Tactical Lasers

As the first country in the world to achieve significant achievements in the field of laser weapons, the Soviet Union had long maintained a leading position in the field of laser military technology. As early as 1965, the Soviet Union began the development of laser weapons. In 1972, it carried out a powerful laser weapon test and successfully used the mobile "laser cannon" to destroy the air maneuver targets.

Until the 1980s, laser weapons were considered the stuff of science fiction, with engineers needing to solve a range of complex problems, like how to generate enough power to create laser pulses powerful enough to destroy enemy targets. Major advances have since been made.

Russia invested heavily in military lasers, which include the Zadira, designed to fry enemy drones at distances up to 5 km, to the Peresvet, a strategic laser platform designed to disable enemy spacecraft at altitudes up to 1,500 km, plus hostile drones at long ranges. Rounding out the trio is the Sokol-Eshelon, an anti-satellite laser weapons system originating in the Soviet period, and consisting of an airborne laser attached to a modified Il-76 transport hauler known as the Beriev A-60 laser laboratory. That system can disable spacecraft at altitudes up to 1,500 km using a laser attached to its special nose cone.

Lasers have several advantages over conventional missiles, particularly when it comes to the cost of a pulse compared to a traditional rocket. But a number of drawbacks are also known to exist, including need to find ways to access large amounts of electricity. Environmental factors like cloud cover can also reduce the effectiveness of lasers dramatically.

In 1973, the Soviet Union established the Design Bureau, which is responsible for the research and development of laser weapons. The starting point is to respond to western space threats and conduct missile defenses. Relying on a solid technical foundation in the aerospace field, 1981. The Soviet laser weapon air test platform A-60 made its first flight.

In 1983, the United States proposed the "Star Wars" program, setting off an unprecedented scale of arms race on the two superpowers. The progress of the development of Soviet laser weapons has markedly accelerated. In 1984, the A-60 first used laser weapons to successfully destroy air targets.

However, in the field of land-based and sea-based laser weapons, the Soviet Union has gained a lot, and there have been many types of equipment in the weapons inventory. In 1982, the Soviet Union successfully developed a "triple dagger" self-propelled laser weapon that could use high-power laser pulses to attack the photoconductive guidance system, allowing enemy tanks, self-propelled artillery, and helicopters to paralyze. The Soviet Navy also used a cesium fluoride chemical laser on the 10,000-ton cruiser Kirov for short-range defense within 10 kilometers.

Works in the field of laser weapons have been carried out in various countries of the world since the 1970s. For a long time it was a kind of work in the future. To a large extent and now these works are experimental in nature. The fate of Soviet laser weapons projects differed little from the American experience. And the reasons for this, it should be noted, were absolutely the same: the absence of a compact and super-powerful source of energy, a number of practical problems, and a relatively low efficiency of lasers in comparison with traditional weapons.

In 1965 on the screens of the country there was a fantastic film "Hyperboloid engineer Garin" based on the same novel by Alexei Tolstoy . Looking at how the hero with the help of deadly rays destroys entire plants, the audience did not even suspect that in the USSR for more than 10 years there have been developments of such weapons.

In the mid-fifties, Soviet scientists Alexander Prokhorov and  Nikolai Basov invented an optical quantum generator, which served as the basis for the creation of combat lasers. In 1963, Deputy Minister of Defense of the USSR Andrei Grechko instructed the developers to adapt this device for military needs. The special design bureau Vympel was involved in the development, which by the end of the 1960s was separated into an independent organization of the "laser profile" - TsKB "Luch" (later - NPO "Astrophysics").

In 1964, real prospects began to be outlined: the development of laser weapons of high capacity "Terra" and "Omega". The first was intended for the destruction of missiles, the second was aimed at aircraft. Tests of finished weapons were conducted at the secret test site in Sary-Shagan located in Kazakhstan. It was not possible to shoot down the missiles, but the experiment with the aircraft, according to experts, was a success.

