Author Topic: Sokol-Eshelon: an airborne laser ASAT system  (Read 4089 times)

Offline B. Hendrickx

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Sokol-Eshelon: an airborne laser ASAT system
« on: 02/06/2020 03:46 pm »
Since early this century Russia has been working on a project called Sokol-Eshelon (“Falcon-Echelon”) under the leadership of NPO Almaz (part of the Almaz-Antei concern). The aim of this is to develop an airborne laser system that among other things can be used to dazzle or blind optical sensors of orbiting satellites. Dazzling is the temporary blinding of sensors by swamping them with light that is brighter than what they are trying to image. Blinding would cause permanent damage to such systems. These techniques have several advantages over the use of kinetic ASAT systems. They produce no space debris and make it hard for the adversary to prove that its satellites have been damaged as the result of a hostile act. 

I’ve managed to find some more information on this project beyond what has already been written about it in recent years.

INFORMATION AVAILABLE SO FAR

The most comprehensive description of the project (in Russian) (with numerous pictures) is here:
http://militaryrussia.ru/blog/topic-680.html

A summary of our current knowledge can also be found in the 2019 edition of the Secure World Foundation’s annual report “Global Counterspace Capabilities”:
https://swfound.org/media/206408/swf_global_counterspace_april2019_web.pdf

Also see this 2011 article (“Hubble in the crosshairs”) by Dwayne A. Day:
https://www.thespacereview.com/article/1865/1

In summary, the project has its roots in a Soviet-era NPO Almaz program to mount a high-power laser on a modified Ilyushin-76MD transport aircraft (known as the Beriev A-60, because it was modified for that purpose by the Beriev design bureau in Taganrog, now known as the Beriev Taganrog Aviation Scientific Technical Complex or “TANTK imeni Berieva”). The first aircraft, designated LL1A (LL stands for “flying laboratory”), first flew in 1981 and used an experimental laser system called Ladoga to shoot down airborne targets (mainly balloons). The laser was installed in the cargo bay, with a turret opening on the top of the aircraft. Some sources also suggest there was a link between the LL1A flights and a space-based laser to be installed on the Skif “space battle station”, a prototype of which flew on the maiden flight of the Energiya rocket in 1987 (but failed to reach orbit). However, there is a lot of conflicting information on that. The LL1A was lost in a fire in 1989 and replaced by the LL1A2 (see attachment 1), which first took to the skies in 1991, but the program was reportedly terminated in 1993.

Sokol-Eshelon got underway early this century, with 2003 usually given as the start year. Development of the laser system (called 1LK222) was assigned to the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau (KBKhA) in Voronezh (which also develops rocket engines). Test flights of the LL1A2 aircraft resumed in the second half of that decade and were now intended to detect and track satellites and aim laser beams at them. The tests involved dozens of satellites of different types. In one of the tests, conducted on August 28, 2009, the aircraft fired a laser beam at a Japanese geodetic satellite called Ajisaj. The test was not designed to damage the satellite, but rather took advantage of the presence of corner reflectors on the satellite to test the targeting system against a satellite in a known orbital path. The airplane had an emblem showing a laser beam hitting the Hubble Space Telescope (see attachment 2).

Press reports suggest the project was on the verge of cancelation at the beginning of last decade, but somehow managed to survive. A new Ilyushin-76 aircraft (a modified Il-76MD-90A) was commissioned to continue test flights under the project. Little new information on the project has leaked out in recent years. Annual reports of NPO Almaz (the latest available one being the report for 2018) do continue to list Sokol-Eshelon as one of the company’s high-priority projects, calling it “an experimental air-based laser complex to counter ground-based, sea-based, air-based and space-based reconnaissance assets in the infrared region of the spectrum”. This suggests the ASAT role was still being actively considered two years ago.

Aleksandr Ignatyev, who apparently was NPO Almaz’s chief designer of Sokol-Eshelon for about ten years, summed up the system’s advantages in interviews in 2010 and 2014 (without mentioning the name of the project or specifically talking about ASAT objectives):

https://vpk-news.ru/articles/6685
https://vpk.name/news/109469_vzlt_ladogi.html

Among those were:
- the system’s ability to operate in any weather conditions and in regions of the spectrum that are absorbed by the lower layers of the atmosphere
- its ability to disable targets at short notice
- its relatively low cost
- the possibility to knock out targets by disabling their optical systems rather than by physically destroying them

Ignatyev said the resumption of the airborne laser tests after the turn of the century was part of the Russian response to America’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty in June 2002. He added that the Russian project had different objectives than the equivalent American YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, an Air Force project started in 1996 and canceled in 2014. This was aimed at physically destroying ballistic missiles, whereas the Russian system was designed to counter air-based and space-based reconnaissance assets in the infrared part of the spectrum. This requires lasers with much lower energy and is therefore less expensive. 

