Here’s Our Best Look Yet At Russia’s Secretive Space Cannon, The Only Gun Ever Fired In Space

More than four decades after the Soviet Union’s 23mm R-23M automatic cannon was the first and only weapon to actually be fired in space, at least, as we know, a new image of this mysterious weapon has emerged. The image offers the clearest view yet of the entire Shchit-1 self-defense system armed with the Almaz OPS-2 military space station, which orbited the earth for about eight months between 1974 and 1975.

Russian author Anatoly Zak, who also runs the website, discovered the Shchit-1 system in pictures released by the Russian Defense Ministry of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to the NPO Mashinostroyenia in 2021. NPO Mashinostroyenia, originally known simply as OKB- 52 is a design firm best known for developing rockets, rockets and spacecraft, including working on the Almaz military space program during the Cold War.

TV Zvezda capture

A screengrab from a 2015 Zvezda TV program showing the Shchit-1 self-defense system. Before this year, this was the most detailed look at the system and the publicly available R-23M cannon.

The R-23M and the Almaz program have been involved in multiple layers of secrecy for a variety of reasons for years. The fact that the OPS-2 space station was armed at all only emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Before 2015, only one picture of the R-23M was available, and not a very good one, which may have only reflected a prototype design and not the entire Shchit-1 system shown. In 2015, a special was broadcast on TV Zvezda, the official television station of the Russian Defense Ministry, which included the first real look at the entire space-based configuration.

Development of the standard terrestrial R-23, designed primarily as a self-defense weapon for bombers, began in the 1950s and was treated as a highly sensitive project. The idea of ​​Aron Rikhter at KB Tochmash, a design office then headed by Aleksandr Nudelman, was the idea of ​​making a more compact weapon that would be easier to fit into an airplane and particularly suitable for revolver applications. Rikhter had worked directly with Nudelman on the earlier, unrelated 23mm NR-23 as well as the larger 30mm NR-30, both of which were widely used on Soviet aircraft.

Attila Varga via Wikimedia

The Soviet Il-28 bomber had two NR-23 cannons mounted in the stern, as seen here.

The R-23 is a so-called revolver cannon that, as the name suggests, propels ammunition into the firing position via a series of revolver-like cylinders. This advance mechanism, which in some very broad ways resembles Gatling designs, enables a higher rate of fire than is possible with more conventional single-barreled weapons.

However, unlike most other revolver cannons, the Rikhter weapon feeds ammunition from the magazine back into the cylinders rather than from behind or from the side. This places the feed mechanism in the center of the gun and shortens the overall length.

In addition, the R-23 uses unique 23x260mm cartridges with what is known as a telescopic configuration. This means that the projectile is completely in the cartridge case and not protruding from the front. The general concept behind ammunition of this type is to shorten the overall length of the round, and therefore the weapon with which it is fired, without significantly affecting the performance of a weapon that fires a similar traditional round.

The Tupolev Tu-22 blinder bomber was the first aircraft designed to carry the R-23. One of the cannons was mounted in a remote-controlled, radar-controlled turret in the stern. Delays in the development of the cannon resulted in the first blinds entering service years before their stern cannons were completed.

Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

The rear cannon of the Tu-22, an R-23 cannon with a turret.

In the end, the Tu-22 was the only aircraft armed with the R-23. This helped keep the existence of the weapon largely a secret until the first Blinders were exported to Iraq and Libya in the 1970s. A recent example reportedly did not fall into Western hands until one was recovered from the wreckage of a Libyan Tu-22 that French forces shot down over Chad in 1987. This conflict between Chad and Libya was generally an intelligence bonus for the US west.

It’s not clear whether the development of the R-23M for space-based applications helped keep the weapon secret, or whether it was chosen because it was so closely monitored from the start. Its compact design has undoubtedly made it an obvious choice for mounting on a spaceship where weight and physical space are always paramount.

Based on limited information so far, the Shchit-1 self-defense system consisted of a single R-23M cannon in a rigid mount with a magazine mounted on top of the central part of the weapon. What changes were made to the weapon itself to ensure that it would function properly in zero gravity is unclear.

“Since the beginning of the space age, the obsessed with secrecy Soviet military feared the prospect of American spaceships approaching and inspecting Soviet military satellites – which Kremlin propaganda said shouldn’t exist,” Anatoly Zak wrote a piece on the R-23M for Popular Mechanic in 2015. “That wasn’t crazy. The fear of attacking spacecraft was real as both sides of the Iron Curtain developed anti-satellite weapons. In the 1960s it seemed perfectly logical that military and piloted spacecraft would need self-defense weapons.”

