Beginning with the initial development phase of the Phantom, McDonnell Douglas had suggested the development of a photographic reconnaissance model, to be equipped with additional cameras and sensors. When the US Air Force and Navy ordered Phantoms, they also acquired special reconnaissance models, designated RF-4B and RF-4C. Following intense international interest in the reconnaissance model, the RF-4E version - based on the F-4E - was developed.
The RF-4 was an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the USAF's F-4C which carried a variety of film-based and side-looking radar [SLAR] sensors for the Air Force [RF-4C] and the Marine Corps [RF-4B].
In late November 1965, the staff of NASA Langley (TDT) was urgently requested to assist the Air Force with a buffet problem that was experienced by the RF-4 reconnaissance version of the aircraft during combat opera-tions in Vietnam. When pilots attempted to perform high-speed pre- and post-strike photographic reconnaissance missions, they found that the nose mounted cameras in the RF-4 were being literally shaken to pieces, seriously degrading the clarity of the photographic information and ruining the mechanical operations and operational lifetime of the cameras. Langley researchers conducted wind-tunnel tests of the front fuselage of an RF-4 model in early 1966 to measure fluctuating pressures in the area near the camera lens and housing. The results of the study indicated that aerodynamic flow separation on the lower forebody over the camera installation produced large vibratory loads that were the source of the problem. A modified camera ramp angle and revised camera enclosure fairing eliminated the problem and were incorporated on later models of the RF-4. The fairing, which rounded the flat lower surface of the baseline nose, also resulted in increased internal nose volume and allowed larger cameras to be utilized.
In February 1963, the Marine Corps agreed to acquire the first 9 of what would eventually amount to a fleet of 46 RF-4Bs, a photographic reconnaissance version of the basic F-4 Phantom. The RF-4B was generally similar to the more numerous Air Force RF-4C, with a lengthened nose designed for reconnaissance applications. Three separate camera bays in the nose were designated Stations 1, 2, and 3, and carried a variety of cameras, which unlike the cameras of the RF-4Cs were on rotating mounts so they could be aimed at targets off the flight path.
- Station 1 carried one forward oblique or vertical KS-87 camera
- Station 2 carried a KA-87 low-altitude camera
- Station 3 normally carried a KA-55A high-altitude panoramic camera
- Station 3 could also carry the much larger KS-91 high-altitude panoramic camera or the KS-127A camera
The film could be developed in flight, with film cassettes ejected at low altitude to facilitate rapid processing and exploitation. The RF-4B also carried an AN/APQ-102 [subsequently replaced by the AN/APD-10B SLAR] reconnaissance SLAR antenna faired into the lower fuselage sides. The AN/AAD-4 infrared reconnaissance system was fitted in the fuselage just behind the SLAR.
Marine Corps RF-4B aircraft were retired in August of 1990, coinciding with the outset of the Gulf War, a move that was subsequently judged ill-timed by many.
The Air Force RF-4C was an unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft, with a longer more pointed nose than the standard F-4, accomodating three camera stations:
- the Forward station carried a forward oblique or vertical KS-87 camera
- the Low Altitude station could carry either
- a left or right oblique KS-87 camera
- a trio of vertical, left, and right oblique KS-87 cameras
- a KS-72 could replace a KS-87 in the 30-degree oblique position
- a KA-56 low-altitude camera
- a vertical KA-1 camera
- the High Altitude station normally carried either
- a single KA-55A high-altitude panoramic camera in a stabilized mount
- a single KA-91 high-altitude panoramic camera in a stabilized mount
- two split vertical KS-87 cameras
- a KC-1 mapping camera
- a T-11 mapping camera
- The RF-4C could also carry the HIAC-1 LOROP camera [originally developed for the RB-57F] in a large G-139 centerline-mounted pod mounted on the fuselage centerline.
The RF-4C was equipped with an ejectable film cassette system, which subsequently proved impractical in field use. Initially the RF-4C carried a Goodyear AN/APQ-102 side-looking mapping radar antennae on either side of the lower nose aft of the camera, which on some aircraft was later replaced by the AN/APD-10 with a podded extended range antenna.
