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Jane's Intelligence Review

May 1, 1997

SECTION: EUROPE; Vol. 9; No. 5; Pg. 205

LENGTH: 2629 words


BYLINE: Steven J Zaloga

As far back as the late 1960s, scientists in the USSR had beensecretly theorising about the possibilities of space-based weaponry.In the early 1980s, however, spurred by US President Ronald Reagan'sannouncement of the Strategic Defense Initiative and a firmconviction that the US space shuttle programme was geared towardmilitary ends, Soviet efforts in this area took on a new importance.Steven J Zaloga tracks the Soviet side of 'Star Wars'.


Throughout most of the 1980s, the Soviet Union's political leadership spent a considerable amount of time denouncing the US Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly called 'Star Wars' after the George Lucas film released in 1977. This Soviet propaganda campaign was partly intended to hide the USSR's substantial effort to develop its own space-based weapon systems.

Recent Russian revelations provide some intriguing details on those efforts and what was one of the Soviet Union's most secret defence programmes. This short article cannot provide a comprehensive description of all Soviet work in this area, but it is intended instead to highlight some of the major projects that have until now been kept secret. There was also a key difference in the Soviet approach to space-based weaponry, for while the US Star Wars programme was primarily oriented towards defending against ballistic missile attack, the Soviet programme went further - towards destroying enemy satellites.

Soviet space strike weapons

The possible applications of new weapon technologies for revolutionary roles were of considerable interest in the Soviet scientific and defence community in the late 1960s. The initiative in this area came mainly from the Ministry for Radio Industry (Minradioprom), which had managed the development of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme since the late 1950s. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a series of discussions were held among representatives of the Academy of Science, the military scientific-research institutes (NIIs), industrial design bureaux (OKBs), and the Soviet General Staff on the issue of space weapons. The consensus that emerged was that a programme should be undertaken in two phases, codenamed Fon-1 (Background-1) and Fon-2. Fon-1 represented advanced concept and technology development including directed energy weapons, electro-magnetic rail guns, novel warhead technologies, new ABM missiles and space platforms for applications of these weapons. Fon-2 was intended to facilitate the transition of these technologies into the engineering-manufacturing development phase in order to field actual systems. The Fon-1 programme formally began around 1976, although work was already underway on basic research of many of the novel directed-energy technologies.

This programme was not unanimously supported, and it was vigorously opposed by some segments of the defence and industrial communities which viewed it as a waste of funding that would be better directed to more conventional types of weaponry. Among its opponents was Grigori Kisunko, the general designer of the initial Moscow ABM system. In 1976, a research effort connected with Fon-1 was initiated at OKB Kometa, the design bureau headed by A I Savin, which had developed the first Soviet anti-satellite (ASAT) system in the 1960s. OKB Kometa was given the task of proposing a system that could destroy 10,000 re-entry vehicles and cruise missiles in 5 to 25 minutes with a probability of destruction of 99.8 per cent. Kometa concluded that such a system was not practical for both technological and economic reasons. Nevertheless, Fon-1 continued to be funded, with much of the effort being devoted to ASAT missions rather than ballistic missile defence (BMD).

The rapid expansion of development work on space- based weapons reached such a point in the 1970s that the Ministry of Defence Production (MOP) was obliged to set up a new 8th Main Directorate specifically to manage these programmes and co-ordinate the various research institutes. On the industrial side, the programme was headed by Petr S Pleshakov of Minradioprom and overseen by a committee of the Military Industrial Commission (VPK) headed by Leonid V Smirnov.

In spite of the lack of satisfactory progress on many of these exotic technologies, the programme took on new importance in the early 1980s when US President Ronald Reagan announced the initiation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The combination of the SDI programme and associated concerns over the militarisation of space (related to the development of the US Space Shuttle) convinced some elements in the Soviet General Staff that the USA was aiming to deploy a comprehensive array of 'space strike systems' capable not only of defending against incoming missile re-entry vehicles, the ostensible goal of SDI, but also of attacking Soviet objectives on land, air and sea. The Soviet Ministry of Defence was convinced that the Space Shuttle's primary orientation was for military rather than scientific missions.

