Next to the United States, Israel was the largest user of the Phantom. Approximately 240 F-4Es and RF-4Es were supplied to the Tsvah Haganah le Israel/Heyl Ha'Avir (Israel Defense Force/Air Force, or IDF/AF) between 1969 and 1976, and these aircraft provided Israel with its most potent combat aircraft throughout the 1970s. The Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcon and the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle have largely supplanted the Phantom in IDF/AF service, and the IDF/AF Phantoms have been consigned to storage.
The F-4E was known as Kurnass (Heavy Hammer) in IDF/AF service, whereas the RF-4E and F-4E(S) were known as Oref (Raven).
Israel first expressed an interest in the Phantom as far back as 1965, but such interest was politely rebuffed at that time. However, losses during the Six-Day War of 1967, the imposition of an arms embargo on Israel by France, and the flow of Soviet-bloc weapons to Israel's enemies caused the US State Department to change its mind. On January 7, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson gave his approval to the sale of Phantoms to Israel.
The delivery of Phantoms to Israel became an issue during the US Presidential campaign of 1968. Robert Kennedy's support of the Phantom sale to Israel may have played a role in his assassination. Following the election, the departing President Lyndon Johnson confirmed the sale of 44 F-4Es and six RF-4Es to Israel under Peace Echo I.
Crew training began in March of 1969, and the first F-4Es were delivered to Israel in September of 1969. The first IDF/AF Phantoms were accepted on September 5, 1969 in a formal ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Golda Meier and Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan.
It would not be long before the Israeli Phantoms would be in action. This was in the undeclared 1969-71 "War of Attrition" between Egypt and Israel over antiaircraft missile sites near the Suez Canal. On October 22, 1969, IDF/AF Phantoms began attacks against Egyptian SAM sites located west of the Suez Canal. An Israeli F-4E claimed its first kill on November 11, an Egyptian MiG-21. But on Apr 2, 1970, an F-4 was shot down by a MiG.
The missiles operated by the Egyptians were of the SA-2 Guideline variety, which had already been encountered by the United States in Vietnam. In the early days of January, 1970, Israel received from the United States advanced electronic gear that made it possible for them to defeat Egyptian SA-2 missiles. With this equipment, Israeli aircraft would now have warning whenever the SA-2 radar locked onto them. On January 7, 1970, F-4Es hit a SAM training base at Dahashur and a commando headquarters at Inchas. On January 13, warehouses at Hannak were attacked. Ammunition dumps at Hexatat and an armored division headquarters at Jabel Hoff were bombed on January 18. On January 23, engineering corps based at Helwan and Cairo were raided. On January 28, a camp at Ma'adi and an armored corps headquarters at Dahashur were bombed.
The Israeli successes over the canal led the Egyptians to seek more advanced equipment and more direct assistance from the Soviet Union. In early February, the Soviets began to introduce SA-3 missiles and associated technicians into Egypt. In the last week of February, Soviet aircraft, pilots, and ground crews began to arrive in Egypt. By April, there were 5000 Soviet technicians in Egypt. In early April, Soviet pilots began to fly operational missions over Egypt.
On April 8, eight Soviet-flown MiG-21s were encountered but were shaken off. An Egyptian-piloted MiG-21 shot down an F-4E on April 2, and its crew was taken prisoner.
In March, Egypt began to move its SAM networks gradually toward the Suez Canal. Two Phantoms were lost on June 30 and another one went down on July 5. Two more Phantoms fell to SAMs on July 18. On July 30, eight Mirage IIIs and four F-4Es encountered eight Russian-piloted MiG-21s and shot down two (some sources say four) of them.
A ceasefire ended the War of Attrition on August 7, 1970. However, by that time the Egyptians had a total of 16 operational missile complexes in place. Within a month, 45 new sites were put in place, several of which were very close to the canal, placing Israeli aircraft flying over the eastern bank of the canal at risk.
24 ex-USAF F-4Es were delivered to Israel during 1971 under Peace Echo II and III.
The IDF/AF ordered six RF-4E unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft under Operation Peach Patch. Pending delivery of these planes, the USAF loaned two RF-4Cs to Israel under Operation Night Light. They were operated by the IDF/AF from August 1970 to March 1971. They were returned when the six RF-4Es were delivered under Operation Peace Echo I.
