Hellenic Phantoms – THE LEGEND CONTINUES

Over 40 years after its service entry with the Hellenic Air Force, and thoroughly rejuvenated by a wide-ranging upgrade program, the F-4 Phantom II remains an essential component of Greece’s Tactical Air Force planning.

The history of the Phantom II in Greece dates way back to April 4, 1974. It marked what has turned out to be a remarkable moment in the history of the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) as the wheels of the very first Greek F-4E Phantom II touched down on runway 34 at Andravida. The Phantom heralded a new era for the HAF. The new jet not only incorporated technological advances but also contributed to a major development in tactics and aviation mentality.

Today, Greek financial woes have impacted the military, but the Phantom still plays an important role in the defense of Greek territory.

Battling heavyweight

For its time, the F-4E was comparable to the F-15E Strike Eagle of today. It featured two seats, twin engines, muscular performance, a large payload, beyond visual range (BVR) capabilities, and day and night operational capability. Until the entry to service of the F-15, the Phantom was the fighter that concentrated the greatest possible thrust in the smallest possible airframe! Prior to the F-4, the HAF’s reliance upon GCI directions took the initiative away from pilots, at least until the merge. The F-4E’s powerful radar gave its crews early target detection in the general area to which GCI directed them, but throughout the engagement Phantom crews enjoyed a much greater situational awareness.

‘The introduction of the F-4 in the Hellenic Air Force inventory in 1974 marked the beginning of a new era for the Hellenic combat wings’, says Col Dimitrios Tzoumerkiotis, 117 Pterix Mahis commanding officer. ‘At that time the Phantom was the most modern mature jet available from the aviation industry. It was battle-proven in the conflicts of South-east Asia, with multi-role capabilities and unique features.’

Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in July 1974 found 339 Mira still in training. However, the HAF decided to send 10 jets to Crete to assume action against the landing forces. The 10 F-4s detached to Crete arrived fully loaded with weapons. However, the fragile political situation saw 339 Mira’s missions canceled, and the Greek forces fighting in Cyprus were deprived the deterrent potential of the F-4 — a type the Turkish Air Force did not yet possess.

The significant changes brought by the Phantom and the lessons learned from the Vietnam War led the HAF’s leadership to establish the Fighter Weapons School in 1975. The initial requirement was for a training center that would provide advanced operational tuition.

‘The Phantom introduced to the HAF the new concept of multi-role as well as a new operational mentality and tactical development’, Col Tzoumerkiotis continues. ‘Essentially the F-4 transformed the HAF from a force with limited capabilities into a force that could carry out complex offensive air operations comprising precision strike while employing notable firepower, day and night, regardless of weather conditions.’

With the completion of deliveries, another Phantom squadron was established: 338 Mira ‘Aris’. In 1976 two more F-4s were delivered to the HAF to replace losses and in May 1978 deliveries of the second F-4 procurement contract, Peace Icarus II, began. The second batch of jets enabled the establishment of a third F-4 unit, 337 Mira ‘Ghost’, based at Larissa. This unit would assume primary responsibility for the defense of the central and northern Aegean.

In 1978 the first RF-4Es were delivered to 348 Mira at Larissa, completing the original Phantom orders for the HAF.

Bolstering the fleet

In 1991 the HAF accepted 28 F-4Es from the Indiana Air National Guard under the Southeastern Regional Agreement (SRA). With their introduction, all F-4s from the original Greek orders were allocated between 337 and 339 Mira, while 338 received all the ex-US jets. Despite the fact that the SRA F-4s were from older production blocks they featured the advanced Navigation and Weapon-Delivery System (NWDS), Airborne Video Tape Recorder (AVTR), Have Quick radios, and improvements to the AN/APQ-120 radar to make it more capable in the air-to-ground role. Two years later the 348 Mira fleet was enhanced by 27 RF-4Es from the German Luftwaffe.

