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FEATURE: F-4 Special Issue – Spangdahlem’s Hunter Killers

Photo: A 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron F-4G Phantom II Wild Weasel aircraft, foreground, and an F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Squadron fly over Spangdahlem Air Base. The F-16C is carrying an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile on its outer, left pylon and both aircraft are armed with AGM-88 HARM missiles.


For a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s different generations of USAF fast jets worked together in the suppression of enemy air defences role. Doug Gordon examines this unusual arrangement at Spangdahlem which saw the F-16 working with the F-4G as Wild Weasel hunter/killer teams.


Following withdrawal from South Vietnam between 1973 and 1975, the armed forces of the United States entered a period of introspection concerning the conduct of the war and the lessons to be learnt. The USAF had been unexpectedly mauled by the North Vietnamese air defences throughout the conflict. Of the approximately 1,700 combat losses, the majority were due to radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), with the remainder shot down by other forms of ground fire, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or enemy aircraft.
Quite clearly this attrition rate was unacceptable and in the years following the end of the conflict the USAF accepted its tactics and doctrines were outdated. To counter losses by enemy aircraft the air force established the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nevada. It also instigated the concept of dissimilar air combat training (DACT); establishing aggressor units at Nellis, RAF Alconbury, Cambridgeshire and Clarke AB in the Philippines.
To address the problems with the AAA and SAM threats it sought to modify and upgrade its suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) doctrine which had its origins in 1965. This was when the USAF had tentatively developed the Wild Weasel concept for attacking and neutralising enemy ground-to-air defences. It had led to the specially modified variants of the North American F-100F Super Sabre and Republic F-105F Thunderchief; both of which served in this role with varying degrees of success. During the war it was also decided to modify McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom IIs for the role. This would be the first of a number of Phantom variants for this mission, and for a period the F-4G model worked in unison with the F-16 Fighting Falcon.


The 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing’s first Wild Weasel hunter/killer teams were made up of the F-4E and F-4G. Each of the wing’s units, the 23rd, 81st and 480th Tactical Fighter Squadrons, flew both types. The F-4G was developed from the F-4E especially for the SEAD role. It was fitted with the AN/APR-38 radar homing and warning (RHAW) system which could locate and identify radar emitters. This equipment was installed in the nose, replacing the F-4E’s cannon; and was later updated to the AN/APR-47. The weapons used for this purpose were the AGM-65 Maverick missile and AGM-78 Standard Anti-Radiation Missile (StARM). The latter sought to address the deficiencies of the AGM-45 Shrike, the main SEAD weapon used in Vietnam, which could be defeated by the enemy radar operator switching his system off so there were no signals to home in on. However, the AGM-78 had limited range and speed. In 1986, the more advanced AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) entered service.


The rest of this article can be found in the October issue which is a F-4 Phantom Special  and goes on sale on Thursday, September 20. Buy your copy direct from or in leading newsagents. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from – simply search ‘Aviation News’


Photo caption: A hunter/killer team over its home base of Spangdahlem. US National Archives

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