12 ex-USAF F-4Es were delivered to Israel during early 1971 during Operation Peace Patch.
On September 9, 1972, two Syrian Su-7s were shot down over the Golan Heights. Four Syrian MiG-21s were downed on January 8, 1973. On February 21, 1973, a pair of F-4Es shot down a Libyan Arab Airlines Boeing 727 which had strayed over the Sinai and had refused to land. Another Syrian MiG-21 was shot down on September 13, 1973.
24 ex-USAF and 28 new-build F-4Es were delivered to Israel between April 1972 and October 1973 under Operation Peace Echo IV. This brought the grand total to 122 F-4Es and 6 RF-4Es that had been delivered to Israel. Israeli F-4Es scored 116.5 aerial victors against Arab aircraft. Peace Echo IV brought another 52 F-4s, 24 of which were ex-USAAF.
By the time of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October of 1973, 122 F-4Es and 6 RF-4E Phantoms were in service with the IDF/AF. By that time, Israel had lost at least eight Phantoms in various battles with Egyptian and Syrian forces, one and probably two of them having been downed by MiG-21s. In exchange, Israeli Phantoms had destroyed 11 enemy aircraft.
The Yom Kippur War began on Saturday, October 6, 1973, with an attack by Syrian MiG-17s on Israeli positions on the Golan Heights, followed by an assault by 700 Syrian tanks. Simultaneously, Egyptian forces launched an assault across the Suez Canal. Total surprise was achieved, and Israel was suddenly faced with the greatest threat to its existence since the War of Independence of 1948.
In the opening Egyptian attack on October 6, 1973, a pair of Phantoms were able to scramble and shoot down seven enemy aircraft. On the same day, Phantoms intercepted Mil Mi-8 helicopters attempting to land commandos in Sinai, and destroyed five of them.
On October 7, Phantoms launched an attack against Syrian SAM sites, but the Syrian forces were now equipped with the new Soviet-built SA-6 Gainful mobile surface-to-air missile. Syrian forces were also equipped with ZSU-23 mobile radar-controlled anti-aircraft artillery. The SAM-6/ZSU-23 combination proved deadly. No less than six Phantoms and thirty A-4 Skyhawks were lost in this single day. Very few of their pilots manage to escape by parachute. At one time, the Israelis were losing three out of every five aircraft they were sending over Golan. These losses were clearly unsupportable, and Chief of Staff Elazer was forced to temporarily abandon air strikes over Golan in mid-afternoon.
The SA-6 was an unpleasant surprise to the Israelis. Israeli electronic countermeasures had been designed to counter the earlier SA-2 and SA-3 radar-guided missiles that had been encountered by the Americans in Vietnam, but these techniques were useless against the SA-6. Earlier Soviet SAMs had used command guidance throughout the entire flight of the missile, but the SA-6 homed in on CW energy reflected from the illuminated aircraft for the final approach to the target. The Straight Flush radar that guided the SA-6 operated over a much wider bandwidth than did the earlier Soviet radars, and used D-band for illumination and G, H, and I/J-bands for initial acquisition and initial launch guidance. The Straight Flush codename is an apparent reference to the five frequencies used by the system. In the semi-active homing mode, the SA-6's homing head and rearward-facing reference antenna receive CW command signals in the I-band. Beacon signals from the missile are in G and H band. The SA-6 apparently also had an alternative infrared-homing system, but I am not sure if it was actually used.
The early part of the SA-6's flight was guided by radar, but the Straight Flush radar operated over a much wider bandwidth than that of the earlier Soviet missiles. The radar ranged over three separate frequencies during search, acquisition, tracking, and guidance. Before the war began, not enough was known about these frequencies or about the ability of the missile to switch between frequencies while in flight to throw off jamming transmissions. The ALR-36 radar warning receiver was of little use in picking up these radar signals, since these emissions were outside the band in which the ALR-36 was designed to operate. Consequently, Israeli aircraft found it very difficult to detect a SA-6 launch, and even more difficult to jam the missile while in flight.
One technique that was occasionally effective against SA-6 missile sites was to use dive-bombing attacks against them. When launched, the SA-6 took off at a relatively shallow angle which steepened as it climbed and accelerated. In order to take advantage of this weakness, the attacking plane would approach the site from a high altitude and then dive down on the battery as steeply as possible.
