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.
However, a smaller-scale “dazzler” laser is believed to be mounted on the Chinese Type 99 tank, theoretically allowing it to blind its enemies and then blow them up with its main gun. Generally, however, “dazzlers” intentionally designed to cause permanent eyesight damage were outlawed per the 1995 Protocol On Blinding Weapons. In any case, in 2015 the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta suggested that Russian engineers were again researching new laser tanks.
The third Soviet laser tank was the Sangvin, based on the chassis of a ZSU-23 Shilka antiaircraft vehicle. Rather than a quad-barreled flak cannon, the vehicle sported a turret-mounted laser projector that resembled a searchlight on its rotating turret. Trials in 1983 showed the Sangvin had the accuracy to destroy the optics on hostile aircraft as far as eight to ten kilometers away.
Of course, the Soviets were not alone in their laser-weapons schemes during the 1980s. The United Kingdom reportedly deployed a dazzler-type laser on their naval vessels for use in the Falkland War. (They didn’t end up using it.) And in the United States, one scheme prominently proposed for President Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative involved using laser-projecting satellites to shoot down hostile ballistic missiles, thereby creating a missile shield.
It was precisely the possibility of such a satellite-based defense shield that motivated the Soviet Union to design their own laser-armed “orbital weapons platform” (essentially an unmanned space station) to shoot down U.S. satellites, called Polyus—although by “shoot down,” we should imagine something less like a dogfight between X-wings and TIE fighters, and more an invasive long-distance laser-surgery operation. Though the Polyus’s enormous megawatt carbon-dioxide laser would not necessarily have physically destroyed its targets, it might still have had the power to burn out the optical guidance systems on Western defense satellites, blinding their ability to detect a Soviet nuclear first strike.
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However, the hastily assembled prototype on the Skif-DM spacecraft, mated to the powerful Energia launch vessel, failed to enter orbit in 1987 due to a flaw in its inadequately tested inertial-guidance system. The ninety-ton spacecraft plummeted into the South Pacific, bringing a watery end to that particular initiative.
If spaceships were not enough, there remains the mystery concerning lasers on Soviet naval vessels. In October, 1987, the Pentagon complained that one of its P-3 Orion maritime patrol planes, as well as a nearby WC-135 weather observation plane, were “illuminated by an intense light” due to a laser on a Soviet ship. Indeed, Western military intelligence was convinced at the time that the battlecruiser Kirov had its own dazzler-type laser weapon, but confirmation of this remains wanting today.
At any rate, in 1984 the Soviet Union launched a laser test-bed ship known as the Foros, with an Akvilon laser designed to attack optical targeting devices and enemy crew members. Though the laser reportedly proved effective at destroying a sea-skimming missile in a test, it could only hit targets four kilometers away at 5 percent power efficiency.
With spaceships, sea ships, tanks and astronauts out of the way, that only leaves airplanes. During the 2000s, the Pentagon spent $5 billion developing the YAL-1, a Jumbo jet with a giant nose-mounted laser that successfully shot down ballistic missiles in flight—but not at great enough range to be practical. But while the YAL-1 may be grounded for good, its older Russian counterpart, the Beriev A-60, is still flying today.
The modified Il-76MD heavy transport jet first flew in 1981 and began testing its laser three years later. A lidar laser-ranging system installed in the hulking plane’s bulbous nose helps aim the main carbon-dioxide gas laser, which is situated in the cargo compartment and designed to fire out a sliding dorsal blister. Nacelles on either side of the fuselage house the turbo generators necessary to power the two lasers. The main laser can reportedly attain either one or two megawatts in power, with a range of up to 110 kilometers.
Details on the A-60’s activities are scant and mostly classified, but its laser is understood to have applications for blinding low-orbit satellites, and was reportedly used to illuminate a Japanese satellite in 2009. Though the first Soviet laser plane burned up in an airport fire in 1989, a second A-60 completed in 1991 continues to be tested with a new 1LK222 laser.
As should be clear by now, the legacy of Soviet laser-weapons research remains with us today. While laser pistols are unlikely to be whipped out in a brawl on the International Space Station, many of the other Soviet prototypes continue to evolve into technologies designed to disable the guidance systems and optics on vehicles, drones and satellites. In particular, the potential for an arms race targeting orbital spacecraft should provoke careful consideration amongst international leaders—hopefully towards averting the acceleration of that trend.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Modernized T-72B3 with additional armor.