Phantoms of the world, episode 3: the "Aegean guards"

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In the late 60s, the Greek Air Force (““λληνικὴ Πολεμική Αεροπορία - Ellinikí Polemikí Aeroporía” in Greek) was in the midst of a delicate process of change. Although the Greek state was one of the poorest in Europe (even taking into account the communist regimes of Eastern Europe!) The geopolitical position of Greece, essentially isolated from other NATO partners and surrounded by enemies, had forced Athens to however, to allocate a large portion of its GDP to Defense.

By virtue of its operational role and the preparation of personnel, the Air Force was rightly considered the elite corps and the first line of defense of the nation, however the means at its disposal were facing a very rapid and alarming obsolescence. In fact, until that moment, the backbone of the EPA's combat departments consisted of a colorful collection of fighters and armed trainers of different generations such as the Lockheed T-33 "Shooting Star", the North American F-86 "Saber" , the Republic F-84F “Thunderstreak”, the Convair F-102 “Delta Dagger” and the Lockheed F-104 “Starfighter”. Although each of these aircraft was revolutionary at the time of entry into service and Greece had acquired important numbers, the dramatic "technological surge" that the world of air warfare had seen during the 60s, starting from operational experiences matured in the contexts of the parallel conflicts in Indochina and in the Middle East, they had made it clear to the Greek planners that their Air Force needed new "lymph", and also quickly.

Mind you, the aircraft models in service at that time had not fully exhausted their war potential, and indeed would have continued to serve for many more years in a myriad of support roles (in some cases up to the year 2000!) however, it was absolutely out of the question that they could still defend the skies of the country as "frontline phalanx".

A first step towards renewal was the entry into service of the Northrop F-5 “Freedom Fighter” and the Dassault Mirage F1, both of which were literally greeted with cheers from their ground crews; but it was still not enough. The EPA also needed a high-performance heavy fighter that could additionally carry out “multi-role” missions and at that time there was only one aircraft in the world capable of fulfilling this mission.

After a series of consultations lasting over three years, in 1971 Greece decided to order the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as the new "workhorse" of its Air Force.

The first contract for the supply of 36 F-4Es was called "Peace Icarus" and its execution proceeded very slowly due to the reluctance of the United States to forge too close a relationship with the so-called "Regime of the Colonels". This is why, despite the order having been issued in 1971, and the contract was actually signed and approved by the Congress of the United States of America in 1972 and the training of technicians and pilots proceeded "to the charge step" at the USAF base in Homestead, the Greeks received their first F-4s only on April 5, 1974.

The first 36 Greek F-4s belonged to the F-4E version and were all new from the factory, so they incorporated some of the latest technological innovations introduced in the contemporary batches produced for the USAF including:

  • the new J79-GE-17A engines capable of unleashing 8100 kg of thrust with afterburners;
  • the General Electric M6A20 61-barreled 1mm rotating-barrel Gatling gun located under the muzzle and equipped with a reserve of 640 rounds;
  • the Westinghouse AN / APQ-120 radar, much more powerful but at the same time more compact than its predecessors, so much so that it can be placed in the nose together with the cannon;
  • Martin-Baker Mark 7 “zero-zero” ejection seats (zero altitude and zero speed);
  • a tailplane featuring one slat rigid fixed under the edge of the binding. The presence of such slat guaranteed better control authority at high angles of attack (AOA);
  • an additional tank of fuel (the seventh) located on the tail, above the engine nozzles;
  • a manual wing closing system instead of the hydraulic one;
  • another important design feature of this improved version was the installation of slat on the leading edges. These were automatically extended when the aircraft's angle of attack (AOA) exceeded six degrees and retracted when it returned to four degrees. This modification was first introduced on the F-4Es in mid-1972 and later adopted on older F-4 models as well.

These very first Greek F-4Es were assigned to the 338 MPK "Aris" based in Andravida, however at the time of the outbreak of the conflict with Turkey for the possession of the island of Cyprus, they (as well as the Turkish F-4s) were not fully operational, therefore they were not used during the conflict. The deliveries of the Phantom they started again when the war was over, when 2 specimens arrived to replace as many aircraft lost in the course of accidents.

Subsequently other contracts were signed for the supply of 18 F-4E and 8 RF-4E respectively, under the program called "Peace Icarus II", which were then delivered between 1978 and 1979. The Hellenic Air Force had thus received up to that moment 56 F-4E and 8 RF-4E in total.

