In the beginning of 70s military leadership of Soviet Union had a great interest in laser weapon development. Laser equipment was planned to put in space platforms, stations and aircrafts.
All the built units were based on stationary sources of energy and didn’t meet the requirment of military space – full autonomy. This also didn’t allow designers to carry out rigorous test. The government of the USSR ordered the Navy to test and work out autonomy. Laser gun which was figured in all documents as MSU (powerful propulsion unit) was decided to be installed to a ship.
In 1976 Sergey Gorshkov, a chairman of Navy approved rebuilding of landing ship 770 SDK-20 to experimental ship called project 10030 “Foros”. It was planned to test here “Akvilon” – a laser complex which targets were optical-electron units and opponent ship crew.
Process of rebuilding lasted for 8 years. Ship’s hull needed to be imroved because of “Akvilon” huge size and weight. At last in September of 1984 ship OS-90 “Foros” joined The Black Sea Fleet of the USSR.
Indeed, a lot had been changed in the ship’s hull. Traps were replaced by stem and bow section, 1,5 metre wide board bulge were formed, additional storey was built as 1 module with all equipment and rooms, a crane of 100 tonne carrying capacity was installed. To lower the level of noise all living and service rooms had sound-absorbing isolation. Cofferdam (a narrow horizontal or vertical section separating neighbouring rooms) also emerged for this purpose.
“Akvilon” complex was installed very carefully. A great attention was paid at designing of its bearing.
In October of 1984 first successful tests of “Foros” were carried out in Feodosiya. It was the first time in history of Soviet Navy when low flying missile had been promptly found and destructed by laser beam.
But there were some disadvantages – the attack lasted for several seconds and preparations took more than 24 hours. Efficiency output was very low – about 5%. No doubt that scientists gained experience of using laser in the battle. But dissolution of the Soviet Union and following economic crisis stopped the experiments.
“Foros” wasn’t the only Soviet Navy ship where laser units were tested.
Practically at the same, in 1978, began modernization of dry cargo ship “Dikson” in Sevastopol and building of laser unit in Kaluga. All the work on creating a new laser gun was kept in secret. It must have become the most powerful Soviet battle laser unit. The project was called “Aidar”.
Modernization of “Dikson” required a great amount of money and resources. Moreover during the work designers often faced scientific and technical problems. For example, in order to equip the ship with 400 air bottles designers had to put off metal covering from both sides completely. It was found out later that hydrogen could be accumulated in confined space and blow by an accident. So they had to install heavy ventilation system. Especially for laser unit the top deck was designed to be opened as 2 parts. As a result builders had to strengthen the hull which lost its tenacity. To strenghten propulsion system the ship was equipped with 3 Tu-154 jet engines.
In the end of 1979 “Dikson” was moved to the Black Sea, the Crimea, Feodosiya. Here at Ordzhonikidze shipyard it was equipped with a laser gun and control systems. The crew settled the ship also here.
The first test of “Dikson” took place in summer of 1980. The ship had only one gun salvo and it was enough to strike the target located in 4 kilometres on the beach. The hit was registered by a heat sensor installed in the target though there were no visiual signs of the beam and damage. Efficiency output also accounted for 5%. The energy of the beam was absorbed by expulsion of sea water.
However the tests were recognized to be successful. Designers created the laser for use in space and as we know there is perfect vacuum there.
Besides low efficiency output and battle features the unit had huge size and was difficult in service.
Tests continued till 1985. As a result researchers got information – in what way battle laser units can be built, in what kinds of ships to be installed, they could even improve the power of laser. All planned tests had been successfully finished by 1985.
Nevertheless designers and military authorities understood it was unlikely to put such a “monster” in orbit in next 20-30 years. These arguments were announced to senior authorities who cared besides these problems about many-millioned expenditures and time constraints of building the laser.
By that time transoceanic opponent of the USSR faced the same problems. Space weapon race stalled in the very beginning. The results were negotiations on “defence and space” which influenced in double-ended curtailment of military space programmes. The USSR stopped all the work in several space programmes. Project “Aidar” was also finished and unique ship “Dikson” was forgotten.
Both ships were included in 311 division of experimental ships. In 1990s laser units were dismantled, technical documentation destroyed. Pioneers of laserbuilding “Foros” and “Dikson” were sent to be destroyed.
What concerns land forces?
Automotive laser complex.
In the end of 70s – beginning of 80s global “democratic” communty dreamed under the influence of “Star Wars”. At the same time keeping in secret USSR was slowly realizing Hollywood dreams. Soviet cosmonauts flew in space armed with rayguns, battle stations and space fighters were designed and laser tanks were driven on the land.
Providing the reaction to optical-electron observing systems and weapon control systems in terms of tough climatic conditions was the main mission for laser complex. Sverdlovsk (Ekatirinburg today) design department “Uraltransmash” the leading developer of practically all Soviet self-propelled artillery designed undercarriage of the complex.
A picture of the Soviet laser complex from «Soviet Military Power» journal.
