By CDR George “Guy” Thomas, USN (ret.)
6 September 1976 is one of those dates that will stick in my memory forever. It was mid-afternoon on a hot and humid Labor Day (just like DC) in Atsugi, Japan, where I was the Officer-in-Charge of the NavSecGru Detachment.
I was with my family at our cramped off-base house with no air conditioning when I got a very unusual phone call. It was rare we got a call at all and receiving one in the middle of the afternoon on a holiday had never happened before, so I sensed the call was special even before I lifted the receiver. Even more unexpected, it was from Chuck Christman, known throughout the airborne SIGINT world as “THE CRAB.” He was the VQ-1 civilian technical representative (Techrep) and a legend in airborne SIGINT reconnaissance. He did not engage in idle chitchat, so I knew it was a significant call even before he said a word. It was most definitely not going to be a social call.
Just as I anticipated, his first few words electrified me. “A Foxbat has landed in Japan!” Chuck had just gotten a call from the duty officer at the US Embassy in Tokyo. A top-secret MiG-25, our #1 collection priority at that time, had just landed at Hakodate, a civilian airport in southern Hokkaido, 120 miles north of Misawa Air Base, about 600 miles north of Atsugi. It appeared that a defector had flown it in from a Soviet air base near Vladivostok. We subsequently learned that the pilot was Lt Vicktor Ivanovic Belenko, Soviet Air Force.
Chuck knew I had contact with a highly-classified US government office near Atsugi whose mission was liaison to Japan’s government on military technology matters, and he asked me to call them. Chuck was hoping to use my connections at that unit to get us assigned to the exploitation team.
The rest of this story is of the Navy’s role in examining and exploiting that Russian MiG-25. It all starts and ends with Chuck Christman. Known as the most innovative person in Navy airborne reconnaissance, he was always hard at work in some critical area, pushing the technical ball forward, expanding “the edge.” The USAF had its Big Safari, but we had “The Crab.”
I met Chuck four years earlier, in September 1972. I was a NavSecGru flight officer just assigned to fly with VQ-1. Prior to that, in 1968, I had spent five months off Vietnam on USS HORNE (DLG-30), where I had learned how to use the WLR-1 electronic intelligence receiver. I returned to Vietnam in April 1972 and immediately noticed that the spectrum held a much-expanded set of radars and new data signals. Always curious, I became very interested in the exploitation of both the radars and especially the data signals.
Chuck had been flying SIGINT reconnaissance missions in Vietnam during the entire war and had noticed the same thing and was working to understand the use(s) of the data signals and how to read them, so we had a lot in common. We became good friends as I helped him with his research. I became one of his many “disciples.” I don’t recall any other NavSecGru officer doing that at the time. They were, to a man, focused on the foreign-language aspects of our duties. The VQ-1 naval flight officers were trained to identify and collect radar signals, but Chuck and I, plus a few others, were looking at the data signals. We had a lot to talk about as the signal environment seemed to change weekly.
He had an idea for a signal processor which could decrypt Soviet “proforma” (now known as machine-to-machine) data signals on the fly, and his partner, Emler Achtenberg, was able to develop the math to make it work. With the help of some of the VQ-1 maintenance personnel, Chuck and Elmer built a prototype they called the Markham Automatic Readout Box (MARB). I was fascinated by it and spent many hours talking with both him and our team about using his “magic box” in both collection and combat operations.
I was the only NSG officer who initially showed any interest because I immediately got why Chuck’s “black box” was needed. Chuck needed funding to perfect the box. He asked me to recommend his work to CAPT Pete Dillingham, my commanding officer at NavSecGru Activity, Misawa, where I was permanently assigned, which I was glad to do. We hoped to get funding from both NavSecGru and maybe even the National Security Agency. CAPT Dillingham contacted NSA to ask for help, and we did get some technical support, but not the money needed to buy even some of the necessary parts, all of which were available, “off the shelf” in Tokyo, 25 miles away. The Crab also went through his VQ-1 chain of command but to no avail on any front. It was very frustrating for me, but doubly so for Chuck, no doubt. We both believed he was into something big.
