by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Laser tanks are a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, video games and children’s cartoons. During the closing years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union tried to make that science fiction a reality.
It worked … but not well.
Now Moscow is reportedly dusting off those old Soviet plans. But these scifi designs probably won’t make a return. The weapons were too expensive, too fragile and served a limited purpose on the battlefield.
Before the Iron Curtain fell, the Kremlin’s weaponeers cooked up at least three different beam-toting armored vehicles. Since 1991, the survivors — such as they are — have either languished in museums or scrapyards.
“There are a handful of areas … where, theoretically, Soviet-era engineering remains competitive on today’s battlefield,” retired U.S. Army Maj. Ray Finch — an analyst at the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office — wrote in the June 2015 edition of OE Watch.
Finch’s note came in response to a May 28, 2015, article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s newspaper of record. The newspaper hinted that Russian engineers are working on similar laser weapons “without advertising it.”
Suffice to say, Finch was skeptical.
“Merely hearkening back to (and exaggerating) the glory days of Soviet weapon design … will not produce the next wonder weapon,” Finch wrote.
This is especially the case with these dated laser-armed vehicles. Though they appear fearsome, Soviet designers found the tanks prohibitively expensive and not particularly useful.
By the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union were eagerly pursuing laser weapons on land, at sea, in the air and outer space. Engineers figured the beams would be a useful counter to American and Western European optics, advanced missiles, spy satellites and other high-tech systems.
In 1982, Astrofizika — a so-called “scientific production association” — built the first full-size prototype of an energy weapon for a ground vehicle. Then Uraltransmash — a weapons manufacturer — strapped the laser to a tracked chassis.
The first laser tank was born.
“Creators of the wonder-weapon began thinking about what to call their development so no one would guess anything and, most important, so there also was no mention of a laser,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta noted.
“They called it the … portable automated sighting device,” the newspaper added in its report. The Soviets also designated the vehicle the 1K11 and dubbed it the Stilet — or Stiletto.
This was far from a devastating energy weapon — like the kind wielded by, say, Cobra Commander or the Transformers. Russia’s Stilettos didn’t roam the battlefield blowing up enemy targets and were never meant to.
Instead, Soviet commanders expected 1K11s to burn out — or at least blind — enemy cameras, scopes and seekers. In a fight with NATO’s latest tanks armed with long-range sights and guided rockets, these weapons could even the odds. But in the end, Astrofizika and Uraltransmash only produced two Stilletos.
The engineers moved on to develop new models. One of these was similar in size and shape to the 1K11. The Sangvin consisted of a ZSU-23–4 anti-aircraft vehicle chassis with a laser mounted on top instead of guns.
Far more impressive was the 1K17, a.k.a. the Szhatie.
The track combined a far more powerful beam with modified a T-80 tank chassis. Uraltransmash was already building 2A56 howitzers with similar armored hulls. But instead of a 152-millimeter cannon like on the howitzer, the 1K17 had a multi-channel laser.
Even better, a dozen individual lenses amplified the main beam. Huge batteries allowed the vehicle to fire multiple “shots” in rapid succession.
“[The] laser guns … were capable of burning out all enemy optics within direct line of sight in fractions of a second,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta claimed. “When there was contact with enemy armored vehicles, Soviet laser tanks simply would blind them, making aimed fire impossible.”
The energy beam would have twice the range of a normal tank gun, declared an Astrofizika company brochure republished on the website EnglishRussia.
Unfortunately, the crew would have to pop out of the vehicle to actually point the weapon, leaving them vulnerable to return fire. Another downside was that particles hanging in the air — such as dust, water vapor or smoke — limited the range of the weapon.
On top of these problems, massive artificial rubies formed the core of the 1K17’s laser. The giant ruby rods were hard to produce, weighed 66 pounds each and cost a small fortune.
The Kremlin tried to push ahead with the project despite the USSR’s shrinking economy. In 1992, the first Szhatie prototypes rolled out of the factory. By that point, the Soviet Union had collapsed. In the economic chaos that followed, Pres. Boris Yeltsin canned the program.
“But one high-ranking official of the Yeltsin government once publicly let it slip that platforms were practically ready,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta claimed. “The technology has not been lost.”
Fair enough. But in practical terms, giant ray guns mounted on tanks were never very practical. Far more useful — and inexpensive — are smaller and more efficient “dazzlers,” such as on Chinese Type 99 tanks. These can blind enemy troops.
If you want to knock out an enemy tank, it’s better to use a cannon or a missile launcher rather than spending valuable time and money coming up with an optic-zapping tank that didn’t work very well in the 1980s.