TOKYO — The clock is ticking on Japan’s Phantom fighters as the country prepares to draw down use of the Cold War-era jet that has been in service with the U.S. ally for almost half a century.

One Japan Air Self-Defense Force squadron that is currently operating the Mitsubishi F-4EJ Phantom II is due to transition to the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jet in early 2019, with another squadron to follow the year after. Aircraft from a third squadron will be retired at the same time, ending what will then be Japan’s 48-year association with the type.

To mark the retirement of the Phantom with the JASDF’s 302 Squadron, an air show was held at the JASDF base at Hyakuri, Ibaraki prefecture, north of Japan’s capital Tokyo on Dec. 2. Two of the unit’s jets painted in commemorative markings took center stage. Hyakuri is home to all three of Japan’s Phantom squadrons.

In addition to the large crowd of locals who attended, the Hyakuri Air Festival also drew aviation enthusiasts from around the world, with groups from Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom among the various nationalities present at the show.

Dion Makowski, who was visiting from Melbourne, Australia, told Defense News that the Phantom had been a key component of many U.S.-aligned air forces for almost 60 years. “With most air forces such as Germany having retired theirs in recent years, Japan remains one of the last and most accessible places we can see the Phantom still in service,” Makowski said.

Mitsubishi built 138 of Japan’s 140 F-4EJs under licence from aerospace company McDonnell Douglas between 1971 and 1981. They were mostly similar to the F-4Es used by the United States at that time, although the Japanese aircraft had their in-flight refueling and ground-attack capabilities removed to align with Japan’s defensive posture.

An upgrade program in the 1980s saw the reintroduction of ground-attack capabilities in the form of anti-ship missiles, bombs and rockets. An improved, lightweight radar was also fitted along with an improved avionics suite. Less than 100 Phantoms were upgraded, and were known as F-4EJ Kai (Improved) in JASDF service.

Japan also acquired 14 RF-4Es built by McDonnell Douglas to serve in a reconnaissance role. These, together with 17 F-4EJs modified to the RF-4EJ standard, capable of carrying a variety of external reconnaissance pods, make up Japan’s third Phantom squadron at Hyakuri. The unit, 501 Squadron, is also due to retire the Phantom in 2020, although it’s unclear if the unit will then transition to a new aircraft type.

Japan is introducing a fleet of 42 F-35As to replace the Phantom, with pilots training on the fifth-generation fighter at Misawa Air Base in the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu as deliveries of Japan’s F-35s continue apace.

The 301 and 302 squadrons are due to permanently move to Misawa following the transition to the F-35.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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