Strategic Weapons: Look At The Pretty Lights


December 13, 2009: The latest test of Russia new Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) was a spectacular failure. The test took place off the northern coast of Russia early on December 10th. The failure resulted in a brilliant light show, in the pre-dawn sky, that was visible to many in Norway. At first the Russians denied that the spectacular lights had anything to do with them. But within a day, they admitted it was Bulava failing its 13th flight test.

Last August Russian political and military leaders became upset (make that VERY upset) at the inept development of the new Bulava missile. This weapon is to arm the new Boeri class SSBN (nuclear submarine carrying SLBMs). The Bulava developers 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 will be fired) and the older R-29RM Sineva SLBM will 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 may have been due to sloppy manufacturing. So the construction of the Bulavas was ordered moved to another factory. That decision was also reversed, after someone did the math. 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 believe 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 suggestion to move to another factory. But in the specialized field of building SLBMs, you have lots of irreplaceable experience at the factory currently building Bulavas.

All this was triggered by Bulava failing another flight test earlier this year. That made six failed launches, versus five successful ones. Before the recent failed test, Russian officials believed that the Bulava would enter service this year, and that there would be five or more test firings to help make that happen. The Russian engineers thought they had identified the source of the problems. But the recent test failure was in the first (of three) stage of the missile, which was believed to be problem free. That aroused suspicions that there might be manufacturing problems.

The Russians had always been confident in the basic technology of the Bulava. They knew there would be test failures, and believed they were facing no more problems that the two most recent U.S. SLBMs. These had had a 13 percent (out of 23 tests of the Trident I) and two percent (49 tests of Trident II) failure rate. But as the Bulava test failure rate rose, doubts began to set in. At present, only six of thirteen tests were a success, which equals a 54 percent failure rate.

What really made many Russians nervous was the fact that the Bulava is replacement for an earlier SLBM that had to be cancelled during development because of too many test failures, and too many design and equipment problems that could not be fixed. Thus the Bulava is basically a navalized version of the successful Topol-M land based ICBM. The reliability of the Topol is the primary reason the Russians moved forward with Bulava, and remain confident that they can make it work, eventually.

The Bulava is to equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The first one has just entered service. The Borei class boats will replace the aging Cold War era Delta class SSBNs, which are being retired because of safety and reliability issues. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but there are still limits to the navy budgets, and the Boreis are being built, in part, to be cheaper to operate. But first the Boreis need a reliable missile.

The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M, so that it could fit into the subs missile tubes. Thus Bulava has a shorter range (8,000 kilometers) than Topol. Bulava has three stages and is believed configured to carry ten 150 kiloton warheads.

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 only possible 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.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close