staunch defenders. (The book Sierra Hotel has an anecdote where F-4 crews were skeptical of the F-15, believing that having only one pilot would vastly limit its situational awareness. While the latter plane would certainly prove its worth, this was not the reaction of people who wanted to junk the wrecks they were forced to fly in).
In spite of its weaknesses, the F-4 was a capable, versatile product of the technology of the time that brought American jet fighters out of a chaotic childhood into a measured adulthood.