The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has announced the deactivation of 301 Hikotai, the last squadron to operate the McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ Phantom II
Japan’s Air Force officially retired its last Phantom fighter jets on November 20 with a live broadcast ceremony. The McDonnell F-4 flew for the Japanese for almost half a century, now giving room to the F-35 Lightning II.
In order to celebrate the end of the 48-year-old Phantom era, the 301 Hikotai (squadron) had given two of their F-4EJs special paintwork a few weeks ago and sent them on a farewell tour to bases across Japan. With the ceremony on the airbase, the story ended on 20 November: the F-4EJ was ceremoniously sent into retirement.
The F-4 fighter was developed by Boeing (formerly McDonnell Douglas) for the U.S. Navy, with its first flight in 1958. In Japan, it was introduced into the Air Self-Defense Force, and manufactured and licensed as the F-4EJ. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the primary contractor. With delivery starting in 1971 to the Air Self-Defense Force, a total of 140 units have been manufactured to date.
From 1968, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) purchased a total of 140 F-4EJ Phantoms without aerial refueling, AGM-12 Bullpup missile system, nuclear control system or ground attack capabilities. Mitsubishi built 138 under license in Japan and 14 unarmed reconnaissance RF-4Es were imported. One of the aircraft (17-8440) was the last of the 5,195 F-4 Phantoms to be produced. It was manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on 21 May 1981. “The Final Phantom” served with 306th Tactical Fighter Squadron and later transferred to the 301st Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Of these, 96 F-4EJs were modified to the F-4EJ Kai standard. 15 F-4EJ and F-4EJ Kai were converted to reconnaissance aircraft designated RF-4EJ. Japan had a fleet of 90 F-4s in service in 2007. After studying several replacement fighters the F-35 Lightning II was chosen in 2011. The 302nd Tactical Fighter Squadron became the first JASDF F-35 Squadron at Misawa Air Base when it converted from the F-4EJ Kai on 29 March 2019. The JASDF’s sole aerial reconnaissance unit, the 501st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, retired their RF-4Es and RF-4EJs on 9 March 2020, and the unit itself dissolved on 26 March. The 301st Tactical Fighter Squadron then became the sole user of the F-4EJ in the Air Defense Command, with their retirement originally scheduled in 2021 along with the unit’s transition to the F-35A. However, on 20 November 2020, the 301st Tactical Fighter Squadron announced the earlier retirement of their remaining F-4EJs, concluding the Phantom’s long-running career in the JASDF Air Defense Command.
Officially, the time of the phantom in Japan’s air self-defense forces is over. At the Gifu base, however, the F-4EJ from the flight test center located there should continue to fly until the end of March 2021. Meanwhile, the 301 Hikotai will switch to its future operational pattern – and with the switch to the Lockheed Martin F-35A, it will skip several generations of fighters. With the end of the phantom era, the 301 Hikotai is also saying goodbye to Hyakuri Air Base: the squadron will soon settle at Misawa Air Base in the north of the main island of Honshu.