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    End of an Era: South Korea’s F-4 Phantoms Bid Farewell with Final Missile Salute in April

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    On April 18, amidst the expansive sky near the Yellow Sea, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) conducted a poignant live-fire drill, marking an end to a significant chapter in military aviation history.

    The venerable F-4 Phantoms, which have been in service since 1969, fired AGM-142 Popeye missiles for the last time in a somber farewell before their scheduled retirement on June 8.

    Phantoms, F-4G & F-4 Phantom II” by Gone-Walkabout is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    The final act of the F-4 Phantoms was part of the largest joint air exercise of the year between the United States and South Korea, the Korea Flying Training (KFT) exercise.

    This year’s military drill involved more than 25 different types of aircraft, totaling over 100 from both nations, demonstrating the sheer might and interoperability of the allied forces.

    One cannot understate the significance of the F-4 Phantoms in the annals of military history. Taking its first flight in 1958, this iconic aircraft served as the tactical linchpin for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps from the Vietnam War through the Gulf War, before the U.S. fleet retired in 1996.

    South Korea became the third nation to operate the Phantom, after the UK and Iran, establishing the F-4D as one of the most formidable fighters of its time, outclassing North Korean jets.

    The ROKAF has operated roughly 220 Phantoms, including the upgraded F-4E and reconnaissance RF-4C variants. Now, only about ten operational F-4s remain, with their retirement imminent.

    The AGM-142 Popeye, developed by Rafael in the early ’80s, became a powerful strategic weapon for South Korea after its integration in 2002.

    It provided a unique capability with a range capable of targeting Pyongyang from the closest air base at Osan, around 50 miles away.

    The missile’s precision and reach made it a cornerstone of South Korean defense strategy for years.

    Col. Charles G. Cameron, the 7th Air Force’s director of operations and plans, emphasized the importance of the KFT exercise, noting it provides “the most realistic opportunity” for the forces to rehearse complex scenarios and reinforce the defensive posture in the region.

    As the ROKAF bids farewell to its AGM-142 equipped F-4s, Col. Matthew C. Gaetke, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, assures that U.S. and South Korean forces remain “ready to respond to any threat or adversary.”

    The F-4’s successor, the AGM-84H SLAM-ER, was deployed in 2007, and the Phantom’s absence will soon be filled by newer fighters like the F-35A Lightning II and FA-50 Golden Eagle.

    The ROKAF also has high hopes for the indigenous KF-21 Boramae.

    Major Kim Do-hyung, commander of the 153rd Fighter Squadron, expressed a bittersweet sentiment, saying, “Through live-fire training, I gained the confidence to hit any target immediately and powerfully.” He added that the formidable presence of the Popeye missile “will continue to remain in the hearts of the Phantom Men.”

    Relevant articles:
    South Korea’s F-4 Phantoms Fire AGM-142 Popeye Missiles One Last Time Before Retirement, Air & Space Forces Magazine
    The F-4 Phantom Fighter Is Slowly Fading Away, The National Interest
    F-4 Phantoms Conduct Final Popeye Missile Firing Before South Korea Bids Them Farewell, The War Zone
    South Korea’s F-4 Phantoms Fire AGM-142 Popeye Missiles One Last Time Before Retirement, Air & Space Forces Magazine

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