From the 1970's, the USSR was involved in an extensive, multi-faceted program to develop high-powered, ground-based lasers and microwave weapons. The centers of this activity, with potential ASAT applications, were at Sary Shagan and at Troitsk near Moscow. At least two major facilities were constructed at Sary Shagan: one a 0.7 µm ruby laser and one a 10.6 µm pulsed C02 laser. Both lasers shared a common one-meter diameter beam director. Although Soviet officials admitted the facilities had been used to track satellites prior to 1988, no lethal capability was said to exist (References 112-116). A 1 MW gas laser was built at Troitsk outside Moscow in the late 1970's for military purposes, but a purported ASAT role was not realized (References 117-120). One of the principal developers of both ground-based and space-based laser designs was the Astrophysika Scientific Production Association, which was responsible for the elaborate free-electron laser (FEL) prototype ASAT weapon at Storozhevaya.
The level of damage inflicted by a laser on a satellite may range from hard kill (including fragmentation) to general component damage to special component damage. Hard kill normally requires very high energy deposition which is currently possible only at relatively low altitudes of a few hundred kilometers. General component damage may extend above 1,000 km, and special component damage (e.g., sensitive payload optics or attitude control sensors) may be possible as high as GEO. However, the magnitude of the last two levels of damage may be difficult to determine by the attacker, reducing the operational utility of the technique as an ASAT weapon.
By moving the laser platform into Earth orbit, some difficulties can be overcome, in particular atmospheric attenuation of the laser's energy can be eliminated. If the space-based laser (SBL) is maneuverable, the range to the target can be reduced, increasing the energy deposition and possibly enhancing the probability of ahard kill. In addition, the SBL could serve an ABM as well as an ASAT role. On the other hand, SBLs are much more limited in the amount of lasing medium and power available and are essentially unserviceable.
Following the attempted coup in the USSR in 1991, a number of reports began to emerge about an effort to deploy SBLs in conjunction with a strategic defense program. The Polyus 80-metric-ton vehicle carried on the first Energiya mission in 1987 included the Skif-DM payload, which was "intended for perfecting the design and on-board systems of a future military space complex with laser weaponing" (References 121-125). Whereas Polyus was primarily a product of the Salyut Design Bureau and the Khrunichev Machine Building Plant, Skif-DM was designed by the Institute of Thermal Processes, well-known for its work with nuclear energy. Polyus/Skif-DM failed to reach orbit due to an attitude control problem and fell into the Pacific Ocean after separating from the Energiya booster. No further launches have been attempted.
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