“Astrofizika” was one of the organizations who developed laser complexes. Its leaders held posts in the government. Thus the organization had no problems with investment and resources. By 1982 (4 years after creation) they had designed SLK 1K11 “Stilet”.
Officially this complex is being adopted today. However, nothing has been heard about experimental machines for a very long time. There were no need in them after finishing the tests. After Dissolution of the Soviet Union they were scattered about the whole country and turned into scrap metal. In the late 90s – beginning of 2000s one of the machines was found in a utilization center near St. Petersburg.
Another unique machine designed together with “Astrofizika” and “Uraltransmash” had a better destiny. It was SLK 1K17 “Sjatie” – a complex of new era with automatic search and targeting systems.
New complex needed a larger amount of power. Powerful generators driven by additional autonomous propulsion unit were used for this purpose.
The heavy complex was based on the latest self-propelled gun undercarriage 2S19 “Msta-S”. It was widenedin order to place propulsion and optical-electron equipment.
Autonomous propulsion unit was placed in the back. Optical section including 15 lenses was put instead of gun tube. While moving the lenses were closed with armoured covers. This section could target in vertical position. Workplace was located in the middle of the cabin. Anti-aircraft gun and 12,8 mm machine gun were installed on the roof for self-defense.
The frame was built by “Uraltransmash” in December, 1990. In 1991 the complex entitled 1K17 was tested and adopted in 1992. The government highly appreciated the work on building of “Sjatie” complex. A group of “Astrofizika” employees was awarded with State Prize. Russians were the first at laserbuilding in the whole world.
But dissolution of the Soviet Union destroyed everything. In terms of economic crisis many defence programmes were reconsidered.
“Sjatie” wasn’t the exception – in spite of breakthrough technologies and good results an extremely high price made Military authorities doubt its efficiency. Super secret laser gun left unclaimed.
The only example of complex was hidden behind high fence until it was unexpectedly found in 2010 in the exposition of “the Military Technical Museum” located in Ivanovskoe village near Moscow. We should pay tribute to those who brought this exhibit, made it a public and fine example of Soviet science and engineering.
The second machine was found in Kharkov at the tank repairing factory.
Laser systems were dismantled from both machines. Petersburg machine has only the frame, Kharkov one is in better condition. Today enthusiasts try to preserve it in order to put it in museum in future. Unfortunately the complex from Petersburg in all probability was utilized. “We know not what good is until we have lost it…”
SLK1K17 “Sjatie” was adopted in 1992 and was much better than “Stilet”. The first difference to be seen is use of a multichannel laser. Each of 12 optical channels (upper and lower row of lenses) had its own targeting system. It allowed to make laser unit multirange. Lenses in the middle row are referred to targeting system. Small and large lenses to the right are searching laser and receiving channel of automatic targeting system. The same pair of lenses to the left are optical sights, a small one for day-time and large – for night. Night sight was equipped with 2 highlight range finder lasers. While moving the lenses were closed with armoured covers.
The main problem of any laser is an extremely low efficiency output. Even in the modern gas lasers it doesn’t exceed 5%. It needs a lot of energy. Powerful generators and additional autonomous propulsion unit used for this purpose took much space of “Sjatie” which was based on self-propelled gun “Msta-S”.
Generators need some time to be charged. Perhaps rate of fire is the main disadvantage of “Sjatie” laser complex.
The main advantage of laser weapon is direct fire. Independence of the wind and targeting system without ballistic corrections means accurate firing unavailable for usual artillery.
According to “Astrofizika” brochure “Sjatie” distance of fire is twice as large as a modern tank. So if a possible tank will come closer to 1K17 it will be destroyed before opening the fire. Sounds great!
However, direct fire is both the main advantage and disadvantage of laser weapon. It needs direct visibility to work.
In reality such tactics isn’t very effective. Moreover most of the territories being under the battle has some kind of relief.
And when the same possible tank will be in fire distance from laser complex it will immediately get the advantage of rate of fire. “Sjatie” can destroy one tank but while charging the batteries it can be hit by another one.
Moreover there are more long-range weapons than artillery. For example, Maverick missile with radiolocating targeting system which is launched from 25 kilometer distance. So “Sjatie” hidden in mountains will be a perfect target for it.
As far as dust, fog, atmospheric precipitation and smoke curtain are concerned it doesn’t stop the laser but minimize its firing distance. Thus laser complex has an extremely restricted area of tactical application.
Why have “Sjatie” and its predecessors emerged? There are many opinions. Perhaps these machines were considered to be testing units for future miltary and space technologies. Perhaps the government was ready to invest money in order to develop technologies and through experiments find the weapon of future.
There is a version that “Sjatie” is a psychological weapon. Possible presence of such a device may frighten opponents to loose their eyesight. Сontrary to the popular conception “Sjatie” doesn’t fall under UN protocol which bans use of dazzling weapon because it aimed at optical-electron systems rather than crew. It’s not forbidden to use the weapon which side effect may cause dazzling of people.
This may explain the fact that news about creation of top secret weapon including “Sjatie” and “Stilet” in the USSR promptly cropped up in American free press particularly in Aviation Week & Space Technology journal.