The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

The night skies over Kazakhstan lit up on May 15, 1987 as a powerful rocket roared off its pad at the Soviet launch complex at Baikonur. The Energia launch vehicle consisted of a core stage with four engines and four liquid-fueled strap-on booster rockets. A long cylinder mounted on the side of the rocket contained the payload, a massive spacecraft with “Polyus,” or “pole”—as in north or south pole—painted in Russian on its side, and “Mir-2” painted on its front. “Mir” means “peace” in Russian, a name that was possibly advertising, a cover story, or an ironic joke.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Skif-DM experimental weapons system was launched from Baikonur in May 1987. The large black cylinder attached to the Energia rocket contained a system for pointing and controlling a laser weapon. This spacecraft did not carry the laser, but was equipped with pressurized tanks to test the system that would eventually power the laser with CO2. Although the rocket performed as planned, the Skif-DM did not reach orbit. “Mir-2” was painted on its side. “Mir” means “peace” in Russian, and there were future plans to use Energia to launch a follow-on Mir space station. (credit: buranarchive.space)

 

 

Asif Siddiqi

Asif Siddiqi, a historian at Fordham University who has written extensively about the Soviet space program, explained that Skif dated from mid-1970s space weapons studies which focused on systems to attack satellites in space, ballistic missiles in flight, and ground targets. Two anti-satellite weapon concepts emerged from these studies: Skif and Kaskad (“Cascade”). Skif would be an orbital station using a laser to target lower orbiting satellites, and Kaskad would use missiles to attack satellites in medium and geostationary orbits. The Soviet Union already had an operational ASAT system, but it was limited, and Skif and Kaskad would be far more capable.

Skif was certainly not peaceful. It contained prototype systems for a powerful orbiting laser intended to burn American satellites out of the sky.

Although some details about these concepts leaked out in the mid-1990s, it was not until the 2000s, says Siddiqi, that the full extent of the programs finally became known, even in Russia. A former press officer in the Russian space industry, Konstantin Lantratov, pieced together the history of Skif. “Lantratov managed to dig deep into the story, and his research clearly shows the enormous scale of these battle station projects,” Siddiqi says. “These were not sideline efforts—this was a real space weapons program.” In the past decade, even more information on Skif has emerged.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

Salyut Space Station

Design work began in the 1970s, not long after the symbolic 1975 Apollo-Soyuz “handshake in space” between NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, and while the two countries were negotiating future cooperation, such as a space shuttle visit to a Salyut space station. The famed Energia organization, which had built the Salyut space stations as well as the ill-fated N-1 moon rocket, a giant that exploded four times between 1969 and 1972, started studying both the Skif and Kaskad ASAT concepts in 1976.

The Salyut space stations, the first of which was launched in 1971, would serve as the core for both the laser-equipped Skif spacecraft and the missile-armed Kaskad. Both would be launched by the workhorse Proton rocket. The Salyut-based weapons stations could be refueled in orbit and could house a crew of two. Skif and Kaskad remained study projects into the early 1980s. But that’s when international politics changed, and made new space weapons more attractive to the Soviet leadership.

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

 

Stills from an animated video produced around 1980 proposing a constellation of orbiting missile launchers for destroying Soviet ICBMs in flight. This concept was rejected in favor of directed energy weapons when Ronald Reagan approved the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Later, after directed energy weapons proved difficult to develop, SDI focused on the “Brilliant Pebbles” concept that was similar to this one.

 

Missile Defense System

Although the United States had spent considerable amounts of money in the 1950s and 1960s trying to develop a missile defense system, the difficulty of the task proved too daunting. In 1972, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which forbade the deployment of new anti-missile systems. The United States completed a single system in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and immediately shut it down. The Soviets had a limited system surrounding Moscow.

