It's Once Again Time to Worry About Russian LasersS

It looks like X-Men: First Class isn't the only thing cashing in on Cold War nostalgia this summer. Russia may also be reaching back to the past by reviving a Soviet-era laser project.

Way back when (in 1977), the Soviets started putting a laser cannon on an Ilyushin-76 jet. Two models existed, one was put into storage and the other burned up. The project as a whole was scrapped when the Soviet Union fell.

Until now. The Russians are apparently bringing the old laser plane out of mothballs in the form of the Beriev A-60, which is similar to the American laser-equipped 747, the Airborne Laser Test Bed. Writing for The Space Review, Dwayne A. Day describes the plane and the unusual location of the laser, "A large bulge on the upper back of the aircraft, which is not easily visible in photos from the ground, is apparently a sliding port for a 1-megawatt laser turret. The laser is clearly intended to fire up, at something above the plane, rather than to the sides or down, to engage ground targets or other aircraft. It apparently has an effective range of 300–600 kilometers."

With the detail of the laser pointing up, combined with the image of the Hubble telescope being zapped by a lighting bolt painted on the side of the ship, it's been theorized that the plane has been brought out and modernized in order to blind American spy satellites. Noah Shachtman at Wired.com points to a statement given by an anonymous official to the Interfax news agency as corroboration of this intent: "the A-60 system is 'designed to transmit laser energy to remote sites in order to counter the infrared opto-electronic tools of the enemy.'"

So is it time to panic? Not exactly. Most evidence also points to this project being in development, as opposed to a fully operational one. Also, the plane has been photographed by amateur enthusiasts at an unguarded location and appears weather-beaten which doesn't match with the idea of an ongoing mission. Mostly, it looks like the old Soviet plane has been modernized to try to compete with the American Airborne Laser program. So it's less of a revival of old science projects and more of a revival of a Cold War-style arms race. Which, given its loose nukes problem, is more concerning than the plane itself.

[via Wired]
Top image by Iva Savickii-Rov on russianplanes.net