The fix for the SA-6 problem proved to be in figuring out a way to detect the launch. Hurried modifications of Israeli radar warning receivers were made in the field, assisted by a lot of people in the United States burning the midnight oil in trying to come up with a solution. By the third day of the war, equipment was in the field which could produce a reliable squeal in a pilot's earphone whenever a SA-6 launch occurred in his direction. If the SA-6 launch could be detected, violent evasive maneuvers were often effective in throwing it off the target. These maneuvers turned the side of the aircraft toward the incoming missile and sharpened the missile's turning angle. This would sometimes cause the SA-6 to lose its lock. Another tactic which sometimes worked was for two planes to carry out a "split-S" maneuver, with the lead plane diving sharply into and across the missile's approach while the following plane dove across the first plane's vapor trail. After the third day of the war, these techniques began to work and losses to SA-6s began to drop sharply.
On October 8, Phantoms attacked Syrian airfields and attempted to bomb the Egyptian pontoon bridges that had been thrown up across the Suez Canal. Four MiG-17s were shot down.
By the end of the day on October 9, Israeli Skyhawks had destroyed more than half of the SA-6 batteries on Golan. Israeli Phantoms and Mirages flying top cover had shot down 27 MiGs in one day over Golan.
On October 9, Phantoms launched an attack against the Syrian army headquarters in Damascus. This was (in part) an attempt to get the Syrians to divert some of their deadly SA-6s away from Golan. One aircraft was lost, and another was damaged but managed to get home. Another F-4E was lost during attacks on airfields and power stations in Egypt.
On October 10, Phantoms attacked various Egyptian and Syrian air bases, suffering no losses.
On October 11, two F-4Es were shot down by Egyptian MiG-21s. On October 13, an F-4 was badly damaged by AAA during an attack on a Syrian airfield near Damascus. The plane was flown out over the sea and the crew ejected.
The attacks on Syrian airfields ended on October 14, but attacks on Egypt continued. On October 15, F-4s shot down a MiG-21, but one Phantom was lost and another suffered severe damage. Three Phantoms were lost and a fourth was damaged during attacks on SAM positions over the next three days. On October 18, four Syrian MiG-17s were shot down by IDF/AF Phantoms, at least one by using the new Shafrir air-to-air missile. On October 20, two more Phantoms fell to Egyptian SAMs.
By mid October, 37 Phantoms had been lost, most of them to SAMs and AAA. An additional six Phantoms had been so badly damaged that they had to be written off. To make good the losses, President Nixon approved an emergency transfer to Israel of 36 USAF F-4Es under Operation Nickel Grass. These planes came mainly from the 4th and 401st TFWs.
Israel has persistently been rumored to have had nuclear weapons since the 1960s. The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that things were so bad at one stage during the Yom Kippur War that a squadron of F-4Es armed with nuclear bombs was put on alert for possible use. The Israeli government has not confirmed this claim.
After the end of the Yom Kippur War, 24 ex-USAF and 24 new-build F-4Es were transferred to Israel, plus two batches of six RF-4E unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. This program was known as Operation Peace Echo V. The last Phantom was delivered to Israel in November of 1976.
Following the end of the Yom Kippur war, IDF/AF Phantoms were in constant use against guerilla targets in Lebanon in the sporadic fighting that led up to the Israeli involvement in the Lebanon civil war. IDF Phantoms took part in many other battles, among them Operation Mole Cricket 19 in June 1982, when Syrian SA-6 sites were destroyed by a coordinated attack made by IDF aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. By that time, new F-15 Eagles and F-16s were replacing the Phantom in front line service, so the F-4s scored only one aerial victory in that action
Following the introduction of the F-15 and F-16 into IDF/AF service, the Phantom has been largely operated in the air-to-ground role.
The Israeli incursion into Lebanon began on June 9, 1982 with an attack on the Syrian air defense network in the Bekka Valley in Lebanon. Phantoms armed with Mavericks, Shrikes, and Standards attacked Syrian SAM sites while F-15s and F-16s flew top cover. The attack was a devastating success, and the Syrian air force was forced to launch more than 100 aircraft in a vain attempt to defend the sites. Scores of Syrian aircraft were shot down by the F-15s and F-16s of the IDF/AF that were flying top cover, with no losses being incurred by the Israelis.