Soviet Military Leaders

Some Soviet military leaders believed that the Americans would nevertheless develop a new ABM system despite the treaty. But after signing the ABM Treaty, the United States largely gave up on ABM technology development. By the mid-1970s ABM development was coming to a halt, with decreasing funding, and progress on anti-missile systems was minimal during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

The ABM Treaty only forbade the deployment of anti-missile weapons—it did not prohibit testing or development (with some caveats), a loophole both sides exploited. In the United States, some former military and government officials began advocating for space-based anti-missile defenses involving orbiting interceptor weapons (see “Forces of darkness and light,” The Space Review, December 10, 2018.)

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

In 1982, a non-government group attached to the Heritage Foundation produced a report advocating for space-based missile defense. (credit: Heritage Foundation)

Around 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (among them physicist Edward Teller, the so-called “father of the H-bomb”), along with researchers at other federal labs and a handful of military and civilian policymakers, began looking at “directed energy” weapons—which shoot beams instead of bullets—as a way to neutralize an increasing Soviet advantage in launchers and missiles. A space activist even publicly advocated this approach in a 1981 article titled “Lase the Nukes.” In American national security circles, directed energy weapons soon began to eclipse the concept of orbiting interceptor missiles.

Defensive Shield

Reagan liked the idea, and in a televised speech on national security in March 1983, he announced his plan to build a “defensive shield” to “make nuclear weapons obsolete,” essentially changing the nation’s strategic posture from offense to defense. The proposal was immediately attacked by Democrats in Congress, who called it unworkable, and Senator Ted Kennedy who tagged it with the moniker “Star Wars.” Despite the skeptics, funding for missile defense increased dramatically, amounting to nearly $3 billion a year by 1986.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech from the Oval Office in March 1983 announcing what became the Strategic Defense Initiative.

At the time, Allen Thomson was a senior analyst working for the CIA’s Office of Scientific and Weapons Research. He had studied other Soviet military research programs, including efforts to develop directed energy weapons and sensors for space-based submarine detection. In the summer after Reagan’s Star Wars speech, Undersecretary of Defense Fred Iklé requested a CIA study on how the Soviets might respond. The work fell to Thomson and two other analysts.

The Resulting Study

“The resulting study,” he recalls, “basically said that both politically and technically, the Soviets had a very wide range of options for responding to foreseeable U.S. SDI developments.” They could build more ICBMs, seek to thwart the American missile shield, or try to drum up international opposition to the American plan. “There was some recognition that the USSR might be financially strapped if it had to initiate new major weapons systems. But there was no indication that it would be unable to respond,” Thomson says.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

Anti-Missile Program

Notably, the Soviet Union did not respond to the American SDI program with a space-based anti-missile program of their own. Bart Hendrickx points out that the Soviets did consider an orbiting ABM system similar to an American program of the late 1980s known as Brilliant Pebbles, but they rejected the concept. “It looks like the Russians concluded well before the start of SDI that a space-based missile shield was unrealistic… and unaffordable as well,” Hendrickx explained. This conclusion created problems for the Soviet leadership. Why did the Americans pursue a space-based anti-missile shield that Soviet scientists and engineers believed was impossible?

As the prominent planetary scientist and Mikhail Gorbachev advisor Roald Sagdeev wrote in his 1994 memoir The Making of a Soviet Scientist, “If Americans oversold [the Strategic Defense Initiative], we Russians overbought it.”

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

Lieutenant General James Abrahamson, who ran the SDI program showing President Ronald Reagan projects to protect SDI satellites from attack. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Misread Intentions

From the perspective of many Soviet scientists and military and political leaders, for the second time in a little over a decade the Americans seemed to be pursuing a nonsensical space program, and Soviet military and political leaders sought to make sense of it. Their conclusions were not always rational. Paranoid fantasies weren’t uncommon among senior Soviet generals, according to Peter Westwick, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written about science during the Cold War. “They thought that maybe the [US] space shuttle was going to be doing shallow dives into the atmosphere and deploying hydrogen bombs,” he says (see “Target Moscow: Soviet suspicions about the military use of the American Space Shuttle (part 1),” The Space Review, January 27, 2020, and part 2, February 3, 2020.)

