Japanese Samurai Phantoms

Japanese F-4 Phantoms farewell
Japanese Phantom takes off to conduct one of its last sorties.

Over the years, the F-4EJ Kai has built up a great reputation in Japan. The Phantom fleet has been drastically updated over the years to the Kai standard. The type is currently in the last days of its career within the Japan Air Self Defense Force and will soon be replaced by the modern Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II.

The most colorful Phantoms in Japan are the photo reconnaissance aircraft of the 501 Hikotai. After more than 45 years in the service of the Japan Air Self Defense Force, the aircraft will be phased out at the in 2020. The tasks of this version of the legendary Phantom are taken over by the F-15J Eagle using SAR pods.

In Japan, the current Phantom fleet is at the end of his career within the Japan Air Self Defense Force. The successor to the Phantom will be the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II in Japan. The Phantoms have served with the Japanese Air Force for over 45 years and have flown in eight squadrons during their service.

Phantom Pharewell in Japan

The world-famous McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is currently still in full operation within the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF). In the near future this will soon change, because in the course of 2020 the Phantom will be phased out all over Japan and replaced by the modern Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II.

After 45 years of service with the Japanese Air Force, the Phantom is outdated and due for replacement. After a long study for a good successor to the F-4 Phantom II, it was decided in Japan to purchase the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II in December 2011. Japan initially chose the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor, but this application was eventually rejected because the aircraft would be far too expensive for the Japanese defense budget.

The F-35A Lightning II is going to be Japan's first fifth generation fighter plane and will therefore play the most important role in the JASDF. The very first Japanese F-35A landed at Luke Air Force Base in the United States on November 29, 2016. Since then, the JASDF has started training its first fighter pilots on this new fifth generation fighter aircraft. At Luke Air Force Base, Japan is part of an international training unit that trains pilots on the F-35A Lightning II. At the beginning of 2019, the first F-35s would be relocated to Japan to form the first operational unit there.

The F-4 Phantom has been in decline in Japan for several years. Of the originally seven squadron and a test unit, only two squadrons and a test unit are now active with different versions of the F-4 Phantom. The other squadrons have since moved to the Mitsubishi F-15J Eagle.

The first Japanese operational squadron that would make the switch from the Phantom to the F-35A Lightning II was the 302 Hikotai. The 302 Hikotai has flown with the Phantom for many years from Nyatubaru and later also from Hyakuri. In August 2017, it was announced that the 302 Hikotai would be the first unit in the JASDF to switch to the F-35 Lightning. The squadron eventually stopped flying the F-4 in March 2019. The unit moved from Hyakuri Air Base to Misawa Air Base in northern Japan that same month.

The JASDF already started building the first F-35 squadron on Misawa in January 2018. Since the first Lightnings were moved to Misawa, thirteen aircraft have already been delivered to the squadron on Misawa in fifteen months. The 302 Hikotai of the JASDF was initially declared operational as the first F-35 squadron on March 29, 2019. The 302 Hikotai at Misawa Air Base in the northern part of the main Japanese island of Honshu held a ceremony for the first flights to celebrate the F-35A. In the coming year, the unit will be supplied with more aircraft until the squadron is completely at full strength. All of these steps marked the definitive end for the Phantoms in Japan, as the replacement of this legendary aircraft can be deployed for the first time. That it can also go wrong with a new aircraft soon became apparent when an F-35 was lost.

On April 9, 2019, an F-35A of the 302 Hikotai was missing above the Pacific Ocean. It turned out that the aircraft had been crashed by a mistake of the pilot. Nevertheless, the Japanese Air Force is simply continuing with the introduction of this hyper modern fighter plane.

Since the introduction of the RF-4 at the JASDF in 1974, the Air Force has had an excellent photo reconnaissance aircraft. For years, these Phantoms have performed the most important photo reconnaissance tasks.

The JASDF will stop flying with the aging RF-4E Phantom II photo reconnaissance version after more than 45 years. The 501 Hikotai is expected to stop flying at the end of March 2020. The Japanese Ministry of Defense plans to replace the old fleet of RF-4Es of the Tactical Reconnaissance Group with the hyper modern F-35A and F-35B Lightning II. Japan is already flying the F-35A and will also purchase the F-35B in the future. With the phasing out of the RF-4E Phantom II, Japan will lose its only specialized photo reconnaissance squadron in 2020.

The reconnaissance task will be taken over by the F-15J Eagle. Japan has an unknown number of F-15Js converted for the photo reconnaissance task from 2007. These Eagles can be equipped with Lockheed Martin Phoenix Eye SAR pod. With this pod, modern frontline combat aircraft can be converted into a photo reconnaissance plane with just a small action. By transferring the reconnaissance task to the F-15 squadrons, the RF-4E Phantom II can be phased out. What the future is going to be for the 501 Hikotai is still unknown. Whether the unit will be converted to a squadron operating the F-35 has not yet been decided by the Japanese government. So it is clear that after more than 45 years the legend of the world famous photo reconnaissance version of the Phantom will end in Japan.

After the last RF-4E(J) Kai will be phased out at the end of March 2020, the 301 Hikotai is the only unit that still flies with the F-4EJ Kai. This unit will also start the transition to the F-35 very quickly in April next year. Like the 302 Hikotai, the 301 Hikotai will be moving from Hyakuri Air Base to Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. At the end of 2019, a Phantom Pharewell was already held during the annual air show on Hyakuri. It is not yet known whether another event will be organized when the last Phantoms will actually leave the Japanese airbase. What is not yet certain is what will happen to Hyakuri. There are plans to base a squadron with the Mitsubishi F-2 at this air base. What is certain is that 2020 will definitely be the last year in which the legendary Phantom will fly in the country of the rising sun.

The delivery of new F-35A Lightning II aircraft will continue as usual. The aircraft are built under license in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Japan plans to eventually purchase a total of 157 F-35s. This batch consists of 115 F-35A Lightning IIs for conventional deployment and 42 F-35Bs for deployment at sea.

After the retirement, the Phantom can only be admired in the museum and on the photos taken by the many fans in recent years. After 45 years of loyal service, the Samurai Phantoms will therefore be taking off for the last time in 2020 and will land definitively. Until that time it will be busy around Hyakuri Air Base with the fans who want to catch a last glimpse of this legend.


Photos and text: Joris van Boven and Alex van Noye

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