Strategic Weapons: Russia Builds A Loser


November 4, 2009: Russian defense officials announced that the failed Bulava ballistic missile test last July, was due to a defect in the first stage steering system. This was fixed, and another test will take place before the end of the month. So far, the Bulava has been test fired eleven times. Only one of those tests was an unqualified success, and six were absolute failures. But the Russian government insists that development will continue, and succeed. The inept development of the new Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) for the new Boeri class SSBN (nuclear submarine carrying SLBMs) has become a growing scandal within the Russian defense bureaucracy.

A few months ago, the developers of the Bulava were told that they had until the end of the year to make the missile work. Otherwise, the project would be cancelled, heads would roll (OK, people would be fired) and the older R-29RM Sineva SLBM would replace the Bulava. It's already been suggested that the 40 ton R-29RM be used in the new Borei SSBNs. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service, and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs.

Apparently the accountants caught wind of this and told the bosses how much such a switch would cost (we're talking several billion dollars, at least). So now, the final decision (for the moment) is that Bulava will be made to work, no matter what it takes. Moreover, an investigative committee determined that most of the problems have been due to sloppy manufacturing. It was suggested that construction of the Bulavas be moved to another factory. This also proved to be financially, and technically, impossible. Several senior development officials have already been fired.

For a while, switching to the older, but more reliable, Sineva missiles looked like a reasonable move. Liquid fuel missiles are more complex than solid fuel missiles, even though they use fuel that can be stored for long periods inside the missile. Unable, for a long time, to develop the technology for solid fuel rockets, Russia made the most of this, and developed some very effective "storable liquid fuel" rockets. It was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the solid fuel rocket construction techniques. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge, 90 ton R-39, for the massive Typhoon SSBNs (which are being retired because they were so expensive to operate.)

Many Russian officials believed that the root of all these problems was the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed (and sales promptly dropped over 90 percent). The smart people quickly found lucrative jobs in other industries, and there has been little new blood in the last two decades. The same thing happened on the manufacturing end. During the Soviet period, defense industries had the cash to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain. But it was also noted that some defense plants were better at attracting, and retaining, more capable production people. Thus the move to another factory.

Russian doubts about Bulava are consistent with long time problems with their submarine launched ballistic missiles. These problems were largely kept secret during the Cold War, but since then, more information has emerged. Apparently the Russians want to get a few working Bulavas to sea in the first of their new Borei class boats, that was recently commissioned. This looks unlikely, given the failure of the most recent test, and the pattern of failed tests before it.

One Borei boat is already in service, and it's missile tubes are designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter.) The likely replacement, the Sineva, is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length will require substantial revisions in the existing Borei, and the two under construction. The existing solid fuel SLBM that works, and is carried in the larger (and being retired as too expensive to operate) Typhoon, is the R-39, and it is huge (16 meters long and 2.4 meters in diameter.) Much too large even for a rebuilt Borei.

As some Russians expected, the final (for now) decision was to just bull ahead, declare the Bulava ready for service and install them. As absurd as that sounds, some of the 16 Bulavas on each Borei will work. And with continued development, the percentage that will work will climb from about 40 percent, to something more respectable (like 70 or 80 percent.) That will take time, and all the Russians have to do in the meantime is avoid a nuclear war.






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