His effort finally bore some fruit, but not because of anything I did. Chuck was attending a PARPRO conference at Yokota AFB in the Fall of 1974 where he met Senior Master Sergeant Barry Mathews, an E-8 USAF sergeant from the Headquarters, USAF Security Service, San Antonio. They fell to talking about data signals and their potential usefulness in combat. Sergeant Mathews mentioned that the USAF had come to the same conclusion and that it was the #1 intelligence collection and analysis priority in the Strategic Air Command.
Chuck told him about his magic box, now sitting on a shelf at Atsugi gathering dust. Atsugi was about 25 miles from Yokota. Sergeant Mathews was interested, so Chuck offered to give him a full demonstration. The Sergeant called his boss, a colonel at San Antonio, and asked for permission to extend his stay in Japan for two days to go to Atsugi to check out Chuck’s box, the MARB. The colonel said “You are a big boy. If you think it is that important, go for it.” (I would be assigned to that job in San Antonio four years later.)
Chuck and SMSGT Mathews drove to Atsugi that night. The next day, Chuck got the box down off the shelf, dusted it off, and hooked it up to a recorder. The demo clearly showed the potential, and Sergeant Mathews, impressed, asked if he could borrow the box and ship it to E-Systems at Greenville, Texas so they could study it. Chuck had run out of ideas on how to get funding to continue its development, so he readily agreed.
When the MARB box got to Greenville, the smart folks at E-Systems and USAF Big Safari Detachment 8 were very impressed and made a copy, sending the original back to Atsugi, where it was returned to its place on the upper shelf in the storage shed.
This story figures very large in the rest of my professional life, but I am getting well ahead of myself. When I became the OIC at Atsugi in June 1976, I learned that the USAF had E-Systems developing a tool based on the MARB, called the EPR-107, but we saw nothing in the field.
Immediately after Chuck called me on 6 September, I called my connection at the technical liaison organization. Telling him that a MiG-25 had just landed in northern Japan, I asked if Chuck and I could meet with him the next day to discuss how we could help each other in capitalizing on this event. My friend was very interested and early the next morning Chuck, his assistant, Stuart Jefferies (another very bright guy), and I drove to his highly-classified office.
We offered any assistance we could provide and, among other things, described the capabilities of the MARB. They immediately became very interested in the idea of testing the MiG’s electronics with it. The organization’s leader made a series of calls on a secure line to the headquarters, US Forces, Japan (CUSFJ). Within minutes he was talking to the Commander himself, a US Air Force Lieutenant General. Our team was immediately given the top priority for exploiting the MiG and ordered to take the MARB and our test equipment to Yokota Air Base as soon as possible. Military aircraft would take us north to the site as soon as possible. Chuck and Stu were elated. They were going to get to test their system in as real a setting as could be imagined. I was delighted to be part of a team with such an exciting task.
We immediately returned to Atsugi and started building the test stand, but the next 24 hours were the rainiest of my entire life. We had 15″ of rain in 12 hours and then over 10″ in one hour, followed by it tapering off to an inch an hour for the next 3. All in all, it rained 28″ in less than 20 hours. Even the runway was utterly awash for most of the afternoon after the rain had stopped. Even the runway was at least two feet deep in water with waves. The golf course, which we could see out the back door of my detachment’s workspaces, looked like a raging sea as mountains of water cascaded down the hills. Work came to a standstill but resumed with a vengeance as the roads cleared and we could get to the VQ-1 electrons shop where we were assembling the test equipment.
The following day we moved our equipment and ourselves to Yokota AFB, the home-base of US Forces Japan, and the 5th Air Force, for further transportation to Hokkaido, where the Foxbat had landed, but were told to standby in the BOQ.
