After more than a half century of development, the U.S. military is finally close to fielding an array of laser weapons for defense against missiles, drones and small vehicles. However, the Soviet Union also researched laser weapons for decades, and developed an astounding variety of them, ranging from laser pistols, three different laser tanks and a laser-armed spaceship.
Lasers direct photons (light particles) into a coherent beam, and though most military lasers today are used to designate targets and measure distances and so forth, a sufficiently powerful laser can cause a destructive buildup of thermal energy. Depending on their design, lasers project may visible or invisible rays—the latter is typical for most combat lasers—though the point affected by a high-energy laser is likely to emit a visible effect.
In theory, laser weapons could prove exceptionally accurate, fast hitting—it’s hard to beat the speed of light!—and inexpensive to shoot compared to a missile or cannon shell. Until recently, however, they have proven impractical due to the bulky power and cooling units they require, their limited range and difficulty in damaging well-shielded targets.
The Soviet Union began experimenting with lasers in the fifties and sixties. Its first laser weapons, emerging in the seventies, were fixed ground-based systems with the suitably science-fiction names Terra-3 and Omega. Terra-3 encompassed two different devices, installed at the Sary Shagan testing ground in Kazakhstan: a visible ruby laser and an invisible carbon-dioxide laser. Initially conceived in the 1960s to swat down ballistic missiles in the terminal descending phase, following the 1972 treaty banning antiballistic-missile systems, Terra-3 was reoriented towards damage orbiting satellites, though with little success due to inaccurate tracking systems.
Nonetheless, Terra-3 inspired the Pentagon to throw fits in the 1980s about a potential Soviet “laser gap” over U.S. technology, and there were even rumors initiated by former Soviet officials (generally discredited today) that they were used to illuminate the space shuttle Challenger in 1984, causing it to malfunction. However, later Western inspection of Terra-3 revealed the lasers were mere prototypes that lacked by far the power and scale necessary to significantly affect orbital targets.
The concurrently developed Omega lasers were intended to hit aircraft and missiles in the atmosphere. Omega-1 and -2 proved more successful at striking distant targets, but the system still lacked sufficient hitting power and power generation. Nonetheless, the Omega laser is thought to be the basis for Russia’s current development of ground-based laser air defense.
Designing a laser that could maintain a power-efficient beam over long distances is difficult—so perhaps the solution was to get up close. In 1984, Soviet scientists developed a laser pistol straight out of Buck Rogers ; appropriately, it was for use by Soviet cosmonauts. It was supposedly intended to damage the optics of Western satellites or blind hostile astronauts, without causing hull damage to a spacecraft. Each pull of the trigger electrically discharged a pyrotechnic flashbulb cartridge stored in an eight-round box magazine. Conveniently, the pistols were also supposed to function as medical scalpels, conjuring up gruesome images of Prometheus-style impromptu space surgery. Even better, there was a laser revolver variant of the weapon—a concept far too implausible to show up in Star Wars, but not in a Soviet armory!
However, the laser pistols inflicted very light damage—between one and ten joules of energy, equivalent to an air gun—and had an effective range of only twenty meters. The design did not advance beyond the prototype stage, so Soviet cosmonauts were forced to make do with the triple-barreled TP-82 , a slug-throwing shotgun with a 5.45-millimeter pistol built into the stock—and a built-in machete.
While the laser pistol was not intended for battlefield use, the same cannot be said for Soviet laser tanks. The initial 1K11 Stilet (“Stiletto”) vehicle, with its single laser emitter with a range of five to seven kilometers, gave way to the far beefier 1K17 Szhatie (“Compression”), which was only completed in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and shared the same armored chassis as the 2S19 self-propelled howitzer. This terrifying beast mounted two banks of six laser emitters each, and resembled a mechanized Argus dredged up from the mythological past.
Fitting that theme, the Szhatie’s twelve multichannel lasers were designed to focus their beams together, not annihilate enemies but to curse them with blindness—or specifically, to disable the superior optics, cameras and targeting systems on NATO tanks.
But the 1K17 demanded a sacrifice worthy of hungry gods—thirty kilos of synthetic rubies were necessary for the rods in each of the twelve lasers! Furthermore, each of the ruby lasers was backed up by a solid-state garnet laser as well. The cost proved prohibitive. Though the laser theoretically could outrange the tanks it was firing at, the Russian military may have felt there was little point in fielding a specialized vehicle for disabling tank optics when you could instead use the same vehicle to fling antitank missiles.