As a result, in 1983 Yuriy Andropov ordered the transition of the Fon programme to the next phase, Fon-2, and considerably increased the funding as a result. The aim of Fon-2 was broadened somewhat from its original intent to include space-based strike systems and technologies to counter the US SDI effort. In parallel to this acceleration of the space strike programme, in August 1983 Andropov initiated a diplomatic initiative to reach an agreement with the USA to ban tests and deployment of any type of space-based weapons. The Soviet Union also announced a unilateral moratorium on orbiting any type of anti-satellite interceptor, even though efforts under Fon-2 were funding precisely such programmes.

Directed energy weapon development

A principal centre for work on Soviet laser weapons was the Luch Central Design Bureau (TsKB Luch) headed by Nikolai Ustinov, the son of the defence minister Dmitri Ustinov. During the 1970s, the Luch Design Bureau was reorganised into the NPO Astrofizika, which included other firms in this field including the Granat High Energy Laser Special Design Bureau. Nikolai Ustinov had originally been a designer in the KB-1 organisation (now NPO Almaz) specialising in anti-ballistic missile systems. After his father's death in 1984, he was ousted from control and replaced by Boris Chemodanov. NPO Astrofizika was responsible both for strategic laser weapons as well as tactical laser weapons mounted on aircraft, armoured vehicles and ships. NPO Astrofizika controlled a very large portion of the total Soviet budget for directed energy weapons, amounting to about 4 billion roubles from 1969-1989. To put this in some perspective, the official 1988 Soviet defence budget was 20 billion roubles, so Astrofizika's annual funding alone amounted to about 1 per cent of the public Soviet defence budget. Astrofizika constructed a free-electron laser prototype at Storozhevaya, a 1 MW gas laser at Troitsk near Moscow and collaborated on a major laser complex at the Sary-Shagan PVO Air Defence proving ground in Kazakstan. Most of these systems examined the possible anti-satellite role for directed energy weapons.

Besides NPO Astrofizika, the other major centre for the development of directed energy weapons was OKB Vympel (later TsNPO Vympel). OKB Vympel had originally been part of KB-1 until the early 1960s and was the Soviet Union's primary research centre for anti-ballistic missile research. It should not be confused with the air-to-air missile design bureau with the similar name. Vympel was primarily involved in ground-based laser weapons and in attempts to develop a UHF directed-energy weapon. In 1969, it began work on the Terra-3 programme, aimed at examining the weapon potential of high-energy lasers against ballistic missile re-entry vehicles. An experimental laser system was erected by TsNPO Vympel at the Sary-Shagan PVO Air Defence proving ground beginning in the early 1970s. Defence Minister Andrey Grechko first visited the site in 1973.

The Sary Shagan Terra-3 testbed included a high- energy ruby laser and a high-energy CO2 laser. Vympel was primarily responsible for the overall concept and design of Terra-3, but the lasers were developed by Astrofizika. One of Terra-3's first operational uses was conducted in 1984 at the insistence of Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov, who was concerned that the US space shuttle was being used as a reconnaissance platform. On 10 October 1984, on the 13th Challenger mission, the US space shuttle was tracked by the Terra-3 laser at low power while being directed by the 5N24 Argun phased-array radar at the Sary Shagan PVO site. This caused malfunctions on the space shuttle and distress to the crew, leading to a formal US diplomatic protest. In 1989, US scientists were allowed to inspect one of the associated laser sensors of the Terra-3 complex that was used to aim the main beams. Although the complex provided the Soviet programme with considerable detail about laser interaction with typical ICBMs and re-entry vehicles, Terra-3 did not prove practical as a weapon.

Astrofizika and Vympel were supported by a wide range of smaller research institutes, such as the Scientific Research Institute for Thermal Processes (NIITP), which was developing high energy gas dynamic lasers for space-based applications, and the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Device Production (NII-Radiopriborostroeniya), which was developing plasma weapons. Much of the advanced research work was carried out by scientific institutions, including the Academy of Science's Physics Institute, the All-Union Scientific Institute for Power Engineering and Physics (VNIIEF) and the State Institute for Optics (GOI).