Since the mid-1970s, the development of ground-based laser systems, as well as installations for supporting space targets and ballistic missiles, has intensified in the USSR. Polygon tests were carried out at site 2505 ("Terra" - works of the NGO "Astrophysics") with reference to anti-missile and anti-satellite defense and at facility 2506 ("Omega" - works of the NGO "Almaz" ) with regard to air defense.

Apparent success was achieved in equipping laser weapons with self-propelled tracked vehicles. For example, the task of the "laser tank" was to detect and attack the target, which has optoelectronic devices. The laser strike was supposed to disable the enemy's guidance systems, making it unfit for use, and to blind the gunner, damaging the retina of the eye.

The best-known Soviet laser projects included a laser cannon mounted onboard the Dikson search and rescue vessel, the Skif spacecraft, capable of carrying a laser weapon, an air-based laser, mounted on board the Beriev A-60 airborne laser laboratory, and perhaps most famously, the 1K17 Szhatie mobile ground-based laser system (codenamed Stiletto by Western intelligence services).

Combat lasers were also tested by the Soviet military at sea. According to the plan, the shipborne laser complex "Aquilon" was supposed to hit the shore facilities. So, in the summer of 1980, laser shots were fired from the side of the experimental ship "Dixon" in the Black Sea. However, it turned out that most of the energy of the beam was "eaten" by evaporation of moisture from the sea surface, because of which the efficiency was only 5 percent.

In August 1981, the first "laser plane" A-60, which was designed on the basis of IL-76, soared into the Soviet sky. In the nose part of the model a special fairing with a laser targeting system was installed, along the sides of the fuselage there were turbogenerators, and at the top of the case were opened the doors, from which a laser cannon was advanced.

The attraction of lasers remains their simple power to effect ratio: firing one costs as much as generating the power it consumes. This was also a guiding principle when the Soviet Union powered up its laser program in the 1960s at the top-secret "Astrophysics" scientific research and production centre. Appointed to head it in 1978 was the talented physicist Nikolai Ustinov, son of the powerful Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Ustinov. But technology at the time did not enable the construction of mobile lasers powerful enough to destroy a target. So researchers instead focused on ‘blinding’ a tank, self-propelled gun or low-flying helicopter by targeting photo-sensors in its optical sighting systems. Once these are neutralized, the vehicle or aircraft becomes easy prey.

In 2014, the chief of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces, Army General Yuri Baluyevsky said that Russia was developing laser weapons in parallel with the United States. Thus, he commented on the words of Admiral Matthew Klander, head of the Naval Research Department of the US Navy, that testing the laser weapons installed on the ship for four months of trial operation "exceeded all expectations."

The Russian military has already received weapons samples based on new physical principles, previously considered fiction. It is, in particular, about laser weapons. This Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said 02 August 2016 at the anniversary of the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics. "This is not exotic, not experimental, but prototypes - we have already adopted certain types of laser weapons," he said. Previously, Borisov said that such high-tech weapons will largely determine the appearance of the Russian army in accordance with the new state armament program until 2025.

After the collapse of the USSR, all work to create such weapons was stopped. Nevertheless, developments and technologies were not lost. The most famous Soviet laser developments:

  • a laser gun mounted onboard the search and rescue ship "Dixon;
  • the Terra-3 program for testing laser weapons at the Sary-Shagan range in Kazakhstan (it was there that the USSR Defense Minister Marshal Andrei Grechko showed how a laser hits a five-kopeck coin);
  • a spacecraft "Scythian", capable of carrying a laser cannon;
  • ground-based laser complexes "Stiletto";
  • airborne laser installation placed on board an A-60 experimental aircraft;
  • The press also received information that in the Soviet Union in the space industry, laser guns were used, and carbines of the LK brand ("Radial carbine") were even in stock before 1995. However, there is no detailed information on this weapon, let alone its combat application.
  • In the Soviet years, the BMP-1S - a special modification of the BMP-1 with laser equipment AB-1 was also used in the armament of motorized rifle units, the task of which was to disable the optical devices of the enemy.
  • the complex 1?11 "Stilet", which was developed on the basis of the SAU SU-100P, was adopted. Its purpose is to defeat optico-electronic devices and view enemy soldiers. The complex was not only adopted for service, but also produced serially (information on the number of complexes issued varies: some experts indicate that no fewer than 15 units were produced, while others say only two complexes).
  • In 1983, the Sangvin self-propelled laser complex was put into service on the chassis of the Shilka anti-aircraft self-propelled unit (the development of the 1K11 Stilet complex and the predecessor of the 1K17 Complex Compression).
  • In 1990, a prototype 1K17 "Compression" was assembled with a modernized laser system (of 12 optical channels), and in 1992 the complex was recommended for use in armament. However, he did not go to the series, because of the revision of state funding for defense programs after the collapse of the USSR. The project called 1K17 "Compression" was a prototype of a mobile laser gun based on the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer. The Soviet self-propelled laser complex 1K17 "Compression" at best ensured the blindness of the optics and human vision, but it was not capable of a larger "burnout". At the same time, there are opinions that the laser complex is in many ways the weapon of psychological influence on the enemy, because it threatens to blind the scouts, air or artillery gunners, snipers when working with optics.