The Almaz military space stations, work on which began in the early 1960s, should be armed from the start. Before switching to the R-23M, Zak said KB Tochmash was working on a compact 14.5mm weapon designed for space.

The Almaz stations were expected to be multipurpose military platforms in space. It was planned to configure the first types mainly for secret service, surveillance and reconnaissance missions with cameras and other sensors. Delays in the development of the sensor package held up the entire program. In 1971, the Soviet Union launched Salyut, a civil space station that included some of the design work developed under the Almaz program along with components from the venerable Soyuz spacecraft.


A line drawing of the core design of the Almaz space station.

The Salyut program ultimately provided cover for the Almaz space stations. Of the seven space stations launched in Salyut between 1971 and 1991, three were actually military types.

The first Almaz station, publicly known as Salyut-2 and also known as OPS-1, was launched in 1973. However, an accident on board shortly after take-off forced the Soviets to abandon it before an actual crew could be sent to join it.

OPS-2, also known as Salyut-3, followed in 1974. This station, armed with the R-23M, successfully reached orbit on June 25 of that year, but a crew of two did not arrive until July. They stayed there for 15 days and tested the Agat-1 telescopic earth observation camera, which was supposed to be able to generate images of the ground with a resolution of more than three meters.

A second crew failed to reach the station later in 1974 after their Soyuz spacecraft malfunctioned. The third mission to OPS-2 was then canceled and operated unmanned until deorbation on January 24, 1975. In September 1974, employees on site ejected a capsule with film from the Agat-1 camera from a distance, which then returned to Earth and was recovered.

Pulux11 via Wikimedia

A display depicting an Almaz space station.

The test of the R-23M cannon took place on the very last day of the station in orbit. Without being able to fully simulate on-site how firing the weapon would affect OPS-2, the plan had always been to test it in orbit without anyone on board. Not only did the shock and recoil have the potential to damage the station, but in the vacuum of space, those forces increased the possibility that firing the weapon could cause it to fly in dangerously unpredictable ways.

“The outpost [OPS-2] fired its jet engines at the same time as the cannon was fired to counteract the gun’s strong recoil, “Anatoly Zak stated in the 2015 story of Popular Mechanics.” Various sources fired the cannons from one to three explosions [bursts]According to reports, a total of around 20 shells were fired. They are also burned in the atmosphere. “

What exactly happened during the test remains a secret to this day. The nearest Almaz space station, known as OPS-3 and Salyut-5, had no weapons on board, at least that we know of. The plans for an OPS-4 station included a new Shchit-2 self-defense system supposedly designed to fire missile-like interceptors. However, it is not known to have any public pictures of this weapon.

The Soviets also developed special self-defense weapons for cosmonauts, such as the TP-82 shown in the video below, but which were intended to be used on Earth rather than in space. You can read more about it in this final piece from War Zone.

How effective the Shchit-1 system would have ever been if it had been more widespread is undoubtedly debatable. The fixed mounting meant the entire space station had to be rotated to align, which reportedly would have been done with a simple optical sight.

In the years since the R-23M was tested in space, the prospect of attacks on satellites and other spacecraft has certainly not gone away, and there is no interest in weapons that could be used for defensive or offensive purposes in orbit. Last year, the chief of the US Space Force, the newest division of the US military, publicly accused Russia of testing a projectile-based anti-satellite weapon in orbit. It is interesting to note that what little we know about the Shchit-2 system seems to fit this general description.

At the same time, Russia also tested relatively small inspection satellites that are able to get very close to other objects in space. This could enable them to act as orbital spies as well as “killer satellites” and use various means of attack to damage, deactivate or destroy a target, including by simple intrusion.


A US Defense Intelligence Agency infographic showing the various means by which one satellite can attack another in space.

These types of threats have sparked discussions in other countries, including the United States and France, about developing potential countermeasures if they do not already exist in the classified area. In particular, the French military say they are currently working on space-based “guard satellites” that will be armed with lasers. However, it is unclear whether they are powerful enough to physically damage or destroy an incoming threat, or are designed merely as blenders to dazzle or confuse enemy sensor and viewfinder systems.

The history of the R-23M undoubtedly shows how complex and sensitive the development of even the most basic weapons for space-based applications remains, a full 46 years after the Soviets conducted the one famous orbital test of an automatic cannon.

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