The MiG-25 was of special importance to the Soviet air defence, since (until the MiG-31 entered service) it was the only aircraft capable of intercepting the Lockheed SR-71A strategic reconnaissance aircraft
On Sep. 6, 1976, Lt Viktor Belenko, a pilot of a PVO unit based at Chuguyevka air base north of Vladivostok (some sources state Sakharovka air base) failed to return from a sortie. His superiors would hardly have been too upset if he had crashed into the Sea of Japan; as it were, the news that Belenko had landed at Hakodate International airport came as a severe shock.
As explained by Yefim Gordon in his book Mig-25 ‘Foxbat’ Mig-31 ‘Foxhound’: Russia’s Defensive Front Line, it will probably never be known if Belenko contacted the U.S. military intelligence on his own or was hired by them (there is even a theory that ‘V Belenko’ was just a cover name for a trained agent tasked with stealing the latest Soviet military hardware, shades of Clint Eastwood in Firefox). Investigators found out that the defection was not an impulsive action of a dissatisfied officer – Belenko was expected in Japan and made preparations for the flight. He high-tailed it to Japan the very first time he had a full fuel load, taking the classified technical manuals with him. (Taking the manuals on a sortie was expressly forbidden.)
Nobody at the base suspected that a defection was afoot. The mission profile included low level flight during which the aircraft would be undetectable by ground radar. Only when Belenko failed to return at the planned time did the АТС start calling him on the radio and fighters were sent up to try and locate the crash site. The message from the border guards that an aircraft had crossed the state border and was making for Japan came too late: Belenko was already approaching Japanese airspace, with Air Self-Defence Force fighters waiting to escort him.
The MiG-25P’s navigation equipment could not guide the aircraft accurately during prolonged low level flight unless RSBN SHORAN beacons were available (and of course they were not). The radio compass could be helpful but again the pilot had to know the marker beacon frequency at Hakodate, which the personnel at Chuguyevka did not know. As it was, Belenko was so nervous that he misjudged his landing and over-ran, damaging the landing gear and making the aircraft unairworthy. Belenko made a statement for the press and requested political asylum in the U.S. A large group of experts arrived from the U.S. to examine the aircraft but Japanese engineers also took part in some stages of the work.
The Soviet government put pressure on Japan, demanding the delivery of the purloined ‘Foxbat’ pronto. Since there were no legal reasons not to, the MiG-25 was returned, in dismantled and crated condition. The Japanese did it on purpose to cover up the ‘surgery’ they and the U.S. intelligence experts had undertaken on the MiG.
When the Soviet delegation led by General Dvornikov arrived in Japan the Japanese officials resorted to procrastination and bureaucratic snags. When the crates with the aircraft parts were trucked to the pier to be loaded aboard a Soviet freighter the Soviet representatives demanded that the crates be opened for inspection to make sure nothing was missing. The Japanese deliberately gave them only a few hours, hoping that the ‘Russians’ would not manage to check everything and repack the crates in time – but they were in for a disappointment.
The Soviet experts were quick to find out just how much the West actually knew. When the MiG-25 was returned to the USSR it was determined that the Americans had run the engines and measured the aircraft’s infra-red signature and also made a detailed analysis of the systems and avionics, including the radar, and the structural materials. Not knowing how to operate the equipment, the Americans had damaged some of it and had to make hasty repairs (foreign fuses and resistors were discovered in the radar set).
The incident got the world press going wild with stories about the MiG-25. Aviation journalists derided the design as ‘crude’ and ‘engineering archaeology’ but conceded that the steel airframe worked well at high temperatures and could be built and repaired easily without requiring any great skill from the repair personnel. The radar’s elements were deemed outdated; yet the radar impressed the West by having two wavebands which made it virtually jamproof – something no U.S. radar featured at the time. In fact, the U.S. said that ‘the MiG-25 is the only aircraft scaring all the world’. U.S. Defence Secretary Schlesinger stated that the new Soviet interceptor was a sufficiently potent weapon to bring about drastic changes to the Western weapons systems and strategies.
The shock which the Soviet leaders, the Ministry of Defence and some other ministries experienced defies description. The West had got hold of the USSR’s most secret aircraft! Worse, Belenko’s statements published by the world press made it clear that Western intelligence agencies had preliminary information on the latest two-seater, the MiG-25MP (Izdelye83). The potential adversary now had the potential to develop counter weapons and largely neutralise the MiG-25 in a short while.
This forced the Soviet government, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Aircraft Industry to take resolute action which was later proven correct. The rigid and clear lines of command under the Soviet system got the design bureaux and defence industry working hard, and a much-improved MiG-25PD entered production in just two and a half years after the scandalous defection.
The MiG-25 was of special importance to the Soviet air defence, since (until the MiG-31 entered service) it was the only aircraft capable of intercepting the Lockheed SR-71A strategic reconnaissance aircraft prowling over the Barents Sea and especially the Baltic (although in his autobiography Belenko claims that SR-71s flew off the coast of Russia, “taunting and toying with MiG-25s sent up to intercept them, scooting up to altitudes the Soviet planes could not reach, and circling leisurely above them, or dashing off at speeds the Russians could not match”). When Poland experienced unrest in the early 1980s the West feared a possible Soviet invasion. The data provided by surveillance satellites on Soviet forces stationed at the western borders apparently proved insufficient for the Americans, and the SR-71s began their sorties over the Baltic Sea. MiG-25PDs and ‘PDSs stationed in the area bore the brunt of dealing with these snoopers.
Belenko’s elopement had a positive effect (besides the long term one already mentioned) – it allowed new weapons exports. The first export MiG-25s were delivered in 1979. The slightly downgraded export versions of the interceptor and reconnaissance/strike aircraft were acquired by Algeria, Bulgaria, India, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. It was an unconventional way of getting into the foreign market – the aircraft had to be stolen to get exports going!