Space battle stations

The third major industrial organisation involved in these programmes was NPO Energia based in Kaliningrad. As the Soviet Union's foremost space development centre, Energia was given the task in 1976 of developing space-based platforms for novel weapon technologies. Energia co-ordinated the efforts of the other weapon design bureaux to make certain that their weapons were compatible with Energia's 'space strike systems'. In contrast to the US SDI programme, which was primarily oriented toward destroying re-entry vehicles in their boost phase, the Energia programme had a much broader range of space-based military missions. This was driven in part by the Soviet assessment of the military nature of the US space shuttle. The Soviets feared that the space shuttle was the central element in a new generation of space strike weapons and was viewed as a suitable platform for delivering weapons from space against targets on earth. Its second military role was assessed as being the delivery and support of combat spacecraft. It is not clear if this Soviet perception of the shuttle was due to a mistaken and paranoid assessment of actual US intentions for the space shuttle, or whether this view was a conscious ruse on the part of the Soviet Defence Ministry to win support for its own space strike systems, mirroring the imagined US space strike systems. In either case, the defence ministry remained the strongest backer of the Buran space shuttle effort in spite of reservations within the Russian civil space community, which feared that the Soviet Buran space shuttle would eat up too much of the civil space budget.

Energia's first programme was the development of a space battle station complex. This consisted of two different types of spacecraft sharing a common central module derived from the DOS-7K Salyut space station. One station was to be armed with a laser weapon and the other with autonomous-homing missiles. The battle stations were designed to carry enough fuel for manoeuvring into attack positions. Since the laser battle station required so much space for its power generation and other equipment, it could carry less fuel for manoeuvring. Consequently, the Soviet plan was to deploy a mixed force of these battle stations, with the missile-armed types deployed to attack satellites in low-earth orbit while the laser battle stations attacked targets in high and geo-synchronous orbits. This system could be left in orbit unmanned, although for high-intensity operations the stations could house a two-man crew for up to a week. These space strike systems were to be serviced by the new Buran space shuttle. The illustrations of the Energia space strike systems in this article are based on a recently released history published by the bureau.

As a forerunner to the Energia system, KB Salyut packaged a testbed laser system to be flown as part of the Polyus spacecraft in 1987. The Skif-DM module on the Polyus was a test-bed space-based laser system developed by the NIITP. The Polyus was flown on the first Energia space booster mission but failed to reach orbit.

Energia worked on two other space-based weapon systems. The first development was a small missile interceptor similar to the US Brilliant Pebbles concept. This small autonomous device was designed to intercept re-entry vehicles and destroy them using the kinetic energy of impact. It is not clear how these devices were to be deployed, whether by satellites, the Buran shuttle or by some form of earth-launched booster.

The final Energia project was the most elaborate space strike system envisioned. It consisted of a central battle station based around a DOS-7K space station module. To this was added a command module and a targeting module. The central battle station core played host to four or more 'combat modules'. These were derivatives of the Buran space shuttle, minus their wings. The combat modules could operate alone or in combat groups, could dock at the central station and would receive targeting data from the central control module. Their armament was expected to be ballistic missiles or unpowered nuclear glide bombs. The primary mission of the battle station was to attack high-value targets on earth. This system, which violated prevailing treaties on the militarisation of space, apparently did not proceed beyond design studies.

Although Energia was a major developer of space-based weapon systems, other design bureaux offered competitive alternatives. In the late 1970s the Chelomey OKB-52, now NPO Mashinostroyenie, proposed a space-based network of satellites armed with interceptors for attacking ballistic missile re-entry vehicles. Chelomey proposed using a version of the Spektr research satellite to form the basis for such a system, launched by his firm's Proton booster. The modified Spektr space platform would be armed with the Oktava interceptor device developed by OKB Kometa. Spektr was fitted with at least three types of sensors, Lira, Buton and Pion-K, which were designed to identify, track and discriminate the re-entry vehicles from decoys and missile-related debris as well as aim the Oktava prior to launch. The military Spektr programme was abandoned in 1992, although the original scientific Spektr programme continues under the direction of the Lavochkin design bureau.

Although no comprehensive history of the 'Red Star Wars' programme has yet been published in Russian, recent accounts have begun to make it possible to gain some impression of the direction and scope of this effort. It would appear that the Soviet Ministry of Defence was less sanguine about the technological possibilities of deploying a space- or ground-based BMD system and so devoted much more attention to ASAT missions than the United States. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Fon programme has lost most, if not all, of its funding.

Author Steven J Zaloga is a senior analyst with Teal Group Corp covering missile systems and arms export issues. He has written extensively on Russian missile development, including the 1989 Jane's book 'Soviet Air Defense Missiles: Design, Development, and Tactics'.