NEW FINDINGS

It is possible to find some more information on the project by analysis of (often elusive) procurement documentation on the zakupki.gov.ru website, a handful of court documents as well as several other sources. These reveal more about the project’s organizational background than its technical details and objectives.

Procurement documentation shows that Sokol-Eshelon officially got underway on December 23, 2002 with the signing of a contract between the Ministry of Defense and NPO Almaz (contract number 0219187312891010104000025/20039). The project seems to have got off to a slow start. It was not until early 2007, more than four years after the project was initiated, that NPO Almaz signed contracts with two key industrial partners: KBKhA for the primary laser system (contract signed on March 20, 2007) and the Vavilov State Optical Institute (GOI) for the development of auxiliary systems (contract signed on March 1, 2007). This indicates that the systems used in the LL1A2 test flights at the end of that decade were no more than experimental precursors of the ones to be developed under Sokol-Eshelon.

The primary laser

Procurement documentation refers to the primary laser system as “Product 03S” (the index 1LK222 is not seen in the documentation), but nothing much is revealed about its characteristics or capabilities. KBKhA’s annual reports for 2011 to 2015 (later ones are not available) describe it as a carbon monoxide (CO) laser developed under “Sokol-V”. An experimental version of this was expected to be ready in 2015, but there is no confirmation that it was delivered on time.

Among KBKhA’s subcontractors are:

- the Yefremov Institute of Electrophysical Equipment (AO NIIEFA): this seems to deliver the laser’s gas discharge chamber (contract signed on March 25, 2007 for work called Sokol-VE)

- PAO NPO Saturn : this provides the primary power supply system for the gas discharge chamber (contract signed on March 11, 2014 for work called Sokol-Saturn)

- the Troitsk Institute of Innovative and Thermonuclear Research (GNTs RF TRINITI) (contract signed on November 29, 2013). Most of the documentation links TRINITI to the “electro-optical unit” (EOB) of the 03S system, for which it developed a test stand called COL-1 (COL standing for “CO laser”). The work takes place at TRINITI’s “Department of Powerful Lasers” (OML), more particularly in a laboratory with the acronym “NLS”. The test stand is described as being used for “all-round testing” and several of the contracts are for the delivery of carbon monoxide to TRINITI, so it would seem that the test stand is used for large-scale tests of the laser and not just for tests of individual parts.

Several contracts signed late last year refer back to a direct contract signed between NPO Almaz and TRINITI on November 10, 2016.  In one of those, also related to the EOB system, KBKhA acts as a subcontractor to TRINITI rather than the other way around. All this would suggest that TRINITI took over the leading in the development of the CO laser from KBKhA in 2016. According to TRINITI’s website, one of the OML department’s tasks is to develop and perform research on powerful CO lasers, indicating its role goes beyond the mere testing of such lasers.

One other organization that takes part in testing lasers for Sokol-Eshelon is the Raduga State Laser Test Center (GLP Raduga) near the town of Vladimir. This can be determined from a contract signed by the test center last July. It refers back to other contracts signed on October 1, 2009 and June 14, 2019, showing that the center has been involved in Sokol-Eshelon for over a decade. 

Auxiliary systems

The contract signed between NPO Almaz and the Vavilov State Optical Institute (GOI) in 2007 was for work called Sokol-Eshelon-IPS. “IPS” is an acronym that Aleksandr Ignatyev used in one of his interviews for “information and aiming systems” (информационно-прицельные средства). These are all the electro-optical systems needed to detect and track the target and to ensure that the laser beam is accurately pointed at it.
 
Sokol-Eshelon-IPS was assigned to GOI’s department ON-2 under the leadership of Larisa A. Mirzoyeva and Gennadiy A. Makovtsov, who were also involved in developing infrared observation systems for the Soviet-era missile early warning satellites.

Some more insight into GOI’s contributions to Sokol-Eshelon was given in a 2013 issue of “Opticheskiy vestnik” devoted to the 95th anniversary of GOI (although it doesn’t mention Sokol-Eshelon by name):

http://www.npkgoi.ru/useruploads/files/OV_143.pdf

These include one or more silicon carbide mirrors, auxiliary laser systems to keep the optical instruments aimed at the target with high precision and infrared electro-optical systems to detect targets at huge distances. The latter use “optical channels and mirrors” cryogenically cooled with the help of gaseous nitrogen.

