Why Israel Worshiped the F-4E Phantom Fighter
The F-4E Phantom was a star in Israel’s Air Force: The beacon of the Israel Air Force’s combat fleet in the 1970s was the American F-4E Phantom, a twin-engine supersonic jet interceptor with tandem seats.
Nicknamed the Kurnass (Hebrew for “heavy hammer”), this third-generation aircraft played a crucial role as Israel defended the gains made by its decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Regarded as the most advanced western jet designed for air-to-air combat, the F-4E Phantom significantly transformed the battlefield in the region.
The third Arab-Israeli war, fought between the newly established Jewish state and a coalition of its neighbors, had geopolitical consequences that would transform the region for years to come. The brief conflict resulted in a tripling of Israel, and this result was vehemently challenged by Egypt in the 1967-1970 war of attrition.
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The first 50 F-4E Phantoms entered Israeli territory in 1969. They were extradited despite the Pentagon Evaluation that the sale would damage US-Arab relations and against the prospect of a US-Soviet agreement to limit arms sales to the region. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s provocations essentially sealed US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to sell the F-4E.
The first Phantom fleet arrived in Israel at the height of the 20th century war of attrition in 1969. The Israeli Air Force immediately integrated the fleet into its mission to take over Egyptian air defenses along the Suez Canal. The McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) platform set altitude, 16-speed and time records, making it one versatile and menacing addition to the Luftwaffe’s aircraft arsenal. The aircraft’s suppression of air defenses and its fleet attack and defense missions would prove crucial in the battle along the Channel. The IAF used the Phantom’s long-range radar and AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missiles to successfully thwart Egypt and its Soviet arms suppliers.
The Phantom’s advanced capabilities allowed Israeli pilots to execute tactics that ultimately led to the downing of around 100 Egyptian MiG fighters during the War of Attrition. Synced operation rim 20, The aerial “bear trap” enabled by the IAF’s Phantom Fleet remains one of the most celebrated strategies in Israeli military history. Similar to Operation Bolo in the Vietnam War, rim 20 began laying the bait: four armed, French-made Mirage III jets teamed up to simulate a reconnaissance mission normally performed by two unarmed Mirage III jets. Meanwhile, other Mirages along with a fleet of F-4 Phantoms flew undetected along the Sinai border. When Soviet fighters helping the Egyptians took the bait, they did attacked through the barrage of Phantoms and other fighters firing from below.
The IAF’s strategic superiority over Egypt, made possible in part by its F-4 Phantom fleet, ultimately eclipsed the Egyptian military’s numerical advantage. The Phantom Fleet was intended to support the Israeli Air Force in the 1973 Yom Kippur Wars. Although the Kurnass Phantoms were retired in 2004, they remain a revered part of Israeli military history. Without the victories of the Phantom Fleet in the 1970s, Israel would be very different today.
Maya Carlin is the Middle East Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an Analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has bylines in many publications including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.