It seems that the Soviets had their own „Star Wars“ programme, as documented in a study by the Moscow Institute of Cosmic Research (IKI). Work on individual elements of the Russian space defence programme (PKO) began as long ago as the late 1950s. One of these elements was the „Kosmoplan“ developed by Vladimir Chelomei’s OKB-52 design bureau, a kind of killer satellite intended to intercept and annihilate enemy spacecraft.
Chief Designer Sergey Korolev for his part suggested creating a satellite defence system, whereby an interceptor satellite would be transported to space by his R-7 intercontinental missile and then guided to the target by PRO A missile defence system ground stations. The practical implementation of a satellite interception system was a response to the US Air Force’s SAINT project which dated from the years 1960-1962. This programme envisaged an unmanned spacecraft approaching a cosmic target in order to „inspect“ it. After that the military planned to equip it so that it would be able to destroy this object. However, the US government scrapped the idea out of fear that it would give the Russians an excuse for a similar project. Nevertheless, Moscow began work in 1962 on a cosmic defence system known as „IS“ (after „Istrebitel Sputnik“ or interceptor satellite). The project was run by the Kometa Scientific Research Institute and Vladimir Chelomei’s OKB-52 design bureau. By the end of the 1960s the system was ready. It consisted of a ground station close to Moscow, a launch complex at the Baikonur cosmodrome, a launcher rocket and an „interception device“ equipped with target-seeking equipment and a charge of fragmentation munitions. The first such spacecraft, known as Polyot, was launched on 1 November 1963, and the second on 12 April 1964. The equipment section of these satellites contained a mechanism for firing a charge of shrapnel, which was drawn out with the aid of rods. The Polyots were really intended to be launched with the Chelomei UR-200K intercontinental missile. However, as this was not ready in time, the two-stage Korolev R-7A was used instead. When work ceased on the UR-200K, the Russians finally resorted to the Cyclone 2A, which was based on the R-36 intercontinental missile. Testing of the IS system began on 27 October 1967 with the launch of a killer satellite code-named Cosmos 185. This was followed in the years 1968 to 1970 by Cosmos 217 and Cosmos 248. But none of these machines had radio control, a homing device or an explosive charge, so they could only be used as target drones. The first real interception manoeuvre took place on 1 November 1968 with the Cosmos 252 satellite, and in August 1970 a satellite interceptor destroyed a target satellite with a fragmentation charge – the first such feat in the world, as Russia has since publicly emphasised. The same year the first part of the Space Control Centre (ZKKP) entered service. With the launch of Cosmos 374 as target and Cosmos 375 as interceptor spacecraft, the complete system was finally put the test in October 1970. Over the next few years, the Russian military tried out various variants of the interceptor idea. Under one of these, the auxiliary complex Lira assumed the role of target. It consisted of primitive satellites equipped with an impact registration system. These satellites were launched using Plessezk Cosmos missile launchers. The test series proved the concept of intercepting objects at altitudes between 250 and 1,000km. The Control Centre then entered service in 1972. A new test series began in 1976. This time the objective was to enable extension of the spectrum of interception altitudes coupled with reduction of the interception time through perfection of the system. On 1 July 1979 the cosmic defence system also entered service. Although the system had a respectable hit rate of 60%, it underwent continuous modernisation (the Kremlin estimated that the hit rate of the American system was only 18%). The last test of a fighter satellite was staged on 18 June 1982. On this occasion Cosmos 1379 intercepted a target which was simulating a US Transit navigation satellite during an exercise involving the Strategic Rocket Forces. Altogether the Soviets launched 41 spacecraft for testing their cosmic defence system between 1963 and 1982: two Polyot satellites, 19 target satellites and 20 interceptor satellites. On 18 October 1983 Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Party, ordered an end to the testing. In December 1985 the US Congress also banned such trials using its own system. In 1988 the Americans completely ceased work on the project, while in 1991 the Russian IS-MU space defence system, the result of further development work, entered service. But Soviet military efforts in space were not confined to satellites. From 1978 an anti-satellite missile which was intended to be fired from a MiG-31D was developed at the Vympel design bureau. In 1986 trials using this missile on the prototype fighter aircraft commenced. In 1976 the Energia scientific production organisation (NPO) headed by Chief Designer Glushko took over work on the space defence system. The top-secret project was run under the code name Skif (Shchit, named after a central Asian people mounted on horseback). In the course of this project two basic spacecraft types were developed: one was equipped with a laser weapon for use against objects in low Earth orbit and the other with a missile for use against targets in middle and geostationary Earth orbit. Development work on the laser battle station was transferred in 1981 to the Salyut design bureau and that of the laser weapon itself to NPO Astrofisika. The satellite, which was also given the name Skif, was finally manufactured by the Chrunichev mechanical engineers in Moscow. It was to be launched on the heavy Energia rocket. In 1983 flight trials of the approximately 60t laser device commenced on an Ilyushin Il-76MD heavylift transport. At the same time research was being carried out on the propagation of laser beams in the atmosphere. Following the assumption of power by Michail Gorbachev and US President Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) programme, the Russians resumed their work on the space defence system. To test the laser battle station the dynamic „Analogue Skif-D“ was built, while for the flight tests Energia finally assembled, at great speed, a model of the station known as Skif-DM (dynamic model). This station was 37m long and 4.1m wide, with a mass of 80t. Skif-DM – also known as Polyus – possessed four sustainers, 20 orientation and 16 stabilisation motors. It was planned that almost 20 military fundamental experiments and some geophysical experiments should be carried out with it. But just before the planned launch date, Gorbachev gave an important speech in which he explained that the arms race should not be allowed to be transferred to space. It was subsequently decided not to carry out any military experiments with Skif-DM. On 15 May 1987 Energia was launched with the battle station on its maiden flight. After 460 seconds Skif-DM separated from the launcher only to crash into the Pacific shortly afterwards, its control system having failed. The laser device was not found on board, however. It had been replaced by a dummy of identical weight. Starting at the end of the 1960s, the Russians also developed ground-based nuclear laser systems for combating spacecraft. Unlike the American x-ray lasers, they could be used several times over. The programme was terminated after the USSR announced a unilateral moratorium on trials of the space defence system and the puzzling deaths of the two project managers in the mid-1980s. The mobile Pamir-SU electro-generator, with an output of 15MW and a mass of around 20t, could supply power to long-range lasers and ultra-high-frequency weapon systems. It could be used both on the Earth and also in space. In 1994/1995 this equipment was sold to the USA. Finally, the Russians also worked on an orbital fortress based on the MIR space station. The military modules were to be transported into orbit on the space shuttle Buran and docked onto the basic docking module. However, with the altered military and political situation at the beginning of the 1990s, work on these military space systems was halted.
(published by FLUG REVUE 12/2000)