Since the Lebanon War, IDF/AF Phantoms have continued to carry out attacks on guerilla targets in Lebanon. Losses have continued to take place, with Phantoms falling on July 24, 1982 and October 16, 1986. The latter loss was caused by a bomb accidentally exploding upon release. The pilot was rescued by helicopter, but the weapons system operator was taken prisoner by guerillas and has been held ever since.
Iraq has claimed to have shot down an IDF/AF RF-4E while it was photographing their ballistic missile research center near Mosul in 1986. However, this loss has never been confirmed by the Israelis.
Throughout the years, IDF/AF F-4Es have been modified in the field to fit local needs. These modifications included the fitting of a non-retractable midair refuelling probe connected to the dorsal fuel receptacle, the provision for carrying domestically-produced Shafrir and Python air-to-air missiles and Gabriel air-to-surface missiles, and the replacement of the 20-mm M61A1 rotary cannon by a pair of 30-mm DEFA cannon. The IDF/AF F-4Es can also carry Luz 1 television-guided air-to-surface missiles, AGM-84A Harpoon antiship missiles, Hobos television guided bombs, the AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missiles, AGm-62 Walleye and AGM-65 Mavericak missiles.
At one time, Israel had considered an ambitious Phantom upgrade program, under which the J79 turbojets would be replaced by PW1120 turbofans, canard aerodynamic surfaces would be mounted, and newer electronic systems and equipment would be fitted. However, cost considerations led the Israeli government to scale back its plans considerably and to introduce a much more modest program, termed Kurnass 2000. IDF/AF Phantoms subjected to this upgrade were fitted with a new Kaiser wide-angle heads-up display, a mission computer, a display computer controlling new multifunction displays, a heads-up display video camera, new radios, and major improvements to the electronics. Various parts of the aircraft structure were strengthened and fuel tank leaks were fixed. The converted aircraft were fitted with fixed inflight refuelling probes that were plumbed externally into the boom refuelling receptacle on the upper fuselage behind the second crewman. A small strake was added above the air intake flanks in an attempt to improve combat maneuverability. An Elbit ACE-3 mission computer was provided, which was integrated with a Norden/UTC APG-76 synthetic-aperture multi-mode radar. A hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) control system was added, and an ASX-1 TISEO electro-optical targeting system was fitted to accommodate the Rafael Popeye ASM. sy
The first Kurnass 2000 conversion was carried out at the IDF/AF's Central Maintenance Unit. The first example took to the air on its maiden flight on July 15, 1987, and was formally accepted by the IDF/AF on August 11, 1987. Further upgrades were carried out by the Bedek Aviation Division of Israel Aircraft Industries, with planes being converted as they come in for their D-level maintenance overhauls. Conversions began in April of 1989. The Kurnass 2000 upgraded Phantom was first used in action in February of 1991, when a number of aircraft used laser-guided bombs against a target in Lebanon.
A total of 116 air-to-air victories were claimed by Israeli Phantoms between the beginning of the War of Attrition in 1969 and the Bekka Valley battles of 1982. Israel has admitted to the loss of at least 55 Phantoms in combat, most of these to SAMs and AAA. 33 were lost in the Yom Kippur War alone.
At the height of Phantom usage during the Yom Kippur War, five IDF/AF squadrons were equipped with Phantoms. Beginning in the early 1980s, the air superiority role of the Phantom was passed primarily to the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, with the IDF/AF F-4Es serving primarily in the ground attack role, with the RF-4Es still serving in the reconnaissance role.
By the year 2000, Israel still operated some 112 F-4E/Kurnass 2000s, plus two F-4E(S) and 14 RF-4Es, with an unknown number being held in storage. There were believed to be three remaining IDF/AF Phantom squadrons--119 Tayeset and 201 Tayeset based at Bacha 8 and 142 Tayaset based at Hatzerim.
The basic unmodified F-4Es were all removed from IDF/AF service and are now all in storage. The IDF/AF retired the last of its F-4s in 2004.
The following is a list of known USAF serial numbers of Phantoms that have been turned over to Israel. This includes both direct purchases under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) where USAF serial numbers were assigned for administrative purposes, as well as those aircraft which were transferred to Israel from USAF stocks. This list may be incomplete, and I would appreciate being informed of any errors or omissions.