After this first "tranche", a second one comprising another 40 F-4Es was ready for delivery in 1981 when the victory in the Greek elections of the PASOK socialists led to a worsening of relations between Greece and the United States which not only froze the planned delivery. of aircraft but also suspended any transfer of arms to Greece until 1987. Moreover, during the same period, due to yet another coup in Turkey, the United States also considerably cooled relations with that country, also postponing military supplies destined to the Turks. From this point of view, the simultaneous freezing of relations with both sides of the Aegean also served the Reagan Administration very well to maintain the balance of power between the two ancient enemies in order to lead them back to milder advice over time; something that failed dramatically if we think that in 1987 the tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean began to rise and, since then, have never really dropped, continuing today with a turn, if possible, even pejorative.

With the arrival of the 90s and with a rapprochement of the United States with Greece following the decisive contribution that the use of the Greek air bases and ports had provided to the allied cause during the "Gulf War", Americans and Greeks again entered into negotiations, this time for the sale of 50 F-4Es and 19 “Wild Weasel” F-4Gs. Once again the agreements ended up running aground, however a last round of negotiations saw the counterparties reach the longed-for final agreement according to which the Greeks would receive 28 F-4Es sold by the 113th TFS and 163 ° TFS of the Indiana Air National Guard (the Indiana State National Guard Air Force) as well as 29 surplus RF-4Es recently retired by the German Luftwaffe.

Although they belonged to tranches of older production, i Phantom sold by ANG had been modernized and equipped with various improvements among which deserve to be mentioned:

  • a new advanced navigation and weapons release system (NWDS);
  • an aerial video tape recorder (AVTR);
  • a new radio suite “Have Quick”;
  • an AN / APQ-120 radar that had been improved to make it more effective in air-to-ground missions.

These supplies were completed in 1993 bringing the total of Phantom of all versions ordered by the Greeks to the overall figure of 121, divided between 84 F-4E and 37 RF-4E distributed among the following units:

  • 337 MPK “Fantasma”, based in Larisa, equipped with F-4E;
  • 348 MTA “Matia”, based in Larisa, equipped with RF-4E;
  • 338 MPK “Aris”, based in Andravida, equipped with F-4E;
  • 339 MPK “Ajax”, based in Andravida, equipped with F-4E;
  • 130 SM, based in Limnos, equipped with F-4E.

Despite the numbers, on paper by no means despicable, the fleet of Phantom Greeks presented some serious problems, the most important of which was the lack of standardization. Yes, because in reality the various supplies of F-4 acquired belonged to lots with different characteristics, often with incompatible instruments and spare parts that required the preparation of separate and dedicated logistic lines; pure madness! This also made the ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of the aircraft abnormal, with the consequent risk of accidents.

According to data published by the Aviation Safety Network, the loss of at least 70 F-33s by the EPA in as many accidents has been ascertained since the 4s, but the real number could even be higher. Sure, intense use and human error are factors that need to be taken into account when analyzing this type of data, however it is beyond question that such a high percentage of peacetime accident losses is a sign of serious maintenance problems. and discipline.

To overcome these drawbacks, in the 90s the EPA embarked on a massive plan to modernize the fleet of Phantom. First 70 F-4, both F-4E and RF-4E, were selected to undergo an upgrade and life extension program (SLEP, Service-Life Extension Program) at Hellenic Aerospace Industries. This program saw the replacement of the electronic suite with a more modern one, the modernization of the thrusters, which were changed from the J79-GE-17A variant to the J79-GE-17C which improved the overall performance of the aircraft and eliminated the characteristic smoke trail that was being issued by the first variants and which had constituted in the collective imagination a sort of recognizing trait of Phantom.

With the change of the engine also came the replacement of the ten combustion chambers, the fuel injectors and the igniters, all changes that both the drivers and the mechanics welcomed.

The SLEP modernization program was a real success, not least because for the first time the EPA was able to bring the majority of its composite fleet of Phantom towards a single standard, however while it was still in progress, military leaders began to test the ground for something even more ambitious. In fact, starting in 1993, the Greeks realized that because the Phantom was able to maintain its combat capacity even in the New Millennium, it was necessary that at least a part of the fleet was updated to an even higher standard in order to perform new types of missions, both in the air-to-air and in the air-to-ground. The Greek authorities then issued a requirement for the modernization of 39 aircraft previously left out of the SLEP program and immediately received letters of interest from the German DASA, the American Rockwell International and the Israeli IAI.