“The shuttle really scared the Soviets big-time because they couldn’t figure why you would need a vehicle like that, one that made no economic sense,” Siddiqi explains. “So they figured that there must be some unstated military rationale for the vehicle.”

Asif Siddiqi agrees that the Soviets misinterpreted US intentions for the space shuttle: “To the Soviets, the shuttle was the big thing. It was a sign to them that the Americans were about to move war into space.” Never mind the official explanation that the spaceplane, which made its debut in 1981, was meant to provide routine access to orbit. It could also be used to launch classified satellites for US defense agencies.

 

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative program in March 1983. The proponents for the Skif weapons system used this announcement to gain approval for Skif development. Skif was intended to shoot down American SDI satellites from orbit.

Salyut Design Bureau

In 1981, the KB Salyut design bureau had been transferred to Energia from Chelomei’s design bureau. Skif and Kaskad were already underway at Energia, which was also developing a space shuttle and a large rocket to put it in orbit. Now that KB Salyut was part of Energia, the Skif and Kaskad projects were shifted internally to KB Salyut. (In 1993 KB Salyut became part of Khrunichev.)The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

SDI Satellites

Reagan’s 1983 SDI announcement was an instant kick in the pants for the Soviet space weapons program, giving bureaucrats in the aerospace design bureaus the political ammunition they needed to convince the Politburo to increase funding for Skif and Kaskad, which could be used to target the space-based elements of Reagan’s missile shield. Skif and Kaskad would be capable of going after American orbiting anti-ballistic missile satellites. “These were just two of a plethora of ASAT systems that the USSR worked on in the 1980s,” Hendrickx explained, and other ASAT weapons were also proposed to attack SDI satellites. In 2016 he published a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society outlining the many Soviet anti-satellite programs of that era titled “Naryad-V and the Soviet Anti-Satellite Fleet.”

Continuous-Wave Gas Laser

According to the 2015 encyclopedia, the original plan had been to use a “continuous-wave gas laser” built by NPO Energomash, whose core business was the production of powerful liquid-fuel rocket engines. Presumably, this was a hydrogen fluoride laser, the only type of laser that Energomash worked on, drawing from its experience in developing fluorine-based rocket engines. A history of Energomash published in 2004 said it had done its laser work as a subcontractor to NPO Astrofizika, a major Soviet laser design bureau that most likely was the prime contractor for the Skif laser.

Hydrogen Fluoride

However, the hydrogen fluoride laser turned out to be too complex, and it was abandoned in favor of two alternatives. One was a CO2 laser developed for a system called “Dreif,” a nautical term meaning “drift” or “drifting.” Dreif was originally designed to be mounted in a modified Il-76MD cargo aircraft to shoot down American reconnaissance balloons. “Dreif” was also a term applied to balloons drifting across the sky, hence its use for the airborne anti-balloon program. The laser for Skif was apparently developed by NPO Astrofizika with KMZ Soyuz serving as a subcontractor.

Soviet and Russian Space Systems

Skif-D grew into a Frankenstein’s monster of a spacecraft: 40 meters long, more than 4 meters in diameter, and weighing 95 metric tons, more massive than NASA’s Skylab space station.

According to the encyclopedia of Soviet and Russian space systems, the plan was to fly both of these lasers on a Skif demonstration mission, with the Dreif laser as the main one, and KBKhA’s as an “auxiliary laser.” The two-laser combination was too heavy for a Proton rocket and was apparently the reason why designers switched to the much more powerful Energia. The need to operate the Dreif laser both automatically and in a space environment prompted substantial redesign. It also required the construction of extensive testing infrastructure.

In August 1984, the new spacecraft was approved and designated “Skif-D,” with the “D” standing for “demonstration.” This approval came only from the Ministry of General Machine Building, which oversaw the space and missile industry, and approval from the Central Committee of the Communist Party did not come until January 1986.

