One Soviet Defector Shoved Japan Into the Superpower Struggle
The surprise arrival of a MiG-25 Foxbat spilled Russian secrets
On Sept. 6, 1976, a Soviet MiG-25P Foxbat bearing the markings of the 513th Fighter Regiment swooped down onto a small Japanese civilian airport.
The top-secret jet narrowly missed a Boeing 727 and landed on the runway, drogue chutes bursting out from its rear. A tire blew out but the interceptor kept screeching and skidding its way to the end of the mile-long tarmac. At last, after continuing 800 feet into the dirt and crashing through two radio antennae along the way, the Foxbat came to a stop.
The Soviet pilot emerged and fired two warning shots from his pistol to ward off rubbernecking motorists on a nearby highway. Some of the Japanese onlookers removed the film from their cameras and threw it to the ground in fear of what the pilot might do next.
In the distance, a small group of airport officials drove to meet the pilot. He surrendered his weapon and called out in Russian, “I’m a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and I want to go to the United States!”
The 29-year old pilot, Viktor Ivanovich Belenko, had delivered the Soviet air force’s most closely-guarded aircraft into the hands of the West. In doing so, he betrayed Japan’s inability to defend its airspace against low-altitude penetration and thrust the Japanese government into a conflict between the superpowers.
Never before had Japan been so directly involved in the cloak and dagger politics of the Cold War — but Belenko’s defection was a much-needed lesson in crisis management.
Viktor Belenko was among the best the Soviet Air Defense Forces had to offer. The pilot came from a working class family and an acceptable political background. He was the model of Soviet success and that brought him privileges many Soviet working class citizens would never experience. “Bright, daring, ebullient and irrepressible” is how journalist John Barron described him.
Even though Belenko was a member of the Soviet elite, he wasn’t happy. “[If] U.S. is so bad how come they send man on the moon and bring him back?” he recalled in an interview with Full Context in 1996. “If U.S. is so bad how come they’re building [the] best fighters in the world? If U.S. is fallen apart how come they have more Nobel Prize winners than progressive communist society?”
Disaffected with life in the Soviet Union and with his wife demanding a divorce that would separate him from his three-year old son, Belenko decided to defect to the United States. The problem was — how?
Belenko’s MiG-25 could never reach the United States on its own. He was based in the Russian Far East, east of Vladivostok, so that left only one option. Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, was 400 miles away. In ideal conditions — Mach 0.85 flying in a straight line at 30,000 feet — the Foxbat could carry enough fuel to fly more than 700 miles, but Belenko would have fly below Soviet radars if he was going to make it, and that meant flying below 100 feet.
After a month of waiting, Belenko found his chance. Taking off during an exercise at Chuguyevka, Belenko had a full tank of fuel and a route mapped out in his head. With a flick of the throttle, the disaffected Soviet pilot left formation and flew low and fast over the taiga. After two minutes, the forests gave way to the Sea of Japan.
Belenko had expected good weather before boarding his MiG, but the forecast had changed. He flew through heavy cloud cover en route to Chitose Air Base — the only military airfield on the outdated Russian maps he had consulted before defecting. He calculated his fuel reserves with a pad and pencil — he was already running dry. With little choice, Belenko put down at the first airport he could find.
He had risked being shot down by both the Soviets and the Japanese. He would be damned if it was all going to be for nothing.
Belenko expected a response. When he had traveled far enough to be inside Japan’s air defense identification zone, he lofted himself into a higher altitude and bled off speed to present himself as less of a threat to any eager surface-to-air missile operators. He thought that would be enough to allow Japanese F-4EJ Phantoms to reach him and escort him to safety.
But there were no missiles and no Phantoms.
At the time, Japan operated 28 radar stations around the country, which picked up Belenko’s Foxbat at 13:11, just 21 minutes after he left Chuguyevka. The Air Self-Defense Force surveillance station at Okushiri picked up an unidentified aircraft 111 miles west of Hokkaido flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet at a speed of 500 miles per hour.
Japanese air traffic controllers then began to run their possible aerial incursion protocols. They radioed the MiG-25 in Russian and English, but the MiG’s radio was apparently locked into inter-squadron frequencies. Belenko couldn’t hear incoming warnings, nor could he respond.
At 13:20, two Phantoms scrambled from Chitose Air Base. At 13:26, as the interceptors closed in on his position, Belenko dropped to 1,800 feet to exit the extensive cloud cover. This put him below Japanese radar detection and he disappeared from radar screens at Okushiri, Tobetsu, Oominato and Kamo. The next time the MiG flashed momentarily onto the Japanese radars, it was just a single instant.
Belenko landed at Hakodate by 13:57. A lone MiG-25 pilot had beaten Japan’s air defenses for 46 minutes. It was a disgrace for the organization tasked with protecting Japan from foreign military aircraft.
