Last year the MoD unexpectedly unveiled one of Russia’s most secret military programs. Writing in the Voyennyy Parad journal, the head of the MoD’s Armaments Department, Anatoliy Gulyaev, officially confirmed that "Russia’s air defense troops will receive a future weapons system equipped with an air-based laser capable of disabling (suppressing) optical-electronic systems of satellites serving as part of America’s future missile defense system. The name of the system is Sokol-Eshelon“.1
During an Open Doors Day at the Taganrog Beriev Aviation Science and Technology Complex (TANTK Beriev) held on May 21, 2011, the company surprised everyone by openly demonstrating an A-60 aircraft (the 1A2 flying laboratory) with an interesting design on its side showing an eagle striking at an enemy satellite. The sign under the design read “Sokol-Eshelon”. 2
The Soviet and Russian air-based laser program has a long history3. But the documents and materials officially unveiled in recent months call for a complete reassessment of the current state of that program.
Technical details revealed
In October 2011 the MoD’s official newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, published a special article about the future laser weapons. Below is an excerpt from that article:
“In the late 1980s specialists concluded that the adversary’s fighting ability can be significantly compromised by using lasers against its optical-electronic systems. The main advantage of lasers is instantaneous delivery of energy, which is why they can achieve objectives that cannot be achieved even theoretically by any other means due to time limitations. It was recognized that aircraft are the best platform for such laser systems. Because optical-electronic systems focus and amplify the signal they receive, by the same token they amplify by several orders of magnitude the energy of the laser that reaches their sensors and optical filters. All other conditions being equal, a laser ray can suppress optical-electronic systems (i.e. stop them functioning properly) at a distance several hundred or thousand times greater than the maximum distance of thermal impact.”
“Studies conducted by NPO Almaz and other defense industry companies have demonstrated that airborne laser systems have a great potential, and that the level of our science and technology is sufficient to develop a system of suppressing (disabling) optical-electronic systems within the required time frame, and with a minimum of technological risks.”
“Developing such an airborne laser system had become entirely feasible in the early 1990s. In recent years substantial progress has been made in this area thanks to new financing under the defense procurement program and the support provided by GSKB Almaz-Antey to the team working on laser systems. Work has been resumed on the hardware front. During a complex experiment, the first of its kind, held on August 28, 2009, a laser ray generated by a flying laboratory was bounced off a spacecraft orbiting at an altitude of 1,500 km, and the reflection picked up by detectors. As part of the preparations for that experiment, a whole cycle of operations was performed in mid-air to detect and track dozens of various spacecraft. The success rate for the detection and angle-tracking of spacecraft during these operations was 100 per cent...”
“A laser weapons system includes the following components: a powerful laser; a system of transportation and formation of a powerful ray; an information and targeting system; a system for keeping a powerful ray on target; and an automated control system.”
“A typical laser weapons system operates in the following way... The information and targeting system detects the target. The information is sent to the operational elements of the targeting system, which automatically track the target and align the system’s optical axis with the target. At the appropriate time a powerful laser starts generating the radiation. Through a system of mirrors the radiation is fed to a telescope with a large reflector which forms a narrow beam directed along the system’s optical axis. A tracking system stabilizes the resulting laser ray and keeps it on the target for the entire duration of energy delivery. The targeting system can change the direction of the powerful ray very quickly, so the target cannot avoid being hit by means of defensive maneuvering.”4
Background and participants of the project
The very first mention of the Sokol-Eshelon R&D project was made in the 2005 Annual Report of Chemistry Automation Systems Design Bureau (Khimavtomatika)5. The report listed NPO Almaz as a subcontractor. The R&D project was also mentioned in the 2006 report of Almaz itself6. Writing in the corporate newspaper Strela in 2007, Almaz deputy director-general and chief economist, Vitaliy Neskorodov, said that “work continued ...on the Sokol-Eshelon design project and the Dueliant R&D project” 7. It turns out that the two projects are part of the same whole, as will be explained later on in this article.
