During 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated the importance of aerial intelligence, which allowed the Americans to diffuse the situation without a resulting nuclear armageddon. Since that point, the importance of reconnaissance aircraft to NATO doctrine had only grown, which had resulted in Germany, among many other countries, seeking new and advanced aircraft to fill this role. Germany itself had recently introduced the RF-84F Thunderflash earlier in 1958, however, aircraft technology was advancing rapidly and the RF-84F, while a competent reconnaissance aircraft, had poor flight performance, making it disliked among its pilots.
The Luftwaffe would later introduce a reconnaissance version of the F-104G, the RF-104G, however not only was arguably worse at the reconnaissance role than the RF-84 it replaced, but it also had its own set of problems with its flight characteristics. The RF-104G-1 was developed to solve some of its issues, but the Luftwaffe saw the airframe as outdated and wanted to be rid of it entirely, so another replacement was needed.
Several aircraft were evaluated as possible replacements; the French Mirage IIIR, Canadian CRF-5, and Swedish S35E Draken. Another modification of the F-104G was also offered: the RTF-104G which would be a more substantial upgrade and feature the J79-GE-19 engine as used in the later F-104S. All of these offers would be rejected however in favour of what the Luftwaffe saw as a far more capable platform, a reconnaissance version of America’s latest heavy fighter the F-4 Phantom II known as the RF-4E which was in essence was an F-4E with the cannon and radar replaced for an advanced reconnaissance suite. The RF-4E would be selected as the RF-104G’s replacement and would enter service in 1971 where it was well liked by pilots.
There would come a time however when the ever expanding air power of the Warsaw Pact would necessitate improvements to the Luftwaffe’s own aircraft, and to that end, the KWS program was initiated in 1978. The purpose of this program was, in part, to provide the RF-4E with a secondary strike role through the use of Matra 250 kg general purpose bombs, BL. 755 cluster bombs, and napalm bombs. In addition to this, the RF-4E also received a new REVI-11 optical sight, AN/AAD-5 infrared reconnaissance sensor, AN/ALR-68(V)1 radar warning receiver, and AN/ALE-40 chaff/flare dispensers among other improvements.
While further improvements were planned, the end of the Cold War and subsequent budget cuts saw the RF-4Es become surplus to requirements and as a result were sold off to Greece and Turkey, with the final RF-4E being retired in 2003.
Powerplant: Two General Electric J79-GE-17A/C
Thrust: 2 x 81.20 kN
Maximum speed: 2,410 km/h
Range: km 4,180 km
Combat range: 958 km
Rate of climb: 15,200 m/min
Service ceiling: 21,600 m
Length: 19,20 m
Height: 5,03 m
Wing span: 11,71 m
Wing area: 49,24 m2
Maximum take-off: 26,330 kg
Maximum weapons load: 2,268 kg of bombs
Firing its AN/ALE-40 chaff/flare dispensers while equipped with an ALE-38 chaff dispenser on the left pylon and an ALQ-119(V) ECM pod on the right
BL755 cluster bombs
REVI-11 optical sight
Andreas Klein & Ralf Jahnke, The MDD RF-4E Phantom II in German Air Force Service (2004)