The next important milestone for the Hellenic Phantom was August 11, 1997, when a contract was signed with EADS for the Peace Icarus 2000 upgrade, also known as the Avionics Upgrade Program (AUP). It was decided to upgrade the initial F-4s in Hellenic service (the Peace Icarus I and Peace Icarus II jets) and to apply a Service-Life Extension Program (SLEP) to the entire F-4 and RF-4 fleet. A first AUP-upgraded F-4 was delivered by Hellenic Aerospace Industry in December 2002. In 2005, 337 Mira retired the F-4E SRA jets and replaced these with F-16s, the squadron again assuming its role as lead interception unit in the northern Aegean.

The regeneration of the Phantom is summed up in the four words found on the patches worn on the left arm of the pilots of 117 Pterix Mahis: ‘The Legend Is Back!’ The name ‘Phantom’ is usually synonymous with the old saying ‘drink, smoke and make noise’. And yet today this jet is capable of fighting against almost any modern opponent on equal terms.

The upgrade efforts were mainly centered around the BVR capability with AIM-120 missiles, reflecting the increased need for CAP jets. The core of the program is the excellent AN/APG-65GY multi-role radar, the CPU-143/A central air data computer, Modular Multi-Role Computer (MMRC), laser gyro inertial navigation system with embedded GPS, AN/APX-113 Advanced Identification Friend or Foe (AIFF), and multi-function color displays.

The avionics package transforms the F-4 from a second-generation fighter with minimal chances of survival in the modern warfare arena into a capable weapon system designed to maximize crew specialization and the allocation of specific duties between front and rear cockpits, increasing the chances of mission success. Compared with before the upgrade, the weapons system officer’s (WSO) role has now been upgraded to match the capabilities of the APG-65 radar that features multiple modes of operation. Furthermore, the use of the Litening pod is the WSO’s sole responsibility. An experienced WSO serves as the ‘brains’ of the tactical formation, providing regular situational awareness updates to other jets, increasing the probability of a kill in air-to-air missions or providing accurate attack parameters for air-to-ground missions. With the Litening pod, F-4s can now undertake non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (NTISR) duties and launch laser-guided bombs (or designate these weapons for other types).

‘Today, the upgraded F-4E AUP has been recognized as a key operational element of the HAF, featuring an integrated avionics package, AIM-120 missiles and the Litening targeting pod’, notes Col Theodoros Sirmos, the commanding officer of 110 Pterix Mahis. ‘Indeed, the Litening once again puts the Phantom in the lead in the recce role, since it is now possible to run NTISR missions.

‘The RF-4E is a specialized reconnaissance platform having assumed the role of electronic reconnaissance with the ASTAC pod in the last decade. The efficiency of 348 Mira leaves no room for doubt as crews achieve high rates of mission success in major Air Force exercises while still using pretty much the same equipment that the RF-4E carried 35 years ago!’

Operational employment of the Litening pod by 338 Mira WSOs was an important factor noticed by United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) crews during recent joint exercises. Here, the WSOs utilized the full potential of the system, achieving similar results to the mighty F-15E.

Col Tzoumerkiotis concludes: ‘The latest major national exercises and joint training with the USAFE demonstrate the value of the F-4, but primarily prove the level of proficiency of both the pilots and the maintainers that keep them combat effective.’

Assessing the features incorporated in the Peace Icarus program, it is safe to say that the Hellenic F-4s are the most capable Phantoms in the world. Despite its challenging flight characteristics, the F-4 benefits from reliability — particularly in regard to the J79 engine. Solid proof of this is the low number of major incidents throughout its service: after hundreds of thousands of flight hours only eight flight crews have been lost.

After over 40 years of service under the insignia of four Greek squadrons, the imminent renewal of the follow-on support (FoS) contracts will ensure that Hellenic Phantoms will continue to enjoy high levels of availability for many years to come.

The full version of this feature appeared in the October 2015 edition of Combat Aircraft