According to its quarterly report, the Radiofizika company confirmed its participation in the program at about the same time. In its funding request for 2008 the company requested 45m roubles as a subcontractor 9. More details were revealed in Radiofizika’s 2009 report: “At the request of GSKB Almaz-Antey the company is working on a subproject ‘Developing millimeter-band radar instruments for a laser system, codename <...> Sokol-Eshelon-RF’. In 2009 the company drafted a memo to the technical project (Stage 1); it is now drawing up preliminary designs of an airborne radar and working on mock-ups of individual elements of the radar (Stage 2, to be completed in 2010). The work performed in 2009 as part of Stage 1 cost 5.916 million roubles, in agreed prices (5.916 roubles received). Work on Stage 2 will be completed in 2010. An advance payment of 20.24 million roubles was received in 2009.” 10
Several other well-known Russian defense companies have also announced their participation in the project, including Granit, which is Russia’s main provider of maintenance services for air defense and missile defense systems 11, and the Moscow-based NPO Nauka company, a designer of life support systems for aircraft 12. The project also involves leading Russian technology universities, including the Moscow Bauman State University of Technology (MGTU Bauman) 13 and the Moscow Institute of Radio-Electronic and Automatic Systems 14.
At least another two participants of the program are revealed in the summary of a PhD thesis by one E.Kharitonova: “The digital image processing block includes a high-speed, high-resolution television system made by Omega Special Design and Technology Bureau in Velikiy Novgorod. The system was designed to sort, track and classify celestial objects against the background of twilight or night-time sky in real time. Bench-testing of the TV system was conducted at the Omega laboratories and at the Vavilov State Institute of Optics in St. Petersburg. Field tests were conducted at GSKB Almaz-Antey testing range in Moscow. It was concluded that the algorithms used in the digital image processing block, including correction of geometric distortions produced by optical-electronic systems, performed well... The scientific and technical findings of the PhD thesis have been used by Omega in the Dueliant and Sokol-Eshelon projects (the general contractor of both projects is GSKB Almaz-Antey). Validity of their use has been confirmed by a certificate of technology implementation.”
New details from unexpected sources
Additional details of the project to develop an airborne laser system have emerged from two court cases. It has been established during two arbitration cases than on June 1, 2006, TANTK Beriev, acting as the supplier, and NPO Almaz (which later became GSKB Almaz-Antey), acting as the customer, signed Contract No 176/LL-06 for “Testing and analysis of an upgraded 1A2 flying laboratory carrying experimental components of an airborne laser system (codename Dueliant-T)”.
The contract was signed as part of a larger state contract, No 5933, of September 2, 2006, signed between GSKB Almaz-Antey and Military Unit No 21055. It is clear from the case documents that the project is supervised by the MoD’s 27th Military Representative Office. Paragraph 1.2 of the contract makes it clear that the work to be carried out is part of the Dueliant project. The document mentions Stages 3 and 4 of the project, which have already been completed and paid for to the agreed amount of 18,299,781 roubles. Some of the results were mentioned in annual reports of TANTK itself. For example, the 2006 annual report said that the company’s Scientific and Technical Council “has, under the A-60 program, considered the progress being made by the R&D projects under way, the results achieved so far, the data received during tests and flight results”. 16 In 2007, also under the A-60 program, TANTK “continued to work on the project to develop a specialized airborne complex, in accordance with the Defense Procurement Program and the State Armament Program”. That work included “complex ground and flight testing of the 1A2 flying laboratory equipped with special experimental hardware as part of a project to design and conduct electronic modeling of components of a future carrier aircraft, as well as aerodynamic tests”. 17
The reason for the court case involving TANTK and GSKB Almaz-Antey was a dispute between the two over who should pay for the services of yet another subcontractor, the Ukrainian (!) Motor-Sich aircraft engine maker. In accordance with contracts No 4009/08-K (ERO) of July 9, 2008 and No 3639/09-K (ERO) of July 3, 2009, the Ukrainian company was subcontracted by TANTK; it worked on extending the lifespan of the AI-24UBEAI power plant (Serial No 708280) of the 1A2 flying laboratory. 18,19. Thanks to the publication of these court documents it has become clear that Ukraine is also involved in the Russian laser project. Another detail that has emerged from the case is that the Dueliant project and the Sokol-Eshelon project are tightly intertwined and are essentially part of the same future product. One other major Russian defense company whose involvement in the program has come to light is Tulamashzavod. Its corporate report for the third quarter of 2008 mentions that the company had “developed an optical-mechanical device (Product Dueliant-S)”, and that “the product has been delivered to the customer for acceptance tests at NPO Almaz, after which it will be operated by the customer”. 20