Due to its close ties with Turkey, and fearing the possibility of sensitive data leaks, the IAI was discarded almost immediately, leaving only Rockwell International and DASA in the race, which fought for the next 4 years, until 1997. , when the German company was finally the winner, also thanks to the fact that its project was inspired by the success obtained through the modernization to the F-4F ICE standard of the Phantom of the Luftwaffe.

Under the agreements that outlined what later became known as the "Peace Icarus" project, the 39 Phantom selected, all belonging to the F-4E version, were first sent to Hellenic Aircraft Industries to be upgraded to the SLEP standard too. Subsequently, 2 aircraft from the aforementioned batch were sent to Germany to DASA to be modernized to a standard comparable to that of the German F-4F ICEs, the latter being completed by 1999, when both aircraft were returned.

At that point, DASA supplied the kits for the modernization that was carried out directly in Greece by Hellenic Aircraft Industries themselves, which then began a third and final cycle of works to integrate a whole series of subsystems compatible with the combat missions in a context of electronic warfare traditionally pertaining to the American F-4G Wild Weasels. As the aircraft were finally ready, they underwent a tight test program (no less than 154 airframe flights!) Before finally being delivered to the departments, the latter process which began on December 18, 2002.

Indeed, the program as a whole had fallen behind 2 years, and each of 39 Phantom modernized had come to cost the equivalent of $ 8 million, for a grand total of 312, but the game was literally worth the candle because the resulting F-4E Peace Icarus 2000, also known as the F-4E AUP (Avionics Upgrade Program ) had now become fully fledged 4th generation fighters with little in common with the Phantom original and were able to perform a very wide range of missions thanks to the unification in a single variant of the F-4E SLEP, F-4E ICE and F-4G Wild Weasel models.

I Phantom so modernized they were equipped with:

  • a new Hughes / Raytheon AN / APG-65GY multirole radar developed for the McDonnell Douglas F / A-18C / D Hornet;
  • a new Honeywell H-764G navigation system, the result of a combination of LINS and GPS;
  • a new datalink information system (DTS);
  • a new AN / APN-232 CARA radio altimeter from NAVCOM;
  • a new central computer CPU-143 / A from GEC Avionics;
  • a new multimodal radar command from Elbit;
  • a new Have Quick II AN / ARC-164 communication system from Magnavox;
  • a new Collins TACAN AN / APN-153Y navigation assistance system;
  • new multi-functional color displays in both cockpits;
  • a new EL-Op Heads Up Display (HUD);
  • a new Data Transfer Unit;
  • a new Hands On Throttle And Sticks (HOTAS) system;
  • a new advanced friend / foe identification system (AFIDS) Hazeltine AN / APX-113 (V) IFF. The latter is the trait that can be immediately associated with the F-4E AUP, given that it consists of four antennae located aligned in the upper part of the muzzle which are also known by the nickname of "bird slicer".

One of the major advantages that the modernization brought was that, from that moment on, the F-4E AUPs could be equipped with a massive load of new war loads to add to those they could already carry previously.

As part of the air-to-air missions in the context of BVR (Beyond Visual Range), alongside the historic AIM-7 Sparrow, the F-4E AUPs were able to integrate the AIM-120 AMRAAM belonging to the versions "B", "C-5 "And" C-7 "while in the WVR (Within Visual Range) context, the AIM-9 Sidewinder of the" M "," L / I "," L / I1 "and" P4 "versions were joined by the IRIS- German-made T which, thanks to a special aiming system located in the helmet of the pilot and the Weapon Systems Officer (WSO), can be launched at a target even when the aircraft does not have its own nose directly aimed at it.

The installation of more powerful engines e slat Extendables that give the F-4E AUP flight characteristics and maneuverability equal to those of the F-15C / D and the deadly combination of the new state-of-the-art radar and electronic suite, combined with the availability of the aforementioned panoply of missiles, they give the “Enhanced Phantoms” an air-to-air engagement capability that is substantially equal to, or in some cases even greater than, that of all 4th and 4,5th generation aircraft in service worldwide.