The first production RF-4Cs entered service in September 1964, and the last of 503 production RF-4C was delivered in December 1973. In 1988 the Air Force decided to replace the aging RF-4C Phantom fleet with RF-16s, which would carry an ATARS centerline pod carrying variious sensors, including an electro-optical system to transmit images via digital datalink to a ground station. The RF-4C remained in service at the time of the Gulf War with the Alabama Air National Guard, with the last RF-4C leaving service in 1994.
Late in the afternoon of January 27, 1991, only ten days after the war between Iraq and the Allied Coalition Forces began, aircrews of the 192nd Reconnaissance Squadron, 152nd Reconnaissance Group, Nevada Air National Guard, were called upon to fly north to Kuwait. Their mission was to take pictures of open oil manifolds which were draining crude oil into the Persian Gulf at the order of Saddam Hussein. Equipped with special sensors which provide highly detailed photographs from long distances, the two RF-4 aircraft from the 192nd took off from Sheik Isa Air Base, Bahrain, without fighter escorts. Relying only on their speed and the skills of the aircrews, the "Phantoms" had to enter enemy territory alone and unarmed. The target area was a 40 Kilometer strip of heavily defended coastline adjacent to Kuwait City. Arriving in the target area, the flight leader determined that due to the heavy smoke cover from burning oil wells, the planned high altitude photo run would not work. To obtain usable photos of the area, the flight would have to approach the target area parallel to the coast and below the smoke cover. As the RF-4s approached the objective, they were fired on by anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. Low visibility required the flight to make another pass at the target to insure adequate coverage. Clear photographs were obtained by both aircraft which were forwarded the same night to U.S. Central Command. The following day, these photos were used by Allied fighter-bombers to attack the oil manifolds and stop the flow of crude oil into the Persian Gulf. During the Persian Gulf War, the "High Rollers" of the 192nd Reconnaissance Squadron added to its record of service in four wars and carried on the Air National Guard's proud tradition of service to the nation.
In the RF-4E model the interal cannon was removed and various cameras and sensors retrofitted, enabling it to carry out both day and nighttime tactical reconnaissance missions. The RF-4E's generally take to the skies armed with just air-to-air missiles for self defense, but if called upon they are also capable of carrying out air-to-ground strikes. A total of 150 RF-4E's were manufactured, and more than half were sold to the German Luftwaffe. Other RF-4E's are in use in the air forces of Iran, Greece and Turkey - as well as the Israeli Air Force [Heyl Ha'avir].
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force received 154 Japanese F-4EJ Phantoms including the final Phantom built worldwide. All Japanese F-4EJs are optimized for the air defense role and used to equip six interceptor squadrons. In total 96 F-4EJs have been upgraded to the F-4EJ "Kai" (new) standard and will serve the JASDF well into the next millenium. Fourteen unarmed reconnaissance versions of the F-4EJ were built by McDonnell and delivered to the JASDF between November 1974 and June 1975. They were designated RF-4EJ. They were virtually identical to the USAF RF-4C, with the only differences being the deletion of certain equipment such as the radar homing and warning suite. This was later boosted with 17 F-4EJs converted to reconnaissance Phantom as RF-4EJ-Kai. The JASDF upgraded 11 of its RF-4Es to RF-4E Kai standards. The modifications included the replacement of the AN/APQ-99 radar by an AN/APQ-172 unit with digital image processing. The J/APR-2 RWR was replaced by J/APr-5. Seventeen of the remaining 29 F-4EJs that were not scheduled to be converted to F-4EJ Kai status were to be converted to the reconnaissance role under the designation RF-4EJ, with the remaining 12 to be retired. At least nine F-4EJs have been converted to RF-4EJ standards. These aircraft differ from the RF-4E/RF-4E Kai in not having any internal reconnaissance equipment. However they can carry three types of sensor pods -- the TACER (an elecronic reconnaissance pod with datalink), the TAC (carrying KS-135A and KS-95B cameras, plus a D-500UR IR system) and the LOROP (with KS-146B camera).
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