The RF-4E (company designation Model 98LG) was the unarmed reconnaissance version of the F-4E. It was designed strictly for export, and never served with the USAF. However, RF-4Es did carry USAF serial numbers for administrative purposes.
The RF-4E combined the reconnaissance systems of the RF-4C with the J79-GE-17 engines and much of the airframe of the unslatted F-4E. Like the F-4E, the -17 engines of the RF-4E were later brought up to -17C standard and have been made smokeless.
The West German Luftwaffe was the RF-4E's largest customer. The first RF-4Es were ordered by the West German Luftwaffe in January of 1969. German industry participated in the production of some major subcomponents as well as certain US-built items which were deemed too sensitive for export. The RF-4Es carried a Fairchild KS-87B or KS-72 camera in bay number 1. Bay number 2 could carry three KS-87s or, alternatively, pairs of KS-72 or KS-87 cameras. The third bay carries one KA-91 or a KS-55A or two KS-87 cameras. Alternatively, KC-1 or T-11 mapping cameras could be installed. For night missions, the RF-4E carries photoflash cartridges which are ejected upwards from locations in the rear fuselage. Sensors include the AAS-18A infrared reconnaissance system an improved UPD-4 side looking radar, and (for Luftwaffe aircraft) an advanced Goodyear UPD-4 side-looking radar system mounted in a centerline pod. Luftwaffe RF-4Es were equipped with an air-to-ground datalink system and have the ability to develop film in flight and eject it for real-time evaluation by battlefield commanders.
The first RF-4E for Germany (USAF serial number 69-7448) flew on September 15, 1970. Luftwaffe service began on January 20, 1971, with the initial unit being Aufklarungeschwader 51 "Immelmann" (AKG 51) based at Bremgarten. Other RF-4E aircraft equipped AKG 52 at Leck from September 17, 1971. A total of 88 RF-4Es were delivered to the Luftwaffe. They carried the USAF serials 69-7448/7535. The Luftwaffe serials were 3501/3588.
Under the Peace Trout program, a Luftwaffe RF-4E was fitted with an electronic intelligence (ELINT) system based on the APR-39 in place of the nose-mounted cameras. It could be recognized by the presence of a distinctive bulge underneath the forward camera access door.
In 1978, the Luftwaffe decided that it might be a good idea to give its reconnaissance RF-4Es a secondary ground attack capability. In a program finished in 1982, all serving Luftwaffe RF-4Es were fitted by Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) with a weapons delivery system. They were provided with hardpoints and wiring for underwing weapons pylons. A weapons aiming sight was fitted for the pilot, with weapons selection switches being provided in both the front and rear cockpits. Up to six British-built Hunting BL-755 cluster bomb units could be carried, or up to 5000 pounds of other ordnance. At the same time, the RF-4Es were upgraded with newer cameras and were fitted with Tracor AN/ALE-40 chaff dispensers.
Luftwaffe RF-4Es were scheduled to leave active service sometime during 1993/94. AKG-51's RF-4Es were to be replaced by Panavia Tornadoes, and AKG-52 was to be disbanded altogether. As they left Luftwaffe service, several RF-4Es were passed along to Greece.
Subsequently, Israel, Iran, Greece, and Turkey were supplied with RF-4Es. The German RF-4Es had the angular nose associated with the US Navy's RF-4B and the early RF-4C of the USAF. However, the RF-4E aircraft supplied to the Israeli, Iranian, Greek, and Turkish air forces were delivered with the more streamlined nose characteristic of later USAF RF-4Cs.
After Germany, Iran was the largest customer for the RF-4E, a total of 27 examples being ordered. The first RF-4E destined for Iran rolled off the production line at McDonnell in St Louis in the late fall of 1970. It made its maiden flight on December 14, 1970. The first RF-4Es arrived in Iran in 1971. Fifteen more were delivered in succeeding years. However, the final 11 RF-4Es destined for Iran were cancelled in February of 1979 for political reasons after the fall of the Shah. Further arms deliveries to Iran were embargoed. Owing to the arms embargo against Iran, the Iranian RF-4Es have reportedly been cannibalized to keep the few remaining serviceable F-4Es flying.
The first Israeli RF-4Es were delivered in February of 1971 during Operation Peace Echo I. A total of 12 RF-4Es were delivered to Israel between 1971 and 1976. All of them were new builds. Israeli RF-4Es have been repeatedly upgraded with structural improvements and new avionics. The Israeli RF-4E can carry the Sidewinder air-to-air missile as well as the Israeli-built Python and Shafrir air-to-air missiles. They have also been provided with indigenous reconnaissance and avionics equipment.
Eight new-build RF-4Es were delivered to the Hellenic Air Force. The RF-4E aircraft replaced the RF-84F Thunderflash in service with Mira 348 in 1978-79. However, Mira 348 retained its RF-84Fs in the training role until 1990. The Greek RF-4Es have radar warning receivers mounted on the air intakes and on the rear of the vertical fin. At least two of the Mira 348's RF-4Es have crashed. In 1993, the strength of Mira 348 was supplemented by several ex-Luftwaffe RF-4Es that were passed along to Greece.
Eight RF-4Es were delivered to Turkey. The were all new-build aircraft. Turkish RF-4Es were first delivered in November of 1978, equipping No. 113 Squadron at Eskisehir.
69-7448/7455 McDonnell RF-4E-43-MC Phantom (for Luftwaffe, 3501-3508) 69-7456/7462 McDonnell RF-4E-44-MC Phantom (for Luftwaffe, 3509-3515) 69-7463/7481 McDonnell RF-4E-45-MC Phantom (for Luftwaffe, 3516-3534) 69-7482/7510 McDonnell RF-4E-46-MC Phantom (for Luftwaffe, 3535-3563) 69-7511/7535 McDonnell RF-4E-47-MC Phantom (for Luftwaffe, 3564-3588) 69-7590/7595 McDonnell RF-4E-45-MC Phantom (for Israel, Peace Echo I) 72-0266/0269 McDonnell RF-4E-48-MC Phantom (for Iran) 74-1725/1728 McDonnell RF-4E-61-MC Phantom (for Iran) 74-1729/1736 McDonnell RF-4E-62-MC Phantom (for Iran) 75-0418/0423 McDonnell RF-4E-63-MC Phantom (for Israel, Peace Echo V) 77-0309/0316 McDonnell RF-4E-66-MC Phantom (for Turkey) 77-0357/0358 McDonnell RF-4E-66-MC Phantom (for Greece) 77-1761/1766 McDonnell RF-4E-66-MC Phantom (for Greece) 78-0751/0754 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom (Iranian AF) Order cancelled in 1979, planes reduced to components. 78-0788 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom (Iranian AF) Order cancelled in 1979, plane reduced to components. 78-0854/0864 McDonnell RF-4E Phantom (Iranian AF) Order cancelled in 1979