The mysterious 1K17 Szhatie (also known as 1К17 Сжатие – ‘Compression’ in Russia, and as the ‘Stiletto’ in NATO reporting) was a unique project developed by the Soviets just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This laser-armed tank was designed to be a type of anti-missile system. It could also disable enemy optoelectronic systems, including imaging equipment such as sights, scopes and cameras.
The 1K17 Szhatie. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin
A laser-armed tank may seem like something out of Buck Rogers or Star Wars (the latter being popular at the time of the vehicle’s original conception), but this was a very real project. The idea for such a vehicle appeared in the late 1970s, early 1980s, in the form of the SLK 1K11 Stilet. This was a relatively simple vehicle, being little more than an APC with a small laser lamp on its roof.
A further development was the Sanguine, based on the ZSU-23-4 Shilka SPAAG (Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun) with a large single laser emitter mounted in place of the guns. Little is known about the trials and success or failure of these projects. There is information to suggest that during testing that the Sanguine’s laser once knocked out a helicopter’s optical system at a range of 6 miles (9.65 km) and disabled the aircraft entirely at 5 miles (8.04 km).
The project would be revisited in the late 80s, with a more elaborate design. This Self-Propelled Laser Complex (S.P.L.C.) was designed by Nikolai Dmitrievich Ustinov. Ustinov was a scientist, radiophysicist and radio technician, but specialized in laser technologies. He was even the head of a school dedicated to laser technology. The vehicle was constructed at Uraltransmash (The Ural Transport Machine-Building Plant) in Yekaterinburg, under the supervision of Head Designer, Yuri Vasilyevich Tomashov.
The first prototype of the vehicle was assembled in December 1990. In 1991, 1Q17, as it was then designated, took part in field trials which lasted until 1992. The trials were considered a success, and the S.P.L.C. was approved for construction and service, though Mr. Ustinov, unfortunately, would not live to see it, as he passed away in 1992. For a variety of reasons, it would never see service or full-scale production.
A Design From the Future
The 1K17 was based on the chassis of the 2S19 ‘Msta-S’ Self-Propelled Howitzer. The gun was removed from the 2S19’s turret and it was heavily modified. The ’Solid-State’ Laser equipment was introduced into the subsequent void left by the gun. Solid-State is a type of laser that uses a solid focusing medium, as opposed to the liquid or gas of most common high-power beam emitters.
The project soon became an extremely expensive endeavor, as the solid medium of choice for this extremely powerful laser was artificially grown rubies, each one weighing 30 kg. (66.1 lb). There were 13 laser tubes in the emitter, each one filled by a ruby. The ruby crystal was formed in the shape of a cylinder. After it was harvested, the ends were polished and covered with silver which acted as focusing mirrors. In operation, Xenon gas would spiral around the ruby. The luminescent gas was ignited by lamps in the crystal housing, which would, in turn, ignite the laser beam. The range of the beam is not known, but it is probably similar to that of the Sanguine’s; 5 – 6 miles (8.04 – 9.65 km).
It is also estimated that the laser had a pulse mode that was achieved with an aluminum-garnet device that had neodymium additives. This gave off large amounts of power in short bursts and would give the laser a pulsing effect.
A Dangerous Weapon?
As a defensive weapon, the laser was extremely effective in disabling enemy vehicles, weapons and visual equipment. It could also be used an offensive weapon, against biological targets such as humans, either pilots, crew, or infantry etc. Much of the information available regarding the effect of lasers on humans come from small-scale tests. The source for the subsequent info comes from a recording of such tests, in the book Effects of High-Power Laser Radiation by John F. Ready.
As described previously the system could disable enemy equipment. The prototype built on the Shilka is recorded as having downed a helicopter during testing. A laser this size and radiation output could easily cause computer systems to shut down. Plastics and thin metals would likely melt or warp, ruining structural integrity.
With regards to biological effects, it is well known that even pocket lasers and small-scale lasers can cause damage to the human eye with heavy retinal burns and scarring. This can result in complete blindness. This effect would be amplified due to the size and power of the 1K17’s laser system, probably resulting in instant blinding. It isn’t known to be the case, but it is likely that that the entire crew of the vehicle wore eye protection in the form of tinted goggles matched to the frequency of the light emitted. These are used in most cases when handing lasers outside of military use. The crew of any enemy vehicle looking through a telescope or gun sight would likely be blinded.