In air-to-ground missions, i Phantom upgraded can employ the AGM-65 Maverick guided missiles of the variants "A", "B" and "G2" and the laser-guided bombs GBU-10, GBU-12, GBU-16, GBU-24 and GBU-27 belonging to the Paveway I, Paveway II, Enhanced Paveway II and Paveway III series. Particularly defended targets can be attacked by using Mk 20 Rockeye II cluster bombs (both CBU-99 and CBU-100 variant), the American AGM-154C Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) standoff missile or the dispenser Bombkapsel 90 (BK90) AFDS of German-Swedish origin capable of “watering” a specific target with a “rain” of 72 high explosive submunitions. There are also a large number of free-fall bombs of all types which, if necessary, can be converted to precision weapons by applying the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kits. Finally, for the anti-radiation missions, the F-4E AUPs were enabled to launch the AGM-88 HARM missiles of the “B Block IIIA” variant.

For both war and reconnaissance missions, the F-4E AUPs have been enabled to carry a large number of different pods, among which the Rafael LITENING sensor pod for pointing and navigating the systems deserves particular mention. weapon for close support. Considering all that has been said, the changes made through the "Peace Icarus" program have transformed the F-4 from a 3rd generation aircraft with minimal survivability in the modern war arena into a superb weapon system. designed to maximize the specialization of the crew and the allocation of specific tasks divided between the front and rear cabin, exponentially increasing (thanks also to the panoply of new integrated weapon systems) the chances of success.

If we make a comparison with the situation in force before the modernization, the role of the Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) has now been very high to match the capabilities of the AN / APG-65GY radar, characterized by different modes of operation . Furthermore, the use of the Rafael LITENING sensor pod is the sole responsibility of the WSO which, if particularly "expert", can now also serve as the "brain" of flight training as a whole, providing regular updates on the tactical situation to other aircraft as well. part of the same wave that, thus gaining operational flexibility, increases the possibility of achieving a kill in missions or precisely destroying a target in air-to-ground missions. Finally, again through LITENING, i Phantom they can also carry out non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (NTISR) missions, drop laser-guided bombs, or designate targets that can be hit by other weapons launched from different platforms.

As happened for other operators of the Phantom, even in the Greek case, the wear and tear of cells, operational accidents and the introduction of new aircraft models have led to a progressive reduction of the combat ranks.

On 5 May 2017, the 348 MTA “Matia” based in Larisa was deactivated and its last 12 RF-4Es grounded. Since then, the last ones Phantom still in service with the Hellenic Air Force are the 35 F-4E AUPs divided between the 338 MPK "Aris" (which takes its name from the Greek god of war Ares) and the 339 MPK "Ajax" (which takes its name from Ajax Telamonio , Achaean hero of the "Trojan War") which together make up the 117 PM based in Andravida.

Although formally, within the 117 PM, the 338 MPK "Aris" are assigned air-to-ground missions while the 339 MPK "Ajax" are assigned air-to-air missions, in reality the training of the pilots is so complete that the two departments they are able to change their mission profiles right in the middle of the action.

The 338 and 339 being the only units equipped with the Phantom they also have the task of training new pilots, who, once the long training is completed, must also successfully complete 70 operational missions before being declared fully combat-ready; hence the status of 338 and 339 as an elite unit within the EPA.

The two departments of Phantom Greeks also participated in numerous joint exercises with other NATO members, such as the “Vega”, the “Mare Aperto” and the “Iniohos”. During the latter i Phantom they managed to match in all respects the results of the F-15Es Strike Eagle Americans while in the first two they measured themselves on an equal footing in BVR contexts with Euro Fighter of the AMI and i Gust of the Armée de l'air.

In 46 years of operational activity, the Hellenic F-4s have never been officially used in warfare and have never dropped their war loads against any enemy, however since their entry into service they have also been engaged almost daily in the mission to counter the repeated violations of Greek airspace by the aircraft of the Türk Hava Kuvvetleri, the Air Force of the Republic of Turkey, which for these trespass missions has often used its large fleet of Phantom.

Almost 5 decades after their first flight with Hellenic cockades, the Greek F-4s continue to serve on the front line, alongside the F-16s, the Mirage 2000 / 2000-5s and, shortly, the Gust, and will continue to do so until 2024-2025 when they will finally be replaced by 20 new and second-hand Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs that the Athens government has already announced it wants to buy from the United States of America, but until at that time, the thunder roar of the J79 reactors of the “beater of St Louis” will continue to signal to the opposite shore of the Aegean that even in the skies the spirit of the Spartans lives imperishable.

Photo: Ἑλληνικὴ Πολεμική Αεροπορία / Jerry Gunner