Russia's aborted Star Wars

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) Part 2 of "New wars require new weapons"

In the summer of 1957, the Soviet Union performed its first successful launch of Sergei Korolyov's R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and in the fall the Earth received its first man-made satellite.

But during that year the military primarily concentrated on launching a new fundamental anti-satellite project and developing an anti-missile defense.

For purely technical reasons, the first viable ABM project appeared in the U.S.S.R. before the anti-satellite project was launched.

In 1955, Grigory Kisunko, head of the special KB-30 design bureau, proposed an ambitious program for an experimental ABM system code-named "A." His plan was to use a fundamentally new method of determining the coordinates of a high velocity ballistic target and an interceptor missile - the so-called triangulation. The first successful tests on intercepting a targeted R-5 missile were held in 1960 but they were followed by a series of setbacks.

However, technical problems were not the only obstacle to the development of a domestic ABM defense. The A ABM system was ready to start combat duty in 1966, but that will be discussed in the next article. Soon after the first tests, anti-missile systems acquired a merciless rival - the anti-satellite program.

In 1959, Vladimir Chelomei, chief designer of the OKB-52 bureau, put forward a program for neutralizing enemy satellites. He also made every effort for his plan to oust the ABM project. He was helped by an event that could without any exaggeration be called the Soviet Union's military triumph.

On May 1, 1960, the new S-75 missile-air defense system eventually downed an American high-altitude reconnaissance jet, the Lockheed U-2. Flying at an altitude well out of range of Soviet MiG interceptors, these spy planes had been able to photograph whatever they wanted. But no longer. The whole world saw the photos of Francis Powers captured against the background of his wrecked aircraft.

The Soviet leaders assumed with good reason that from then on the United States would extensively use spy satellites. Using his contacts with high-level officials, Vladimir Chelomei persuaded the government to exclusively pursue the anti-satellite program. Moreover, Grigory Kisunko wound up on his team, which was not good news for the ABM project.

"The administrative hierarchy in the KB-1design bureau [in charge of Chelomei's projects] was a mess. It served only one purpose - to isolate me from the OKB-30 design bureau and paralyze my work as ABM chief designer," Kisunko recalled. Incidentally, Nikita Khrushchev was an impulsive leader. His actions repeatedly brought the world to the brink of war and his homeland to the verge of economic collapse. In June 1960, he boasted that Moscow could destroy any spy satellite over Soviet territory.

The ill-fated Powers was exchanged for Soviet intelligence officer William Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel) on Berlin's Glienicke Bridge, but the Soviet Union was not prepared to make any deals when it came to strategic arms. Although Chelomei's killer-satellite program was totally isolated from the ABM project (it did not use its recent advances in radar support, for instance), the Soviet government decided to concentrate on both programs at whatever cost.

Moreover, Moscow set itself the aim of developing an unparalleled combat space station with anti-satellite lasers. In August 1983, then Soviet leader Yury Andropov made a sensational announcement that the country was stopping all work on space-based weapons. But the Salyut design bureau continued working in great secrecy on a military space station code-named Skif.

In his book about Soviet missile forces, Igor Drogovoz quotes an excerpt from the official history of the leading missile space corporation, Energia: "Two space-based military vehicles were developed along the same lines. They were fitted with different on-board weapons - lasers and missiles. The first vehicle's mission was to hit low-orbit targets, while the second one was designed to destroy targets in medium and geostationary orbits."

The plan was for the station to be tested during the first launch of a powerful new carrier, the Energia missile, in May 1987. Once again, the authorities decided to go all the way and launch a combat-ready model, albeit one without any expensive equipment.

An 80-ton 37-meter high station was completed in the usual hurried Soviet manner. Called Polyus (the Pole) for the media, the station was mounted on an Energia carrier and launched on May 15. Its control system went out of action during launch and the station sank harmlessly in the Pacific. After this setback, Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of perestroika, decided to give up on the Skif.

However, the concept of orbital military systems is still there and Russia can take it off the shelf anytime.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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