How America Was Able to Study Up Close a Russian MiG-25: As the war in Ukraine grinds on, it’s not without its share of drama. At the end of the summer, Ukrainian intelligence revealed that a Russian aviator piloting a Mi-8 had defected with his craft. Several months in the making, the escape culminated in a daring flight into Ukraine.
As the pilot described it: “I realized that I was near the border. I relayed my location. I said: ‘Let’s try it; I’m not far away.’ And, having made a final decision, I flew at an extremely low altitude in radio silence mode. No one understood what was going on with me at all.”
While this defection doesn’t carry as much weight as the say, an Su-37 or MiG-25- the Mi-8 has been in service for five decades, and a single utility helicopter is unlikely to turn the tide of the war - it is still a remarkable feat for the Ukrainian intelligence service, the GUR. It also brings to mind other pilots’ defections, such as when Soviet Lieutenant Viktor Belenko flew his MiG-25 Foxbat to Japan.
The MiG-25 Defection
At the time of his defection, 1976, Belenko was stationed at Chuguyevka Air Base in the Soviet Far East as part of the Air Defense Forces, a branch separate from the Soviet Air Force and arguably more prestigious. At the time, conditions at the air base were dismal, with poor facilities and morale. Belenko attempted to raise the issues with superiors but was essentially laughed off. Compounding his problem, his wife had grown tired of life as a military spouse and filed for divorce. Disillusioned with the Soviet system, Belenko decided to defect.
Upon making his decision, Belenkosimply had to wait until he was scheduled for a routine sortie out East with a full tank of gas. He thoughtfully brought along the training manual for the Foxbat, something that was strictly prohibited. As the flight concluded and his wingmen headed home, Belenko turned and headed for Japanese airspace while gradually descending. As he closed in on the islands, he entered a precipitous dive, building airspeed to escape his pursuing squadronmates.
Nearing the Japanese airspace, he began popping up to reveal his position on the radar and prevent the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) from shooting him down. Cloudy weather and limitations of the F-4E Phantoms operated by the JSDF prevented them from locating Belenko to provide an escort.
The same weather also worked against Belenko as he attempted to locate Chitose Air Base, the only airfield shown on his map of Hokkaido. Expecting to be escorted by JSDF fighters if he was unable to find it, he was dismayed to find himself alone.
Compounding his problems, the Foxbat guzzled fuel at an alarming rate, and he only had just enough to make the trip even with a full load. Lacking the proper navigational aids and frequencies, he eventually located the civilian Hakodate Airport.
As he lined his aircraft up for landing, Belenko faced one final challenge: a departing 727 jetliner. Quick reflexes prevented a tragic conclusion to the story however, he now found himself out of position to land and flying dangerously fast, particularly considering the 6,500-foot-long runway was too short for the Foxbat.
Despite deploying his drogue parachute and stamping on the brakes - hard enough to cause the nosewheel tire to explode - he ran nearly 800 feet off the runway. When the dust had settled and he shut the plan down, he had only 30 seconds of fuel remaining.
The MiG-25 Foxbat
Japanese and American engineers were quick to jump on the opportunity to examine the MiG-25.
While the Japanese government refused to allow anyone to fly the aircraft fearing reprisals from the Soviet Union, engineers were able to tear it apart and see just what they were facing.
This opportunity proved crucial as the Foxbat had until now been the boogeyman of the skies.
First flying in 1964, it proceeded to set several speed and altitude records, some of which still stand today. U.S. and Western nations were highly concerned about its perceived abilities and feared it could even compete with the mythical SR-71 Blackbird.
In response, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) radically revised its requirements for the F-X program currently in development. Initially conceived to counter the air-to-air imbalance over Vietnam in which fast, maneuverable MiG-21s had proven to match, and even the best American aircraft, the arrival of the Foxbat caused the USAF to greatly increase the capabilities required for the F-X program.
The resultant aircraft was the F-15 Eagle, one of the best air superiority fighters ever designed. Over its prestigious career, it has claimed 104 shootdowns with no Eagles lost in return.
Belenko’s delivery of a MiG-25 to American specialists proved that the F-15 was, in fact, incredibly overengineered against its opponent. Lacking titanium, the Foxbat was a stainless steel construction, meaning it was very heavy. A fully fueled MiG-25 weighed 64,000 pounds, by contrast, the U.S. Navy’s F-18 only weighs 48,000 pounds in the same state.
Furthermore, its vaunted airspeed and altitude records were mostly flukes. Its true service ceiling was not 89,000 but 79,000 feet, and then for two minutes and without a full load of missiles. Its Mach 3.2 airspeed was actually only Mach 2.83, any higher, and the engines would come apart.
To add insult to injury, tactics and strategy had already moved beyond the Foxbat’s capabilities. Initially conceived to shoot down American strategic bombers flying high toward their targets, the Foxbat was designed to counter a threat that no longer existed. By the early 1960s, American planners understood the dangers of Soviet surface-to-air systems and recognized the futility of flying bombers directly into Soviet territory. New doctrine dictated low-level ingress below radar coverage. The Foxbat’s highly inefficient engine and already short range made it impractical for this mission. Additionally, it lacked a look-down shoot-down radar capable of tracking targets flying low to the ground.
Following the dissection of the MiG-25, American planners breathed a sigh of relief, realizing they were facing a paper tiger. Following 60 days of inspection, the aircraft was disassembled, boxed up, and shipped back to the Soviet Union, which billed Japan $10 million for damage to the aircraft. In return, Japan sent a bill of $40,000 for damage to the airfield and shipping fees.=
Lieutenant Belenko was granted asylum in the U.S. and, following an extensive debrief with the Air Force and CIA, went on to be a contractor and businessman. The defection of Belenko revealed the inadequacies of the MiG-25 to the West and removed the veil of secrecy surrounding the aircraft, allowing the Soviet Union to begin export. It saw combat in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war and Israeli conflicts with Syria and Lebanon.
About the Author
Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
All images are Creative Commons.