The American YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed aside from its primary high-power “kill laser” also had an infrared detection system (a suite of infrared wide-field telescopes installed along the length of the aircraft’s fuselage) as well as several auxiliary low-power laser systems to determine the target’s range, provide data on the rapidly changing characteristics of the atmosphere along the path of the laser beam and to track the target and provide aiming data for the primary beam.

Many of the procurement documents for Sokol-Eshelon-IPS refer to something called “Product 07S”, which seems to be a general designator for all the systems delivered by GOI under Sokol-Eshelon. Two important subcontractors to GOI under Sokol-Eshelon were:

- the Rzhanov Institute of Semiconductor Physics (IFP SO RAN) (contract signed on August 1, 2007 under the name Sokol-Eshelon-IFP). This developed  infrared detectors for Sokol-Eshelon. These are described in detail in a handful of technical articles available online, such as this one:
http://applphys.orion-ir.ru/appl-11/11-2/PF-11-2-67.pdf

Although Sokol-Eshelon is not mentioned by name here, technical information given in one of the procurement documents makes it possible to positively link the detectors described here to the project. They are described as infrared focal-plane arrays comprising four 2x192 InAs (indium arsenide) MIS (metal-insulator-semiconductor) hybrid linear modules.

- the Scientific Research Institute of Electro-Optical Instrument Building (NII OEP), a former branch of GOI that became a daughter company of the Kometa Corporation in 2012.  GOI and NII OEP signed a contract on September 16, 2013 under the name “Sokol-Eshelon-I” for “vibration and environmental tests of a mock-up of a narrow-field information channel”.

It would seem that at this point GOI is no longer involved in Sokol-Eshelon. The institute, which was absorbed by the Shvabe holding in 2012, is on the verge of bankruptcy, with a couple of Russian press articles blaming that on mismanagement by Shvabe. The articles say that because of the financial trouble, GOI had to give up its participation in Sokol-Eshelon in 2015:

https://www.fontanka.ru/2017/02/07/130/
http://www.moscow-post.su/economics/operatsija_mutnoe_steklo29249/

According to procurement documentation that appeared in late 2015/early 2016 the production of some parts of “Product 07” was indeed being turned over from GOI to NII OEP “in order not to breach contractual obligations”.

On June 27, 2016 NII OEP officially became the prime contractor for Product 07S/Sokol-Eshelon-IPS by a joint order of NPO Almaz and the Ministry of Defense, thereby taking over the role of GOI. This is revealed in court documents in late 2017/2018 in which NII OEP sues GOI for not having met certain obligations under the earlier Sokol-Eshelon-I contract.

https://sudact.ru/arbitral/doc/ljqJ5HlxZANh/
https://sudact.ru/arbitral/doc/dRUyfS9COwxK/

Even before that decision was made, NPO Almaz had already signed a direct contract with NII OEP on December 24, 2015 for something called Sokol-Eshelon-K1. The two companies then concluded another contract on November 1, 2016 that may have formalized agreements made under the June 2016 decision.  A series of contracts awarded by NII OEP for Sokol-Eshelon in the spring of last year refer back only to the November 2016 contract. All these are for subsystems, the exact purpose of which is hard to determine. Some are for “diode-pumped solid-state lasers”, but these appear to be intended for laboratory tests of optical equipment rather than being part of the 07S payload. 

The aircraft

As mentioned earlier, Sokol-Eshelon will use a brand new aircraft, a modified Il-76MD-90A transport plane with serial number 0104 and tail number RF-78652. The Il-76MD-90A transport planes are designed by OAK Transportnye Samolyoty and built by Aviastar-SP in Ulyanovsk. Aircraft 0104 was one of three Il-76MD-90A transport planes ordered in August 2011. It made its maiden flight from an airfield in Ulyanovsk on 30 December 2014, one year later than originally planned, and was officially handed over to the Minsitry of Defense on April 29, 2015.
https://bmpd.livejournal.com/1118155.html
https://bmpd.livejournal.com/1284730.html