Five days later we were still waiting to go north to the test site. I think the Japanese government did not wish to acknowledge they had asked Americans for assistance for two reasons. First was the political one. They wanted to bargain with the Soviets, with the idea that this was big enough they might be willing to open negotiations on the Habomai Island group, a set of islands at the southern end of the Kuril Island group just to the north east of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands. The Soviets had seized the Habomai Islands at the end of World War II. The Japanese consider these islands part of their homeland. Secondly, they also wanted to save face because they did not want to admit they had no test equipment anywhere near as good as what we brought to the game.
I was at the 5th AF watch center writing a report to my bosses in Misawa, CAPT Dillingham and CDR Ike Cole, both of whom went on the become admirals and lead the NavSecGru, when the USAF watch officer came over to my table and asked for a favor. He had an off-line encrypted message for Prime Minister Migi from our President, Jerry Ford. He could not leave the watch center, and in that I was the ranking military member of the exploitation team in the area at that time, late in the evening, would I please hand carry it to the US Ambassador who was visiting the 5th AF Commanding General in his office a floor above? Of course, be delighted!
It was in a folder which was not sealed, and he did not tell me not to read it, so my curiosity got the better of me, and I read it before I delivered it to the Ambassador in the Commanding General’s office. Absorbing, indeed! Apart from some of the off-line encrypted messages for the CNO that I saw while I was part of the communications guard for the CNO as a LTJG, probably the most interesting letter I ever read. We were prepared to give quite a lot to get our hands on a nearly brand-new MiG-25.
A day or two later the Soviet Foreign Minister landed in Tokyo to bargain for his airplane and was asked by the press if he was willing to discuss the trade of Habomi’s in exchange for the MiG-25? His reply was classic Russian. “The Habomi’s are an integral part of the Soviet Union. There is nothing to discuss.” Period. Suddenly both the Japanese Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were too busy to see him, and the Foreign Minister soon returned to Russia empty-handed. Once he left, we were given the green light to go north with our equipment. Chuck and Stu went to the site, but I was diverted to a sequestered Japanese barracks at Misawa. I could not contact anyone but in any case, I was kept very busy answering questions from the Japanese.
Very soon after I got to Misawa, CDR Denny Wisely (who went on to be a Rear Admiral), and a LT whose name escapes me, and Major “Fergie” Ferguson, USAF, arrived. They all had experience flying various MiG aircraft and were there to fly the Foxbat, should we be allowed to do so. CDR Wisely was judged to be the most experienced pilot in similar aircraft, and he was to get first crack at flying the Foxbat, followed by Major Ferguson and then the USN LT. About a dozen other Americans, all US civil servants, also arrived from a number of organizations in the US. The USAF’s Foreign Technology Division had several engineers, each an expert in an aspect of aeronautical engineering: engines, airframe, metallurgy, avionics, etc. Each had been given specific tasks by their home organization and each, naturally believed theirs was the most critical task. However, the overall US commander of the effort was Col. Keith Carnahan, USAF, the Commander of the FTD Detachment Four, based in Yokota near the office of, and working directly for USFJ, and he had his instructions that the MARB tests were number one, and nothing was to interfere with that task. There was more than a bit of rumbling as Chuck and Stu were among the very few allowed to have unlimited access to the MiG.
Chuck was warmly welcomed by our Japanese hosts both because he, having lived in Japan for over 20 years, and having a Japanese wife, was fluent in Japanese, and also, they quickly understood how important his work was. They also welcomed me as I was at least conversant in Japanese, having been studying it for the last four and a half years earlier, since I arrived in Japan and had been living there since.
When they discovered I could also read Russian, they started bringing me photos of the cockpit and its instruments. Because so many of the questions were redundant, I started making a drawing of the instrument panels, left, right and center, and using a Russian technical dictionary that I had brought with me at the suggestion of my chiefs, began labeling the function of each dial and lever. The Japanese liked that a great deal and brought in a true draftsman to make my cartoons into a finished product which they used to brief their seniors in the Japanese government, giving me full credit. I was a popular guy. I have no idea why Japanese intelligence e did not assign several of their Russian linguists, which I am sure they have, to work with me, but they did not.