66-298/338 McDonnell F-4E-32-MC Phantom 313 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 327 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 66-339/382 McDonnell F-4E-33-MC Phantom 352 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass w/o before 1981 67-283/341 McDonnell F-4E-35-MC Phantom 326 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 340 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 67-342/398 McDonnell F-4E-36-MC Phantom 346 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 362 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 368 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 383 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 68-303/365 McDonnell F-4E-37-MC Phantom 331 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 333 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 68-366/395 McDonnell F-4E-38-MC Phantom 380 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 68-396/399 McDonnell F-4E-38-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-414/417 McDonnell F-4E-39-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-418/433 McDonnell F-4E-39-MC Phantom 430,431,433 to Israel in 1969 under FMS, Peace Echo I 68-434/437 McDonnell F-4E-39-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, not sure which program) 68-454/457 McDonnell F-4E-40-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, Peace Echo I) 68-469/472 McDonnell F-4E-40-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-484/487 McDonnell F-4E-40-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-499/502 McDonnell F-4E-41-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-519/525 McDonnell F-4E-41-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 68-539/547 McDonnell F-4E-41-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS, 1969, Peace Echo I) 69-236/303 McDonnell F-4E-42-MC Phantom 294/296 for Israel in 1970, Peace Echo II 299/301 for Israel in 1970, Peace Echo II 69-7201/7260 McDonnell F-4E-43-MC Phantom 7224/7227 for Israel in 1970, Peace Echo III 7229 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 7237/7250 for Israel in 1970, Peace Echo III 7255 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 69-7546/7578 McDonnell F-4E-44-MC Phantom 7547/7549 for Israel in 1971, Peace Patch 7553 for Israel in 1971, Peace Patch 7554 for Israel in 1971, Peace Patch 7567/7570 for Israel in 1971, Peace Patch 7575/7578 for Israel in 1971, Peace Patch 69-7590/7595 McDonnell RF-4E-45-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1969, Peace Echo I) 71-224/247 McDonnell F-4E-48-MC Phantom 224/236 to Israel in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV 246 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 71-1070/1093 McDonnell F-4E-49-MC Phantom 1071 to Israel in 1972-73, Peach Echo IV 1074 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 1078 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 1080 to Israel in 1972-73, Peach Echo IV 1082 to Israel in 1972-73, Peach Echo IV, (w/o before 1981) 1090 to Israel in 1972-73, Peach Echo IV 1093 to Israel in 1972-73, Peach Echo IV 71-1391/1402 McDonnell F-4E-50-MC Phantom 1393 to Israel in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV 1394 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 1395 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 1396 to Israel in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV 1398 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 1399/1402 to Israel in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV 71-1779/1786 McDonnell F-4E-51-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV) 71-1787/1793 McDonnell F-4E-52-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV) 71-1794/1796 McDonnell F-4E-53-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1972-73, Peace Echo IV) 72-121/138 McDonnell F-4E-50-MC Phantom 121 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 123 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 127 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 129 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 130/133 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 137/138 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 72-157/159 McDonnell F-4E-51-MC Phantom 157/158 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 72-160/165 McDonnell F-4E-52-MC Phantom 163/164 to Israel in 1973, Nickel Grass 72-1476/1489 McDonnell F-4E-54-MC Phantom 1480/1481 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 1487/1488 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 72-1490/1497 McDonnell F-4E-55-MC Phantom 1491/1492 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 1495/1499 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 73-1157/1164 McDonnell F-4E-57-MC Phantom 1157/1159 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 1161/1162 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 73-1165/1184 McDonnell F-4E-58-MC Phantom 1169/1170 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 1178/1179 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 73-1185/1204 McDonnell F-4E-59-MC Phantom 1190/1191 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 1201/1202 to Israel in 1974-76, Peace Echo V 74-1014/1015 McDonnell F-4E-60-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1974-76, Peace Echo V) 74-1016/1021 McDonnell F-4E-61-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1974-76, Peace Echo V) 74-1022/1037 McDonnell F-4E-62-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1974-76, Peace Echo V) 75-0418/0423 McDonnell RF-4E-63-MC Phantom (new builds for Israel under FMS in 1974-76, Peace Echo V)
Israel has been quite secretive about its IDF/AF serial numbers. A few IDF/AF serials are known, but the relationship between them and these USAF serials is unknown.