The fact that aircraft 0104 was to be modified as a flying laser laboratory was confirmed in an article by Aleksandr Ignatyev in the April 2017 issue of NPO Almaz’s in-house newsletter “Strela”:

http://www.raspletin.com/press-centre/newspaper/archive/04_17.pdf

Some details on the plane were given in the July 2015 issue of “Strela”:

http://www.raspletin.com/press-centre/newspaper/archive/07_15.pdf

The article was written by Vladimir V. Karachunskiy, described as the “chief designer of the air-based laser complex (LKAB)”. In an article just about a year earlier he was called the project’s deputy chief designer, indicating that he took over management of the project from Aleksandr Ignatyev in the 2014-2015 timeframe (in the 2017 article Ignatyev is called “advisor to the general designer”). Karachunskiy is a former engineer who took part in test flights of laser-equipped aircraft (including the LL1A2) from 1990 to 2010. More background on his flying career is here:

https://sudact.ru/regular/doc/eyUYGFxH9YHn/

Karachunskiy wrote that after its initial test flights in Ulyanovsk the Il-76MD-90A was transferred to TANTK in Taganrog, where it was to be modified for its role as an airborne laser complex. This was apparently expected to be a relatively long process. In an initial phase, the aircraft was to be used for what he vaguely describes as “special experiments to measure the influence of external factors in places where the laser equipment is installed”.   Only after that would the plane be outfitted for its ultimate role, as a result of which it would become “a totally different aircraft in terms of its external appearance and aerodynamics”.

Several pictures of aircraft 0104 are available online, but all of them show the aircraft before it was modified as a laser complex, such as these:

https://russianplanes.net/reginfo/53930
(one of them in attachment 3)

In September 2015 TANTK released procurement documentation in which the plane was named A-60SE (SE standing for “Sokol-Eshelon”). As is known from a court document, one partner of TANTK in the modification work is the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences (RARAN), which signed a contract with TANTK on November 23, 2016 for work called “Adaptation-2 S-E-LA”. According to its website, RARAN has five scientific departments, four of which specialize in ground-based, air-based, space-based and sea-based combat.

Company annual reports make it possible to determine that TANTK also signed contracts in 2016 for work on Sokol-Eshelon with the 325 Aircraft Repair Factory (325 ARZ) in Taganrog and with the Gromov Flight Research Institute (LII) in Zhukovskiy outside Moscow. LII is Russia’s leading flight test center and is therefore sometimes described as the Russian equivalent of Edwards Air Force Base. It also hosts the biannual MAKS aerospace show. The contract between TANTK and LII suggests that test flights of aircraft 0104 have already been staged or will take place from LII, despite the fact that TANTK has its own flight test center in Taganrog.

The most recent procurement documentation that I’ve seen for 0104 is for the delivery of fuel for the aircraft to TANTK in late 2018. TANTK’s annual reports do not have anything on Sokol-Eshelon. The airplane seems to fly on a regular basis. A flight tracking history shows 20 flights between early September and late December last year:
https://planefinder.net/data/aircraft/RF-78652

However, it is unclear how far work to modify the aircraft as a laser laboratory has advanced.

Current status

One clear indication that the fate of the project continues to hang by a thread comes in this court document published in mid-2018:
https://sudact.ru/regular/doc/MSr7V0TneZ5Q/

This refers to a contract signed under Sokol-Eshelon between NPO Almaz and the Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant (UMZ) on November 15, 2015 for testing of “Products 01S and 02S”, the purpose of which is unclear. According to the document, UMZ was informed by NPO Almaz in a letter dated November 15, 2017 that the Ministry of Defense had decided to terminate work on the Sokol-Eshelon project.

However, the fact that numerous contracts under the project were signed last year clearly shows that it was once again resurrected afterwards. It is possible though that its objectives have been changed and whether those still include dazzling/blinding of satellite sensors is impossible to tell at this point.

It should be noted that Russia has also been working on a ground-based capability to dazzle or blind sensors of satellites. The Scientific and Industrial Corporation “Precision Instrument Systems” (NPK SPP) has been adapting an optical/laser complex on the Chapal mountain in the North Caucasus for that purpose under a project called Kalina, which got underway in 2011. See this thread:
https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=46485.0

Presumably, Kalina and Sokol-Eshelon can perform complementary roles. Advantages of the airborne system are that it has more flexibility in the choice of targets and that the laser has less atmosphere to punch through than a ground-based system. On the other hand, tracking targets and aiming laser beams is probably easier to do from a stationary system on the ground than from a mobile platform like an aircraft, which, moreover, is susceptible to vibrations.   

In conclusion, all indications are that nearly twenty years after it was started, Sokol-Eshelon is still very much an experimental program that may still be years away from achieving any operational capability.