Judging from the latest corporate reports the project is now gaining momentum. Radiofizika’s 2010 report mentions that the company “has been developing millimeter-band radar systems for a laser complex commissioned by GSKB Almaz-Antey, codename Sokol-Eshelon-RF, to be completed in 2011. <...> It has also developed conceptual and technical designs for an on-board radar and produced mock-ups of individual elements of that radar. The cost of the work conducted in 2010 is 44.883 million roubles, in agreed prices.” Also as part of the contract with GSKB Almaz-Antey the company worked on the second stage of the project, described as “developing a centimeter-band onboard radar, codename Sokol-RF-sm, to be completed in 2011. In 2010, as part of the first stage of the project, it produced engineering designs for a centimeter-band onboard radar and worked on integrating the radar with other on-board information systems. The cost of the work performed in 2010 was 8.98 million roubles, in agreed prices.”21
GSKB Almaz-Antey 2010 corporate report mentions “the development of an airborne laser system of countermeasures against the space component of the American national missile defense system”, describing the project as “one of the company’s key priorities”. The aforementioned two projects to develop a millimeter-band and a centimeter-band airborne radar have now been designated as a single R&D project, 1LK222. The report says that the company “has developed an addition to the technical project concerning the millimeter-band and the centimeter-band radars and an automated control system, which expands the functionality of the experimental unit... It has also conducted experiments with the prototype of the main product, and tested an experimental airborne astronavigation system for that prototype”. 22 The designation 1LK222 has been mentioned in the reports of another Russian defense company. In its 2009 annual report, NPO Nauka said that it had “adjusted the set-up of the liquid cooling system and thermal stabilization of mirrors in Product 1LK222; calculated their characteristics based on more precise data; developed the BUK logical and structural scheme [BUK apparently stands for ‘bortovoy kompleks upravleniya’, the onboard control system — MDB]; assessed the mass and energy parameters and estimated the cost of the cooling system, developed a reliability assurance program, etc.” 23
The information gleaned from all these separate reports leaves little doubt that the individual projects mentioned in them are part of a single big weapons project which is already close to delivering the final product. We may well see some important new announcements later this year about the testing of that product. Finally, another detail worth mentioning is that as part of the secrecy arrangements for weapons programs, very few names of the people working on these programs have ever come to light. It is not clear at all who leads all the Russian military research and development. In the field of laser systems there is only one relevant published article, headlined “Rays against missiles” 24. Its authors are Dr. Aleksandr Ignatyev, deputy designer-in-chief and lead designer of GSKB Almaz-Antey, and Dr. Anatoliy Sumin, an advisor to the designer-in-chief of GSKB Almaz-Antey.
But the list of the recent winners of the Russian Engineer of the Year Prize includes Dr. Petr Drozdov, head of the science and research department of GSKB Almaz-Antey. His biography includes the following information: "Petr Drozdov is a leading specialist in powerful gas lasers with ultrasonic pumping of the active medium, used in special-purpose laser systems. He now leads a team of researchers developing sources of powerful laser radiation and formation systems for the Sokol-Eshelon R&D project. His efforts helped to save from scrapping some of the crucial hardware that was used in the 1990s to develop the M-100 system. Since 2005 this hardware has been used in the development of a new-generation laser system. He led the project to build a full-size mock-up of an ultrasonic laser; tests conducted in 2009 have confirmed that the engineering solutions used for that project are sound. He has led more than 70 research projects and has four certificates of authorship and four invention patents".25.It may well be that greater openness will add completely new names to the list of leading Russian scientists.