Zenith Star

Meanwhile, US scientists and engineers were having their own problems with space-based lasers. As research proceeded on projects like Zenith Star, which investigated the problems of placing a two-megawatt chemical laser in orbit, the challenges of building and launching such systems became clearer. SDI funded studies of particle beams and an X-ray laser that would use a nuclear explosion to set it off, but none of these projects ever came close to being deployed. By 1986, the SDI leadership was already shifting its attention away from lasers and toward small “kinetic kill vehicles” that could bring down enemy missiles by crashing into them—a more conventional interceptor concept that had predated Reagan’s 1983 speech.

The American shift from fewer, large satellites with directed energy weapons to many small satellites equipped with interceptor missiles undercut the justification for the Soviet Skif system. The Soviets, though, stayed the course, and kept working on the demonstration version of their space-based laser, with a target launch date of early 1987.

The Energia Rocket

The Energia rocket, named after its design bureau, was being built to carry the new Buran space shuttle into orbit, meaning that two big projects were now directly competing for resources and launch vehicles. Energia could carry 95 tons to space, enough to lift Skif-D. To keep costs down, engineers looked for other existing hardware designs to modify and incorporate, including a so-called “functional block,” the main section of the TKS spacecraft, which had originally been designed to carry crews and cargo to the canceled Almaz military space stations and would later also serve as the basis for the add-on modules of the Mir space station (as well as the the Zarya/FGB module of the ISS.) They also borrowed a payload module from the TKS.

Designing a Laser

Designing a laser to work in orbit was a major engineering challenge. A handheld laser pointer is a relatively simple, static device, but a big gas-powered laser is like a roaring locomotive. Powerful turbogenerators “pump” the carbon dioxide to the point where its atoms become excited and emit light at a specific wavelength. Not only do the turbogenerators have large moving parts, the gas used in the formation of the laser beam gets very hot and has to be vented.

Spacecraft

Moving parts and exhaust gases pose problems for spacecraft—particularly one that has to be pointed very precisely—because they induce motion. The Skif engineers developed a system to minimize the force of the expelled gas by sending it through deflector vanes, which they referred to as “trousers.” But the vehicle still required a complex control system to damp out motions caused by the exhaust gases, the turbogenerator, and the moving laser turret. When firing, the entire spacecraft would point at the target, with the turret making fine adjustments.

 

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

Artist impression of the Skif spacecraft in orbit. The “functional block” containing propulsion, power, and guidance systems, is on the left. The payload module with the lasers is on the right. Also visible at left are the targets that would be deployed and tracked in orbit.

From Skif-D to Skif-DM

Work on these projects was proceeding at a furious pace throughout 1985 when an unexpected opportunity arose. The Buran shuttle had fallen behind schedule, and wouldn’t be ready in time for the planned first launch of the Energia rocket in 1986. The rocket’s designers were considering launching a dummy Skif payload instead. Launch was scheduled for fall 1986, and the plan was that this would not impact the planned launch of Skif-D1 in summer 1987. According to the encyclopedia, everybody involved in the project did not believe that the 1986 deadline was achievable.The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

According to Westwick, Gorbachev began challenging his advisers: “Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of SDI.”

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The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
Video screenshot of the Skif-DM spacecraft. The “functional block” is at front, serving as what American space engineers usually refer to as a spacecraft bus. It was adapted from existing space hardware and provided propulsion, power, and guidance in orbit. The lasers would be mounted in the long cylindrical payload module but were not included in the Skif-DM version. During the first and only launch, the functional block was supposed to flip the entire spacecraft 180 degrees so that it was pointed up and the engines were pointed down. However, a software error led to the spacecraft flipping end over end several times before pointing down, and its engines forced it into the atmosphere. (credit: buranarchive.space)

Racing The Clock

 

Meeting such a tight deadline had a human cost. At one point, more than 70 firms within the Soviet aerospace industry were working on Skif. In his history of the project, Lantratov quotes from an article by Yuri Kornilov, the lead designer for Skif-DM at the Khrunichev Machine Building Factory: “As a rule, no excuses were accepted—not even the fact that it was almost the same group of people who, at that time, were performing the grandiose work associated with the creation of Buran. Everything took a back seat to meeting the deadlines assigned from the top.”

