18:08 GMT14 April 2021
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    Thirty years ago, in May 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Baikonur Cosmodrome to personally order the closure of the USSR's military space program. Three decades on, Russian military observer Alexander Khrolenko looks back on what last Soviet leader's decision cost the country then, and what toll it continues to take on Russia.

    In an article dedicated to the anniversary of Gorbachev's decision for RIA Novosti, Khrolenko recalled that as the leader familiarized himself with some of the technology developed by Soviet scientists during his visit to the spaceport, he expressed regret at having made his commitment to Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik a year earlier to unilaterally close the USSR's military space program. Washington, meanwhile, refused to halt work on its Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense shield, and would continue the project until 1993, after the Soviet Union itself had disappeared.

    Still, having arrived at the garrison of the House of Officers on May 11, 1987, "the General Secretary reiterated his course toward the peaceful development of space," an initiative he began toying with since his rise to power in 1985.

    Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev during his visit to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, May 11-13, 1987.
    © Photo : buran.ru
    Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev during his visit to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, May 11-13, 1987.

    Khrolenko writes: "Following Gorbachev's visit, the Soviet program on the development of military space systems started to be dismantled. The concept of a heavy orbital station was closed in 1989, and soon after all work was ceased on the Energia heavy rocket carrier and the Buran spacecraft."

    Unfortunately, the journalist added, three decades later, notwithstanding Gorbachev's lofty wishes of peace in space, "the world has not changed. On May 7, 2017, the US's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-4, which for had been in space on a secret mission for nearly two years, touched down at Cape Canaveral."


    Khrolenko recalled that "earlier, the Pentagon had said that the spaceplane, weighing about 5 tons, was intended for use at altitudes of between 200 and 750 km, that it was capable of quickly changing orbit and of maneuvering, performing reconnaissance missions, and delivering small payloads into space."

    Meanwhile, Russian experts call the X-37B out for what it is: a military space-based interceptor. "In other words," the journalist lamented, it seems obvious that "the US program on the creation of orbital strike weapons outlived Ronald Reagan. 'Star Wars' remains a reality in the 21st century. Russia will have to catch up in the field of military space, create a new heavy-class rocket and a dependable hardware base."

    Antonov An-225 aircraft flies with Buran space shuttle on external store
    © Sputnik / Igor Kostin
    Antonov An-225 aircraft flies with Buran space shuttle on external store

    What Gorbachev Gave Up

    The Soviet Union began working on maneuverable space-based systems for military use in the 1960s, starting with the idea of a satellite designed to kill enemy military satellites. The USSR sent its first experimental maneuverable satellite, the Polet-1, into orbit in 1963. Five years later, on November 1, 1968, Soviet engineers achieved the first successful interception of a dummy satellite.

    Between 1973 and 1976, under the secretive Almaz program, the Soviet Union launched three manned dual-use civilian and military reconnaissance stations into orbit. Meanwhile, engineers carried out dozens of tests of continually improving anti-satellite systems. 

    In massive strategic drills carried out between June and September 1982, and later dubbed by NATO as the 'Seven-hour nuclear war', the Soviet Union and its allies conducted exercises that included the launch of ground- and sea-based ballistic missiles, testing of anti-missile missiles, and exercises involving military satellites, including the 5V91T Uran interceptor satellite. 

    "The Energia Space Corporation too was engaged in the creation of space-based strike weapons for conducting combat operations into and from space," Khrolenko recalled. 

    In the late 1970s, Energia created two prospective combat spacecraft designs based on one platform – the first armed with space-based missile weapons and the second with lasers. The missile armaments were smaller and lighter, allowing the former system to carry a large stock of fuel onboard; the vessel designated the 17F111 Kaskad, was designed to target enemy systems in low-earth orbit (up to 300 km). The laser-armed ship, known as the 17F19 Skif, was intended for use against enemy satellites in medium earth and geostationary orbits. Plans existed to create orbital strike group consisting of both the Kaskad and the Skif.

    Left: the 17A11 Kaskad. Right: A maneuverable space-based rocket interceptor design.
    © Photo : public domain
    Left: the 17A11 Kaskad. Right: A maneuverable space-based rocket interceptor design.

    The Kaskad project included a interceptor missile designed for outer space, and intended for use to intercept reentry vehicle warheads of enemy ICBMs during the passive stage of their flight.

    For the destruction of key enemy military installations on the ground, Soviet engineers developed the concept of a heavy space station – the 17K DOS, as well as autonomous vehicles (of the Buran space ship type) with nuclear warheads onboard (up to 15-20 per module). In the event of war, the modules would separate from their carriers, and take up position and begin their descent, hitting their targets with a high degree of precision.

    The Bor-3, a prospective Soviet space plane
    © Photo : buran.ru
    The Bor-3, a prospective Soviet space plane

    After President Reagan unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative, Soviet engineers began exploratory work into the possibility of mining near-Earth space.

    Khrolenko recalled that "research was conducted on the effectiveness of orbital-based blasting clouds, which would completely clear space from enemy spacecraft at a height of up to 3,000 km."

    Ultimately, the journalist noted that notwithstanding the advances made by the USSR in its military space program, after coming to power, Gorbachev began persistently advancing the thesis of peaceful development of outer space, under the auspices of his 'new thinking' program. "Under pressure from the Central Committee, the state commission on the launch of the 17F19 Skif (with a gas-dynamic laser with 1MW-worth of power) cancelled the program's target shooting and other combat elements. Technical failure during the spacecraft's launch only accelerated the program's closure."

    Khrolenko emphasized that for most of the Cold War, the US lagged dramatically behind the USSR in the development space-based military technology. The creation of American military-use space stations began only in the 1970s (considered projects included the use of kinetic, laser and particle beam weapons).

    Ronald Reagan ordered the development of an American anti-satellite system in 1982, and proclaimed his Strategic Defense Initiative a year later, in March 1983. While the latter program would be formally disbanded in 1993, Khrolenko noted that "the peaceful use of space would remain but a dream of humanity."

    A Pentagon artist's concept of a ground / space-based hybrid laser weapon, 1984
    © CC0
    A Pentagon artist's concept of a ground / space-based hybrid laser weapon, 1984

    "Space technologies give rise to new methods for conducting military operations. Today, of the roughly 1,380 satellites in orbit, 149 are US military and dual-use devices; for comparison, Russia has 75 military satellites, China 35, Israel nine, France eight, and the UK and Germany seven apiece." All major powers are currently at work developing military technology for use in space. "Near-Earth space is becoming more and more militarized."

    Earlier this year, the deputy commander of US Strategic Command told US media that it's necessary to send America's prospective enemies a signal that the country is prepared to fight a war in space. Late last year, Gen. John Hyten, head of Stratcom, went even further, saying that as world powers expand into space, the possibility of conflict inevitably grows. "In that case, we'll have to be prepared for that," he said.

    Meanwhile, US military analysts are once again returning to the theme of space-based missile defense, with the Missile Defense Agency and Raytheon Corporation developing and testing missile systems designed to detect and destroy ballistic missiles approaching the earth's atmosphere from space.

    Today, Khrolenko emphasized that even those countries which oppose the militarization of space, including Russia and China, are forced to develop space weapons to prevent a deadly strategic imbalance from being created. 

    Accordingly the journalist noted, the question worth asking is: "Was it worth it, with such persistence, and over the course of many years, to forge Russia's space-based swords into plowshares – to turn our Kaskads and Skifs into pots and pans?"

    space-based weapons, space program, expert analysis, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia, Soviet Union
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