1 Gulyaev A. Modern weapons are the basis of the modernization of the Russian armed forces. Voennyy Parad. No 2, 2011.
2 Archive of photos of the A-60 RA-86879 aircraft (s/n 0013430893) of May 21, 2011. http://russianplanes.net/search.php?sereq=RA-86879.
3 A-60 experimental airborne laser complex up close. http://bmpd.livejournal.com/6226.html.
4 Garavskiy A. The future is hours. Krasnaya Zvezda. October 7, 2011. http://www.redstar.ru/2011/10/07_10/4_01.html.
5 Chemistry Automation Systems Design Bureau 2005 Annual Report. http://www.spark-interfax.ru/Files/FcsmDocument.ashx?id=1358410&companyID=4F6E674E650A439E9054716BAEA924FD.
6 NPO Almaz 2006 Annual Report. http://www.missiles.ru/reviews.htm.
7 Neskorodov V. Triumf SAM system — main product of 2007. Strela newspaper, No 11 (59), December 2007.
8 Radiofizika Q1 2007 Quarterly Report. www.e-disclosure.ru/portal/FileLoad.aspx?Fileid=8089&type=file.
9 Radiofizika Q3 2008 Quarterly Report. www.e-disclosure.ru/portal/FileLoad.aspx?Fileid=14569&type=file.
10 Radiofizika 2009 Annual Report. www.e-disclosure.ru/portal/FileLoad.aspx?Fileid=14569&type=file.
11 Granit 2009 Annual Report. http://www.gcso-granit.ru/%EE%F2%F7%E5%F2%202009.htm.
12 NPO Nauka 2010 Annual Report. http://www.npo-nauka.ru/upload/iblock/af8/af8041a6a04e92cda5ef5da2d701c3e5.doc.
13 List of MGTU Bauman R&D projects. www.bmstu.ru/content/documents/32spravki.xlsx.
14 Ministry of Education and Science information and communications platform. http://innoedu.ru/members/vuz/detail.php?ID=1540.
15 Kharitonova E.N. Methods of correction of geometric distortions of video signal from cameras using matrix photo-detection technology. Author’s summary of a PhD in Technical Sciences thesis. Radio systems department of the Novgorod Yaroslav Mudryy State University. 2010. http://www.novsu.ru/file/image/page/545062.
16 TANTK Beriyev 2006 Annual Report. www.e-disclosure.ru/portal/FileLoad.aspx?Fileid=14288&type=file.
17 TANTK Beriyev 2007 Annual Report. www.e-disclosure.ru/portal/FileLoad.aspx?Fileid=14289&type=file.
18 Ruling of the Moscow District Federal Court of Arbitration of June 30, 2011 No KG-A40/6284-11 on case No A40-73876/10-133-645. http://www.adviser.su/?option=com_dbase&task=view_doc&id=16872&page=0.
19 Moscow City Court of Arbitration. Ruling of November 25, 2010. Case No A40-73876/2010. http://docs.kodeks.ru/document/454016972.
20 Tulamashzavod Q3, 2008 Quarterly Report. http://www.tulamash.ru/2/2008_3.rtf.
21 Radiofizika 2010 Annual Report. http://www.radiofizika.ru/files/shareholder/god_otch_2010.pdf.
22 GSKB Almaz-Antey 2010 Annual Report. http://www.raspletin.ru/files/110630/god.pdf.
23 NPO Nauka 2009 Annual Report. http://www.npo-nauka.ru/upload/iblock/5c4/5c44ae5be54e07e81b3ab002b3a693ce.pdf.
24 Ignatyev A., Sumin A. Rays against missiles. Voenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer, No 12 (278), April 1, 2009. http://vpk-news.ru/articles/1643.
25 Winners and participants of the 2009 Russian Engineer of the Year Prize. Laser technology. Petr Alekseevich Drozdov. Russian Union of Scientific and Engineering NGOs website. http://www.rusea.info/inj/?id=4770.