The launch of the demonstration satellite slipped to 1987, partly because the pad facility had to be modified from a test stand to a full-up launch pad for the Energia. In addition, the rocket assigned to the flight (designated 6S) had originally only been built for test firings and had to be modified to an operational launch vehicle designated 6SL. The delay had a critical impact on the project’s political fortunes.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been General Secretary of the Communist Party for only a year, was already advocating the sweeping economic and bureaucratic reforms that would come to be known as perestroika, or “restructuring.” He and his allies in the government were intent on reining in what they saw as ruinous levels of military spending, and had become increasingly opposed to expensive military space projects. According to Westwick, Gorbachev began challenging his advisers: “Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of SDI.” The Soviet leader acknowledged that the American SDI plan was dangerous, says Westwick, but warned that his country was becoming obsessed with it.

 

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Skif-DM was launched in May 1987 and failed to reach orbit. It was to be followed by the Skif-D1 and Skif-D2 spacecraft about a year apart. However, the program was canceled after this failure. (credit: buranarchive.space)

Launching the Monster

On the night of May 15, 1987, Energia’s engines lit and the giant rocket climbed into the sky. Whereas most launches from Baikonur head for an orbit inclined 52 degrees to the equator, Skif traveled farther north, on a 65-degree inclination. If the worst happened, this heading would keep rocket stages or pieces of debris—or the Skif-DM itself—from falling on foreign territory. The goal was for a 64.6 degree, 280-kilometer orbit.

Proton launcher

The Energia rocket performed flawlessly on its first flight, gaining speed as it rose and arced out toward the northern Pacific. But the kluged nature of the Skif–DM test spacecraft, along with all the compromises and shortcuts, had ordained its doom. The satellite’s functional block had originally been designed for a Proton launcher, where it would be mounted under a payload shroud, so for aerodynamic reasons it was mounted near the top of the payload attached to the Energia.

It would jettison its protective shroud before separating from the rocket. Once the spacecraft separated from its booster, it was supposed to flip around to point toward space, with the control block’s engines facing downward toward Earth, ready to fire and push it into orbit. It would also roll 90 degrees as well. Payload fairing separation occurred as planned at 3 minutes and 32 seconds into the flight, at an altitude of 90 kilometers.

 

The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War
The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

The Strategic Defense Initiative became a contentious topic during arms control negotiations in the 1980s. Many Soviet scientists—like their Western counterparts—believed that it was unworkable. But the official Soviet government position was to oppose SDI.

Skif’s Legacy

We still don’t know the entire story. “Even today there’s a lot of sensitivity about the whole program,” says Siddiqi, who has recently written a paper about how various parts of the Soviet government responded to SDI. “Russians don’t like to talk too much about it. And our understanding of Soviet responses to SDI still remains murky.

Soviet military-industrial elite

It’s clear that there was a lot of internal debate within the Soviet military-industrial elite about the effectiveness of space weapons. And the fact that the Soviets came so close to actually launching a weapon platform suggests that the hardliners were in the driver’s seat. It’s scary to think what might have happened if Polyus had actually made it to orbit.”The Secret Space-Laser Battle Station of the Cold War

Another interesting thought experiment is to posit what might have happened had Reagan never announced the SDI, which had derailed arms control negotiations. Would the two leaders have gone further than they did if SDI had not become a point of contention?

CIA analyst Allen Thomson
SDI did not help bankrupt the Soviet Union, which was already bankrupting itself.

CIA analyst Allen Thomson’s 1983 report on possible Soviet responses to SDI accurately predicted several of the actions that the Soviet Union ultimately took, including the Soviet diplomatic offensive against it as well as the possibility that the Soviets would develop systems to attack American SDI satellites. The paranoid fantasies of some Soviet military and political leaders about what SDI could do, such as destroying targets on the ground using lasers, were the kinds of reactions that only became clearer after the end of the Cold War. (The CIA report can be downloaded here.)


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