Offline B. Hendrickx

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Re: Sokol-Eshelon: an airborne laser ASAT system
« Reply #1 on: 07/25/2022 08:53 pm »
Recently published court documents strongly suggest that the Sokol-Eshelon project has been canceled. As explained in more detail in the previous post, Sokol-Eshelon is an airborne laser system most likely intended to dazzle optical sensors of imaging satellites. The project started back in December 2002 with a contract awarded by the Ministry of Defense to prime contractor NPO Almaz.

The aircraft originally assigned to the project was a modified Ilyushin-76MD transport aircraft designated LL1A2, also referred to as the Beriev A-60 (because it was modified for that purpose by the Beriev design bureau in Taganrog, now known as the Beriev Taganrog Aviation Scientific Technical Complex or “TANTK imeni Berieva”) (see the first attachment in the previous post). The LL1A2 had first flown in the early 1990s as part of a Soviet-era laser project and was later adapted for its new role. It flew a number of test flights in support of Sokol-Eshelon around 2009, mainly to see if it could detect and track satellites and aim laser beams at them. However, those test flights apparently did not use the laser system intended for Sokol-Eshelon, a carbon monoxide laser designed by KBKhA in Voronezh. Development of that did not start until 2007.

A new Ilyushin-76 aircraft (a modified Il-76MD-90A with serial number 0104 and tail number RF-78652) was ordered for the project in 2011. It was officially handed over to the Ministry of Defense in April 2015, but at that point still needed to be outfitted with its laser complex (see the third attachment in the previous post). In 2020 TANTK published a patent likely showing what the aircraft was ultimately supposed to look like (with a drop-shaped housing for the laser complex mounted just behind the roof of the cockpit) (see attachment 1). Presumably, the idea was to use the LL1A2 as a testbed for the laser system and install the operational version on the new aircraft.

A first indication that Sokol-Eshelon had been canceled came in court documentation published in mid-2018:
https://sudact.ru/regular/doc/MSr7V0TneZ5Q/

According to the document, a subcontractor for the project (the Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant or UMZ) had been informed by NPO Almaz on November 15, 2017 that the Ministry of Defense had decided to terminate work on Sokol-Eshelon. This is now also confirmed in more recent documentation (late 2021/early 2022) describing a court case between NPO Almaz and TANTK.

https://kad.arbitr.ru/Card/b1d155da-e363-48ad-a248-690d6752baf6

Like UMZ, TANTK was informed by NPO Almaz on November 15, 2017 that Sokol-Eshelon would be discontinued. The documents more specifically refer to a decision made by the First Deputy Defense Minister on October 16, 2017 to terminate work on the contract that initiated Sokol-Eshelon in December 2002 and, hence, also the contract signed under the project between NPO Almaz and TANTK on October 1, 2009. The exact procedures to be followed in ending the project were approved by the Minister of Defense on May 3, 2018. NPO Almaz and TANTK subsequently reached an agreement on September 25, 2018 on removing equipment from the LL1A2 aircraft.

Other court documentation placed online in recent months says that the government contract of December 2002 was annulled by the Ministry of Defense and NPO Almaz on October 6, 2020.
https://kad.arbitr.ru/Card/4678ac4d-86de-4aa4-b2a2-b1d378339834

In other words, it appears that almost three years elapsed between the decision to terminate the contract and the actual termination of the contract. Judging from several procurement and court documents, work on the laser system and its associated optics continued after 2017, indicating that at least some R&D work was allowed to continue before the project was definitively shelved.   

The LL1A2 aircraft can still be seen sitting at TANTK’s flight test center in Taganrog near the Sea of Azov in Google Earth imagery from February 2022  (the attached image is from October 2021). There are no obvious signs in that imagery that any decommissioning work on the aircraft has taken place in recent years. The newly purchased Il-76MD-90A aircraft was last spotted in 2021 at the Ulyanovsk Vostochnyy airport (the home base of its manufacturer Aviastar-SP). According to one flight tracking history, its latest flight was in March 2020. It is not clear if it underwent any of the modifications needed to carry the laser system. 

It is not impossible that the original 2002 contract for Sokol-Eshelon has been replaced by a new one, setting new goals and timelines for the project, but so far there is no evidence that this has happened. The most plausible conclusion from the new documents is that after nearly 20 years of development Sokol-Eshelon is dead. Presumably, the technical hurdles that needed to be overcome to turn this into an operational system were eventually considered too challenging. Moreover, Russia now has two other laser dazzling systems with a counterspace role (Peresvet and Kalina), at least one of which (Peresvet) is considered operational. In December 2019  Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksey Krivoruchko did say in a newspaper interview that the capabilities of Peresvet would be further expanded in the coming years by placing it on board “an airborne carrier”, but what exactly he was referring to remains unclear.

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