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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Iran's Ship Hunting Phantoms; The F-4's Service As a Maritime Strike Fighter

June 22nd - 2018

The most numerous combat aircraft fielded by the Iranian Air Force, the Vietnam War era F-4 Phantom heavy fighter is relied on to perform a number of roles for the Islamic Republic's defence today. The fighters are heavier, faster and can operate from higher altitudes than rival platforms such as the F-16 and F-18 fielded by the country's potential adversaries, and with extensive indigenous modernisations they present a credible threat. While the F-4E, the most widely serving variant of the Phantom, was designed primarily for air superiority, with Iran relying heavily on its F-14 and MiG-29 fleets and surface to air missiles batteries to protect its airspace from enemy aircraft the Phantoms in Iranian service have increasingly been allocated a strike role. This includes both conventional strikes on ground targets, as demonstrated by operations against Islamic State militants based in Iraq, as well as ship hunting missions in the Persian Gulf.

For the Iranian military, the ability to threaten hostile warships in the waters of the Persian Gulf, particularly the narrow but strategically critical Straits of Hormuz, remains a key capability. While Iran relies heavily on its ballistic missile arsenal to strike enemy military facilities across the Middle East, a different weapons systems have been developed to neutralise enemy war fleets and aircraft carriers and thus blunt the ability of potential adversaries to launch a strike on the the country. Having extensively studied the operations of the United States Navy's carrier strike groups in particular, the Iranian fleet of attack boats and diesel powered submarines, including state of the art Russian Kilo Class 'black hole' ships and a number of North Korean made platforms, are all key to keeping hostile warships at bay and thus deterring a Western attack on the country. The Iranian military has also relied heavily on assistance from its close defence partner, China's People's Liberation Army, to develop a number of cutting edge air launched anti ship missile systems. Chinese designed cruise missiles are built in considerable numbers by Iran under indigenous designations - much like the country has taken to renaming domestically manufactured North Korean ballistic missiles. The Nasr anti ship cruise missile, the most capable short range platform in the Iranian inventory, is a direct derivative appearing nearly identical to the Chinese C-704. With a range of 35km and the ability to approach enemy warships at low altitudes, the missile has been modified to be deployed from Iranian F-4 heavy fighters. As each Phantom can deploy multiple missiles, and can do so far from Iranian coasts due to the aircraft's long range, Phantoms armed for a maritime strike role can pose a significant threats to enemy warships.

Complementing the Nasr, a second anti ship missile has been indigenously manufactured for the Phantom based on an advanced Chinese design. The Qader medium range cruise missile, derived from the Chinese C-802 supersonic platform, is capable of striking hostile targets up to 200 kilometres away. Able to engage enemy targets at standoff range, the survivability of the Phantoms as well as the size of Iran's maritime anti access area denial zone are both significantly enhanced. Iran has reportedly modernised the anti jamming technologies of these two Chinese missiles to improve their effectiveness when operating against adversaries with advanced electronic warfare capabilities. The F-4 is the primary launch platform for the two cruise missiles, and travelling at high altitudes and at speeds of over Mach 2 the aircraft can impart considerable kinetic energy onto them when launching. The Phantoms also enjoy a considerable speed and altitude advantage over any Western carrier based fighters currently in service, improving their survivability when attacking enemy naval strike groups near its coasts. With dozens of Phantoms in service they are set to prove a highly effective complement to the country's other advanced maritime anti access area denial systems.

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