The Japanese Defense Agency blamed the military’s inability to track and intercept Belenko on bad weather and signal reflection, but admitted that their equipment just wasn’t up to the job. The Air Self-Defense Force lacked a low-altitude airborne early warning and control capability and the Phantoms had no look-down/shoot-down radars.
A standard radar pointed at the surface receives large amounts of noise — junk reflections from the earth’s surface. This noise obscures any low-flying objects from radar scans at higher altitudes. A dedicated look-down/shoot-down radar filters out this noise and allows interceptors to detect and engage these lower-flying aircraft from above.
Thanks to the shock of Belenko’s arrival, Tokyo was able to push through purchases it had been mulling over for years. The incident hurried the purchase of 13 E-2C Hawkeyes, which arrived in 1979. The Air Self-Defense Force created its first provisional Airborne Early Warning Group in 1983. This came just in time to bolster Japan’s ability to ward off the latest threat — the supersonic Tu-22M Backfire nuclear bomber.
The air force was already in the process of purchasing a look-down/shoot-down capability in the form of the F-15J, which entered service in 1981. The Defense Agency had already picked the F-15 as the winner of the F-X bidding competition by the start of 1976, and Tokyo had planned to buy 187 of these agile air-to-air fighters. Additionally, by 1989, the Air Self-Defense Force began introducing upgraded F-4EJ Phantoms which included the same Westinghouse APG-66 pulse-doppler radar in use with American F-16s.
In other words, the military fallout from Belenko’s defection was not quite what it seemed. Rather than forcing a change in Japan’s air defense posture, it simply concreted decisions already made. But the incident helped remind the public of why the Air Self-Defense Force existed.
Despite the bad PR during the failure to intercept Belenko, the apparent need to tighten up Japan’s defenses led to year-on-year budget increases that continue to this day.
But Belenko’s defection had more than just defense implications. Tokyo now found itself handling a defector and a foreign technology prize.
Belenko was Japan’s first Cold War defector. Tokyo lacked a foreign human intelligence capability, and had no experience handling such people. This was doubly true for the backwater airport Belenko had landed at.
With the MiG on the ground, Hakodate’s air traffic control called the Hokkaido Prefectural Police. The police had no jurisdiction over airspace violations, so the dispatcher told the airport to call the Air Self-Defense Force. Belenko had landed in a bureaucratic grey zone.
The police arrived 10 minutes after the MiG landed. They blocked off the airport not only to stop bystanders from getting in, but also to exercise their jurisdiction over the incident by keeping the Self-Defense Force out. Meeting Belenko in the airport chief’s office, the prefectural police arrested Belenko for “violation of Japanese airspace, abnormal low flying, damage to airport equipment, illegal entry, and illegal possession of a firearm.”
Belenko stayed in police custody at a nearby hotel and the police covered up the Russian jet for the duration of its investigation.
The arrest gave the Japanese government time to work out how they would handle the incident. Prime Minister Takeo Miki came under immediate pressure from the superpowers. The Soviets contacted the Japanese government almost immediately demanding to see Belenko and have him returned — with the jet — as soon as possible.
Miki was hesitant to mobilize the military, leaving hawks within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party exasperated. No one was sure how the Soviets would respond but there was a genuine fear that Soviet agents might attempt to sabotage the MiG before the West could learn its secrets.
Acting without political backing, the 28th Infantry Regiment at the Hakodate garrison called in reinforcements and prepared for a possible fight — a controversy that would later cost Ground Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff Hideo Miyoshi his job. The northern districts of the Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces also increased their vigilance around Hokkaido.
Although the Japanese didn’t know it yet, multiple reports later suggested that the Soviets had rigged Foxbat’s most sensitive systems with explosives. The Chicago Tribune quoted a defense official describing them as “halfway between a cherry bomb and a stick of dynamite.”
But while no such explosives detonated that night — nor any other night — it was nevertheless a tense night in both Tokyo and Hokkaido.
On Sept. 7, police took Belenko to Tokyo where he met with U.S. Embassy officials. The Americans were ready to fly him to America the very next day, but the Japanese government had become embroiled in a tangle of “political-legal” issues.
For one, the police held jurisdiction over the Hakodate airport incident, and while this had afforded the government time to react, this simple bureaucratic fact required Japan to act in a certain way.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had made it crystal clear to Tokyo that the MiG-25 was Soviet property and they wanted it back intact and untampered with. Japan’s foreign ministry replied that Belenko had committed a crime and that the jet was evidence in a criminal investigation. But that excuse would only stand as long as Belenko was still in Japanese custody.
And the local police were relishing the chance to control the incident. Even though Japanese defense officials and their American counterparts were eager to examine the Soviet Union’s top-secret fighter, the police denied them access. A jurisdiction war was underway and no one was happy.
In a telegram forwarded to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger archived at WikiLeaks, Tokyo Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Shoesmith informed the State Department that Japan couldn’t hand over Belenko until Sept. 9. His Japanese contact also told Shoesmith that the U.S. might not even be able to spend much time analyzing the aircraft.
