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The Launchbox, PoD 6: The Soviet Death Star


Multilateral Force: The Conning Towers of Babel
I can just see a situation where the Americans manage to get an actual laser cannon into space, and then it's the awkward 'oh shit we need a working one now' moment from Moscow.
The Laser intended for Polyurea was tested on the Beriev A-60, so the equipment required already existed. I think the main issue is whether Moscow can actually get something into orbit before the USSR ceases to exist.


Conſiderable Perſon
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One of my favourite space what ifs - thanks Andy for covering it.

There is definitely a pithy summary in how the Soviet economy crumbled trying to respond to the space shuttle and SDI - something like "American politicians demonstrated the superiority of their political system, specifically in producing decisions that drove their opponents to madness and suicide as they attempted to understand them".


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Yes Polyus is fascinating. If you are interested i can provide top notch documents on the matter.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Polyus relates to Gorbachev facing his future worse ennemy - Oleg Baklanov. For a start, Baklanov was one of the 8 conspirators in the August 1991 coup.
But Baklanov was more than that. He was the soviet union "ICBM czar" since the Andropov days. Basically from 1985 Baklanov played the following game.

When Gorbachev come to power in March 1985 he was deliberately kept in the dark by his military. A troubling question was "Should the Soviet Union build their own SDI ?" Soon gorbachev wondered if the question was not "Isn't my military building an answer to SDI without telling me ?"

Yeah, that was a pertinent question, to say the least.

Because he couldn't thrust his military, Gorbachev asked two top scientists - Roald Sagdeev and Y. Velikhov - to assess that silly thing SDI.
They told him the SDI was absurd and made no sense and there was no point in trying building a symmetrical answer.

And they were mostly right.

So Gorbachev tactic talking to Reagan in Geneva, November 1985 become
- Denounce that as a technological folly
- USSR won't build one, because it makes no sense
- do you want a ruinous and dangerous arm race in space ? I don't.

Alas, to Baklanov and the soviet generals, that was heresy. And he managed to keep Gorbachev in the dark and got funding to start building
- SKIF-D (= Polyus) a laser ABM
- KASKAD kinetic killers ABM
Programs that actually been in the planning stage since 1976 at least, without much funding. Andropov accelerated them during his brief 1982-84 tenure. For example the Soviet Union airborne ABL, a modified Il-76 transport rebranded the Beriev A-60, flew as early as 1981 with a low power laser. It was this laser that was to go on Skif-D, the next thing after Polyus.

Then Baklanov used Energiya (and Buran, somewhat) to hide Polyus, the following way.

Buran would be only ready for the second Energiya late 1988, so a 100 ton "ballast" was needed on first flight... and Polyus it was. Not Skif-D but a Skif-DM jury-rigged mockup.

Note that Polyus was Skif-DM, mostly a non-functional mockup. It would have been followed by Skif-D with the laser borrowed from the Beriev A-60 (think 747 ABL). Even that laser however would hardly be a serious threat. The full power laser would only come in the early 90's.

And then come Chernobyl, where Prypiat 25 000 people harrowing evacuation gave the Soviet leadership some taste of what nuclear war would look like.
Then it was the Reykjavik summit in October 1986.
Gorbachev, still ignorant of Polyus existence, wasted a golden opportunity to get ride of all nuclear weapons by sticking to his guns -
- denounce that foolishness
- USSR won't build one.
Reagan proposal was even more bizarre - he proposed to share SDI technology with the Soviets !
With such proposals it is no surprise Reykjavik floundered.

And then in May 1987 Gorbachev went to Baikonur to watch the first energiya launch... and he stumbled on Polyus, too late to prevent the launch. his mind was blown, he was furious, and even said "if only I had known my military was building this, at Reykjavik !"

Indeed Polyus being actually on the launch pad when SDI was only a paper project, would have allowed Gorbachev to consider... differently Reagan proposal - remember, he proposed to share SDI technology with the Soviets !