About nine days later, the MiG was loaded onto a USAF C-5, the free world’s largest airplane at the time, and flown to Hyakuri Air Base, Japan’s military aerospace test center. It was both much more secluded than Hakodate’s civilian airport, and nearer Tokyo. I, with most of the team, returned to Yokota. I was getting a bit nervous about my impending IG inspection so I asked Colonel Carnaghan, the on-scene commander and in charge of the overall effort to release me to return to my detachment, so I could prepare for my IG inspection. I offered to send him CTI1 Tom Botulinski, my best linguist, in exchange. He thought I was a good enough linguist, but I assured him and truthfully so, that Tom was much, much better. Indeed, Tom was one of the very top linguists in the Navy. It was a good deal for all involved, including Tom.
The colonel was very much a gentleman and in that IG inspections in all services, especially the Air Force, are very important, understood my situation perfectly. He thanked me very sincerely for my efforts and for being a team player. (Some folks were not! They were trying to smuggle out information so their home organizations could “scoop” the other organizations there, and that was causing him trouble both with his boss there in Japan, as well as his boss at FTD at Wright-Patterson AFB.
We parted on the best of terms, and he subsequently nominated me for the Meritorious Service Medal, but it was downgraded to the Joint Service Commendation Medal. I was just happy to have been there. Tom Botulinski did a bang-up job for them, and even get to go up and work on the plane itself, something I never got to do. I subsequently urged him to put in for the Limited Duty Officer (LDO) program. He did and retired many years later as a captain. His last job was Deputy Director, Naval Security Group, second in command of NSG. As I said above, Tom was exceptional!
I needed to do one other thing before I was finished. The MiG had run off the end of the runway upon landing and, its nose wheel tire was destroyed. The Japanese aircraft mechanics checking out the Foxbat had determined that the MiG’s nose wheel was the same size as the main mount of an A-4. However, Japan does not fly the A-4, so they had no tires for it. They asked me to help, and I asked the Navy aircraft maintenance shop at Atsugi to loan the team a tire. Once the exploitation event was over and it was decided that the MiG would not be test flown, after all, the Navy wanted their tire back. So, I flew back to Yokota AFB in a Navy cargo chopper to facilitate the wheel’s return.
As we were loading the wheel into the helicopter (it was a tight fit), the Air Force Senior NCO of Det 4, who I had been dealing with constantly from the beginning, came to attention. He saluted me, saying something like it had been a real pleasure to work with me and that I was a credit to the US’s armed forces, even if I was a Navy man. That meant a lot to me at the time and still does. You do not have to salute on the ramp of an airfield, so he was paying me a huge compliment. I had seen our effort as a team effort from day one. Others had been more out for their command and themselves, and it showed. By working with the colonel and his team and not trying to go around them by sending reports directly back to my parent command rather than through Det 4 as we had been directed, as others had, I had made their job easier, not harder and, they clearly appreciated it.
I got back to my detachment, and the senior NCOs there had the situation well in hand. I was not surprised. We passed the IG with only very minor suggestions on how we could improve our operation. CAPT Pete Dillingham, the CO at NSGA Misawa, pronounced himself very pleased, and if he was pleased, we were all delighted.
Chuck and Stu were equally satisfied with their findings. The MARB did perform just as hoped and we now knew we had a very useful exploitation tool.
E-Systems subsequently sold a number of their EPR-107 processors, the device they developed by reverse engineering the MARB, to the US Navy for a substantial amount of money. I went on to direct the Operational Evaluation of the Rivet Joint Block III, designed at least in part, to maximize the capabilities of the EPR-107 and its derivatives. I was selected for that high-visibility role due, at least in part, to my experience with the MARB. At the end of that OpEval, MGEN Doyle Larson, Commanding General, USAFSS, pinned USAF Officer Aircrew wings on my Navy uniform. All because of Chuck Christman, “The Crab.” May he rest in peace. He certainly earned it.
Starting tomorrow there will be a five part series on the MiG-25 (FOXBAT) based on news summaries obtained from Japan Times, Asahi Evening News, The Daily Yomiuri and the Mainichi Daily News.