Shoesmith believed that Japan had placed itself in a bind. “As it looks now we will have to bring strong pressure to bear on GOJ to enable us to have sufficient access to this aircraft,” he wrote. “We feel however that such pressure should not be brought to bear until Belenko has left Japan. Belenko’s departure is only way we can think of to break linkage Japanese have created.”
On Sept. 9, Tokyo allowed Russian officials to meet with Belenko, despite the defector having no interest in seeing anyone from the Soviet Union. The Russians pointed to their consular agreement with Japan which allowed embassy officials unrestricted communication with any nationals in Japanese custody. They said they wanted to check whether Belenko had left on his own volition. What the Soviets really wanted, however, was to convince Belenko to keep his mouth shut and come “home.”
The Russians came away angry, and Belenko stayed adamant about defecting. There was “pandemonium” in the KGB’s Tokyo offices, wrote John Barron in KGB Today: The Hidden Hand. Soviet agents planted stories in the Japanese and foreign press, and a KGB-concocted story that Belenko’s wife implored him to “come home and rescue his devoted family from inconsolable grief” made its way through an Associated Press stringer into major U.S. newspapers.
The Soviet state-run news agency Tass alleged Belenko was drugged. Another Kremlin narrative had it that Belenko had gotten lost. While running low on fuel, the story went, he had no choice but to land in Japan.
The truth — that a Soviet military officer had left on his own accord and managed to steal their most secret fighter — was too much of an embarrassment for the Kremlin to bear. To admit that Belenko had defected willingly would be to deny the very features of Soviet success that Belenko embodied. This is probably why the Soviets didn’t even request that Japan extradite Belenko for prosecution in Russia — they couldn’t admit he had done wrong.
The meeting did little to defuse tensions and with little chance of saving face with Moscow — and American pressure mounting — Tokyo handed Belenko over to the American embassy, which immediately flew him to the United States for a further five months of debriefing.
With Belenko out of the country, the Defense Agency took custody of the Foxbat and began dismantling it to learn of its secrets.
Before Belenko’s defection, the West knew little about the MiG-25’s specs. Western intelligence assumed that the Foxbat was an air-to-air combat fighter. This assumption scared the U.S. military into bumping up the specifications of the F-X air superiority fighter program that became the F-15.
But the Foxbat had in fact a completely different mission. It was Russia’s direct response to American U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union and the increasing top speeds of U.S. supersonic bombers and spy planes. Mikoyan-Gurevich designed the Foxbat to hunt one primary target, the SR-71 Blackbird — the fastest jet in the world.
In 1973, U.S. Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans called the MiG-25 Foxbat “probably the best interceptor in production in the world today.” In reality, however, the aircraft was a compromise between envelope-pushing specifications and the limits of Soviet technological and economic resources.
Workers assembled much of the aircraft by hand and used nickel-steel alloy for the majority of the aircraft. This made the airframe warp when traveling at high speeds. Unable to afford the thermal-resistance provided by a titanium frame, the MiG-25’s designers used vacuum tubes over transistor-based modern electronics — which made the planes resistant to high-temperatures and cheaper to maintain.
U.S. intelligence, however, had long-believed that the Foxbat had a titanium airframe. This led the United States to believe the plane was 25 percent lighter and with a significantly greater combat range. The large wings that had made analysts believe they were dealing with a super-agile fighter were actually there to ensure the Foxbat could stay aloft with such a heavy airframe.
Also, like Japan’s fighters, the MiG-25 had no look-down/shoot-down radar. This made it useless against lower-flying aircraft, which all other fighters would be thanks to the Foxbat’s high-altitude specifications.
It was no surprise then that Washington was eager to see inside Belenko’s jet.
The Japanese requested official assistance from the United States after the Defense Agency took control. On Sept. 25, the Japanese military crated the Foxbat — now in pieces — and a U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy ferried the parts to Hyakuri Air Base near Tokyo. Underscoring the continuing fear of Soviet reprisals, the Self-Defense Force assigned the transport aircraft a Phantom escort.
A 200-man Japanese inspection team with American “observers” pored over the jet’s components. Far from just observing, the U.S. Air Force’s Foreign Technology Division had a chance to ground-test the MiG’s new Foxfire radar and Tumansky R-15 engines. Japanese wariness over KGB active measures prevented actual flight tests.
But within a month, the Japanese team had debunked many of the American intelligence community’s misconceptions about the aircraft … all while the Soviets cried foul. Derek Davies of the Far Eastern Economic Review called the Japanese handling of the jet a “beautiful bureaucratic stalling game” — a far cry from jurisdictional battles that marred the initial incident.
On Oct. 22, 1976, Tokyo returned the jet to Russia by ship. It was still in pieces and once more packed neatly into shipping crates. Cheekily, the Japanese included a bill for $4o,000 to cover the shipping costs and damage caused by Belenko’s landing.
It was a final slap in the face for the Soviets but a sign of how much the Japanese had learned from the incident.