“An airborne platform orbiting at 40,000 ft capable of shooting down enemy ICBMs and satellites using high power laser beams ” – sounds something straight out of Sci-fi movies, isn’t it? Then that was what Soviets built during 1980s – that too for the first time. Your enthusiasm doubles, isn’t it? Let’s read the story of Beriev A-60 – ‘The World’s first airborne laser system’.
GENESIS OF A-60
Soviets were pioneers in laser based weapon system developments. Soon after the first laser test, Soviets identified the potential of laser as a directed energy weapon which has immense scope in military applications. Soviet laser based weapon system developments were started in mid 1960s. During ’70s and ’80s, Soviets had several laser based weapon systems under development, of which Beriev A-60 requires special mention as it is the first of its kind.
The ‘Airborne laser system’ project was initiated in 1970 under a veil of secrecy. Two organisations were selected for the project – Beriev and Almaz-Antey; Beriev was tasked to develop the platform while the design and development of laser system was awarded to Almaz-Antey as they had experience in developing ground based Gas Dynamic Laser (GDL) system
From the initial stages of development greater emphasis was given to ASAT (Anti-satellite) capability instead of Anti-ballistic (in fact Soviet CO2 Gas Dynamic Laser was not sufficient enough to shoot down enemy ICBMs even in its boost phase) . Beriev started design works and established the ‘Special Aviation Complex’ at Taganrog Beriev Aircraft Scientific and Technical complex (TANTK) to oversee the developments. During a period of seven years, Beriev studied several designs and possible configurations and eventually selected Ilyushin’s then new Il-76MD freighter for conversion. After 4 years, in 1981, the first prototype (modified aircraft) designated ‘Beriev A-60 1A’ took its maiden flight.
The modified aircraft was flown with only targeting lidar on its nose since the main offensive laser was not ready for installation at that time. The extensive modifications made on the airframe greatly changed the appearance of the aircraft. The main modifications made were,
- Regular nose cone is replaced with a steerable beam director turret for targeting lidar
- A large retractable dorsal turret was installed for main laser firing (present only on refurbished second prototype)
- Two large nacelles were installed along the lower edges of the fuselage. One housed the Turbo generator used to power the laser.
- Chin cabin was replaced with targeting lidar’s APU.
- Tail gunner position and cargo doors were removed.
To speed up the project, a second prototype was joined but only after a decade, without much modifications. The second prototype which took its maiden flight on 29 Aug 1991 was designated as ‘Beriev A-60 1A2’, which had an upgraded targeting lidar on its nose.
But the development was stopped and the project was shelved after the dissolution of Soviet union in 1991. The economic crisis faced by its successor state -The Russian Federation, made the revival of the project almost impossible. But the project was not completely terminated due to its significance. Almost after a decade, in early 2000s, Russia reactivated the project. In 2003 Almaz-Antey restarted the development of the country’s first laser system and delivered the system sometimes before 2009 for tests.
Russia’s refurbished the second prototype of Soviet era (Designation Beriev A-60 1A2; tail number CCCP-86879) and given a new designation ‘1LK222’ and tail number RA-86879. ‘Sokol Eshelon’ is the nickname given to this refurbished prototype. This is the first and only prototype equipped with main laser turret on its dorsal side.
This prototype was involved in some serious tests against UAVs and satellite. It tested its offensive laser system against AJISAI satellite of Japan, to check the accuracy of the target tracking system and strength of its laser in blinding the satellite.
AJISAI is a geodetic satellite, which has hundreds of mirrors and laser reflectors on its surface, which reflects off the incoming laser; thus used in surveying and determining the position of remote islands. The A-60 tested its laser system against AJISAI satellite and received the reflected laser beam thus demonstrated the ability to hit the optical parts of the enemy satellites and also demonstrated its capability to track, target and engage enemy satellites.
Still classified as a ‘Test bed’, Russia might induct it an operational anti-satellite system or develop a new one, a more powerful dual purpose airborne laser system capable of engaging both enemy satellites and ICBMs.