Here marks a controversial point where this weapon, if it had entered service and was used in such a fashion, would breach Geneva Convention protocols. Below is article one to three from the Convention’s Blinding Laser Weaponry protocol which was put forward by the United Nations on October 13, 1995. It came into force July 30th, 1998:
Article 1: It is prohibited to employ laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices. The High Contracting Parties shall not transfer such weapons to any State or non-State entity.
Article 2: In the employment of laser systems, the High Contracting Parties shall take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness to unenhanced vision. Such precautions shall include training of their armed forces and other practical measures.
Article 3: Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this Protocol.
A close-up view of the emitter set up. Photo: Vitaly V. KuzminReactions of skin and other bodily tissue is a different matter. The effect of laser radiation varies between the skin tones and keratin levels, but overall results are similar. With a high-power laser emitting at lower levels, lesions and dead skin begin to appear. With increased power, the damage worsens. Severe burns can occur with damage to blood vessels, leading to heavy charring and necrosis. Internal organs can also be badly damaged, especially the brain if the head is fully exposed. Death can occur with exposure to the brain by causing deep lesions and extreme hemorrhaging. One should remember, that effects described here would be amplified greatly due to the size and power of the 1K17’s emitter. It may not have been designed to be offensive, but it could certainly be a dangerous weapon if deployed in such a manner.
The turret of the 1K17 was extremely large, being almost as long as the hull, housed the huge laser emitter. There were 13 lenses in the emitter, these were mounted in two rows of six, with one lens in the center. When not in use, the lenses were covered by armored panels. It is unknown to what degree – if any – the emitter can elevate or depress, though there is what appears to be pivot points either side of the emitter housing. Also, given that one of the laser’s intentions was to disable incoming missiles, it is likely that it can elevate to aim at airborne targets.
This view of the emitter shows the armored panels that cover the lenses when not in use. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin
The rear of the turret was taken up by a large autonomous auxiliary generator unit that would provide power to the emitter. Towards the rear of the turret on the right was a cupola for the commander, mounted on here was a 12.7mm NSVT Heavy Machine Gun for self-defense. Aside from this, the tank had no other regular, that is to say ballistic, weaponry to fall back on in a defensive situation apart from any personal weapons the crew might carry. It also had six smoke dischargers. These were mounted in two banks of three on either side of the emitter on the turret cheeks.
As mentioned, this vehicle was based on the design of the 2S19 SPG, which in turn was based on the hull of the T-80 Main Battle Tank. The chassis of which was mostly unaltered apart from being lengthened slightly for improved stability. It was powered by the T-72’s V-84A Diesel engine, rated at 840 hp. This gave the SPG a speed of 37 mph (60 km/h). The driver’s position was in the center, at the front of the vehicle.
A full view of the 1K17’s hull and turret. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin
The turbulent economic wake of the USSR’s disintegration in 1989, with revisions to the state’s financing of defense programs, was the death warrant for the 1K17 project. Only one vehicle was built. Its existence was only recently revealed, and the exact properties of the laser system remain classified, with no open source of data. The number of crew that operated the vehicle is even unknown.
The 1K17 does survive, however. It is preserved and displayed at the Military Technical Museum at Ivanovskaya, near Moscow. It is unclear what happened to the Stilet and Sanguine. The Stilet was photographed in 2004, at a military scrap yard near St. Petersburg. It has not been seen since.
At this time the status of Russian laser weapons development is not known but there is no information to suggest that such weapons are not currently in development although none are known to have ever been operationally deployed. The Szhatie was not the last Russian ‘laser tank’, however. Though it does not operate in the same manner, the KDHR-1H Dal (meaning ‘Distance’) is a chemical detection and monitoring vehicle and is equipped with a laser radar that can scan 45 square miles in 60 seconds. This vehicle is currently in service with the Russian Military.
1K17 Szhatie specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||19.8 x 11.7 x 11 ft (6.03 x 3.56 x 3.3 m)|
|Total weight, battle ready||41 tons|
|Crew||Unknown other than Commander and Driver|
|Propulsion||V-84A Diesel engine, 840 hp|
|Speed (on/off road)||37.2 mph (60 km/h)|
|Armament||1 high-power laser complex, 15 seperate lenses,|
1 x 12.7mm NSVT Heavy Machine Gun
|For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index|
John F. Ready, Effects of High-Power Laser Radiation, Academic Press
An article on the 1K17
An article on army-news.ru (Russian)
The 1K17 on englishrussia.com
An article on Self-Propelled Lasers
A full collection of 1K17 images on Vitaly V. Kuzmin’s website, www.vitalykuzmin.net