It is amazing how much life some old military projects have in them. In the early 1980s the Soviet Union had a number of projects that explored military applications of lasers. Most were related to space, anti-satellite weapons, space. One of these projects, Dreif (Drift), involved an air-based laser that was installed on an Il-76M aircraft. In the early 1980s the system, known as A-60, was tested against aerostats (at a range of up to 40 km). Although the laser was not capable of destroying missiles or spacecraft, it was at some point considered for deployment on board of the Skif space-based ASAT station. This program was never completed - the prototype, Skif-DM/Polyus, with no laser on board, was lost in the fist Energia launch on May 15, 1987.

The test Il-76 aircraft, had a difficult history and at some point was reported to have been lost in a fire. But it surfaced again, seemingly intact - photos of the plane were published a few days ago at web site (there may have been two planes, one of which was lost in the fire). The aircraft has an interesting logo painted on the body - a falcon and a lightning that hits an orbiting spacecraft with the words "Sokol Echelon" underneath.

As far as I can tell, in the 25 or so years since the laser was tested against aerostats, the old Dreif project underwent a few modifications (and probably got a different name). It is unlikely that it can do any harm to missiles or destroy a spacecraft, but it could probably blind optical sensors of a satellite or otherwise disrupt its operations (the United States tested a somewhat similar capability in a test of its ground-based MIRACL laser, conducted in October 1997). If so, it would probably qualify as an anti-satellite system. By the way, it seems to be incompatible with the draft treaty on weapons in outer space that China and Russia introduced at the Conference on Disarmament in 2008.

Judging from the photos, the aircraft is not quite shipshape, but it does not necessarily mean that it is not in working condition. It was seen flying relatively recently, so it is not just sitting on the ground in Taganrog where the photos were taken.

It wouldn't be very surprising to see Russian defense industry trying to revive its old projects, whether it's missiles, missile defense, or anti-satellite systems. We will probably hear more about these projects in the coming months. Whether it makes sense is a different matter. I would say it doesn't, but for the industry the temptation to go back to building systems that proved useless thirty years ago is apparently too hard to resist.