In the end Polyus committed suicide and the affair become moot.

An interesting side effect of Reykjavik floundering relates to Mathias Rust landing his Cessna on Red Square, also in May 1987 (hell of a month !) - he did the crazy flight in frustration to the Reykjavik fiasco. And in some way he suceeded, Gorbachev getting a golden opportunity to clear his military of the most dangerous, cranky old conservatives opposing reforms. Alas, by 1989 they returned... and 1991 was history.
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Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses
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@Archibald - I think I recall a comment from one of my books that the Soviets regarded Reagan's offer to share SDI with them as being a sort of n-dimensional chess move that they couldn't quite grasp, but had to be a cunning ploy - because no-one would be that daft, surely? (Tying in with @Thande 's point above).
It could actually have made things worse for Gorbachev to have known what was on the pad at the time (albeit it's a great example of the same issue acting in reverse - the US wouldn't have believed that the stuff being launched wasn't already known to the Soviet leadership) - on the ogic - "Well, if we have this, and we haven't really been doing this daft SDI stuff, then what do they have in the way of hardware right now? Especially given that their President is so confident he feels he can throw us some bones that are valueless to them!"

And, from @Alex Richards and @ForceA1 above - you can easily see there being a desperate urgency to get the "proper" Skif with working laser cannon up there after the US respond by launching a Shuttle-C station with a Boeing laser on board, and then the US have to respond to that, and then...


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I agree that Reagan offer was pretty insane. Fact is that, even thirty-five years later, nobody really knows if Reagan REALLY believed in SDI or if he BLUFFED. I've seen both opinions defended by serious authors and researchers, without any political bias. Nobody seems to know for sure.

Same for Reykjavik, for sharing SDI with the Soviets and scrapping all the nukes. I've seen minutes from their sunday chat near the fireplace, it is totally mundane and insane at the same time. They talk like old friends at a pub ! the most powerful men in the world, with 50 000 nukes under their belts. o_O

"Hey, let's eliminate all nukes"

"Hell of an idea, chap. Let's do it."

Poof, just like that.

It was really the tone of the conversation between Reagan and Gorbachev that afternoon. Weird, very weird. The entire summit, by the way, was an oddity. Well, the entire Gorbachev - Reagan relationship, actually, was a Cold War heresy.

Best part in Reykjavik story is that Reagan hawks (Weinberger, Perle) and Gorbachev hawks (Baklanov, Ligachev) separately got the idea of that summit, to make their leader looks like an idiot in the face of the entire world. Or, alternatively, to make the ennemy look bad.
"Look, we offered the USA an opportunity to defuse the Cold War. They negated it."
"Look, we offered USSR an opportunity to defuse the Cold War. They negated it."

And then, delightfully, both hawks were taken by surprise. Reykjavik was better than any fiction. And on top of that, come Mathias Rust. Unbelievable.

Charles EP M.

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@Archibald - I think I recall a comment from one of my books that the Soviets regarded Reagan's offer to share SDI with them as being a sort of n-dimensional chess move that they couldn't quite grasp, but had to be a cunning ploy - because no-one would be that daft, surely?
A lesson here about Fifth Dimensional Chess Playing.


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A lesson here about Fifth Dimensional Chess Playing.
There was a lot of paranoia and skewed deductions by the Soviets during the Cold War. For example, they build Buran, not because they needed it or even because the Americans had a Shuttle, but because they couldn't believe NASA economic case for it - 700 flights each with 30 mt of payload, planned between 1978 and 1990. Which mean no less than 21 000 mt into orbit - enough for 175 Apollos (*120 mt) or 14 Mars shots (*1500 mt each).

So they frantically looked for some US military wunderwaffen explaining those planned 21 000 tons in orbit.
They ended believing in a mix of FOBS, ASAT and ABM - and particularly, that fantasy mission.
Well worth a reading in Cold War paranoia and siliness.
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