By 2018 laser systems were far from advanced in comparison with that time. So far, accoding to Russian sources, the following problems had not been resolved. First, the problem of excess heat. In the American project of a "flying laser" on Boeing, up to 80% of the pulse energy went into heat and even when tested on the ground by an airplane, the paint began to burn elementary from the heat. Secondly, the problem of beam dispersion had not been overcome - dust, fumes and smoke scatter the laser beam, make it weak. Thirdly, optical glass was not created, which could withstand a powerful laser beam - after one serious pulse, the molten lens must be changed. According to some experts, this was one of the main obstacles to using a laser gun in space (along with pumping and price) - one shot and optics fail, and the system itself is overheating.

Laser weapons require capacities that are simply not provided for mobile equipment. This requires either a ship or a stationary installation, plus - good weather conditions, as the degree of humidity, fog, smoke, rain, snow affect the effectiveness of the laser. It should be understood that protection is provided by such primitive means from such damaging factors. For example, the installation of a smoke screen completely excludes defeat by laser weapons. So, it's not a miracle weapon, not a wunderwaffe, but one of the elements of an armament system that can be effective under certain conditions with significant restrictions, like, in fact, any other weapon.

In view of the fact that at the current technological stage these problems are still insurmountable, by 2018 Russia had only very weak lasers that are able to safely disable tactical small drones, suppress optoelectronic systems and reconnaissance means to detect reflection from optical sights, binoculars, lenses of viewing devices, etc.

In the "President's Address to the Federal Assembly" on 01 March 2018, Putin stated " We are also well aware of the fact that a number of states are working to create promising weapons on new physical principles. There is every reason to believe that here we are one step ahead. In any case, where it is most needed. So, significant results have been achieved in the creation of laser weapons. And this is not just a theory or projects, and not even just the beginning of production. Since last year, the military has already received combat laser systems.

I do not want to go into details in this part, it's just not the time. But experts will understand that the presence of such combat complexes multiply the possibilities of Russia, in multiple, in the sphere of ensuring its security. Those who are interested in military equipment, would also like to propose, would ask that they offer the name and this new technology, this newest complex. Of course, we will be engaged in debugging, development, perfection of our newest weapon systems. And, of course, today I did not say much about all our achievements and promising developments. But today is enough."

Both Western and post-Soviet Russian press has a tendency to wildly exaggerate the power and effectiveness of laser weaponry, going so far as to speak of a mysterious 'laser-based carbine rifle', supposedly in stock with the Russian armed forces until 1995. The reality, the journalist noted, is that systems such as "the Soviet 1K17 mobile laser complex could at best blind enemy optics and their human operators, but not much more. Some experts have even argued that a weaponized laser is really a psychological weapon, given that it threatens the enemy with [literally] blinding scouting units, aircraft [operators], artillery gunners, snipers," and other personnel who use optical systems.

Probably the most effective real-world application of weaponized lasers in the Russian military is the KDHR-1H, a mobile reconnaissance unit using a laser locator to detect low-level atmospheric chemical contamination. Another system, the Potok, used by Russia's National Guard, consists of a non-lethal system meant to temporarily blind enemies.

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