Strategic Weapons: Bulava Stumbles Again


September 10, 2013: On September 6th Russia tested another of its Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) and after about a minute of flight the Bulava failed and had to be destroyed. This was supposed to be a final test for Bulava, as well as for the second and third of the new Borei class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs or "boomers"). The Defense Ministry promptly ordered five more Bulava tests and delayed commissioning of the two new Boreis. This is but the latest in a decade of failures in developing a new SLBM for a new generation of SSBNs.

Problems with the Bulava caused Russia to delay construction of their fourth Borei class SSBN back in 2009. That’s because at that point frequent test failures had led to cancellation of the Bulava being considered. That would have meant the Borei design would have to be modified to accommodate a different SLBM (of a different shape and weight).

The only alternative was to redesign the Boreis to use the existing R-29RM Sineva SLBM. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs. This would cost billions of dollars, and delay the Boreis entering service by several years. To many, switching to the older, but more reliable, Sineva missiles seemed 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 were being retired because they were so expensive to operate).

Borei boats have missile tubes designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter). The Sineva is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length of the Sineva would require substantial revisions in the existing Borei design and the two under construction. The existing solid fuel SLBM that works, and is carried in the larger 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.

By 2010, it had been decided to proceed with Bulava, which finally successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. That made 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. The last two missiles made five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava was accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 61 percent. But there were still problems to be worked out and more test firings were scheduled.

One of those final tests failed on September 6th and that will mean a lot of embarrassing changes. That’s because in early 2012, Russia announced that its SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile boats) would resume long range "combat patrols" within a year. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service on December 30th 2012. Thus, it appeared that the newly commissioned Yury Dolgoruky would be the first Russian SSBN in many years to make a long range cruise, as soon as it has a working SLBM to arm it. Mass production of Bulava began last year, with the goal of producing at least 124 of them. The Yury Dolgoruky is supposed to get its 16 Bulavas this year, but the missiles it has so far now may have to be pulled and checked and possibly modified. Once Bulava is fixed, it still will have to wait, perhaps six months or more, to get its SLBMs, so that Yury Dolgoruky can make its first combat patrol.

Russia needs the new Borei class boats to replace the current Cold War era Delta IV class SSBNs. Three Boreis have been built and two others are under construction. There were many delays just getting the first of the new Borei class SSBNs built. This boat, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched in 2008, and then encountered further delays before undergoing sea trials in 2012. The Yuri Dolgoruky was supposed to have been launched by 2006, but there were technical problems that caused more delays. Construction of the Yuri Dolgoruky began in 1996, but money shortages, and technical issues, slowed progress.

The first three new Borei Class boats will be based in the Pacific. During the Cold War, most of Russia’s SSBNs were based in the north, at several bases east of the Norwegian border and facing the Arctic Ocean. But now Russia is spending over $350 million to expand and improve its submarine base on Kamchatka Peninsula on its Pacific coast. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China, as well as the United States.

The Boreis are the first new Russian boomer to enter service since 1990 (when the last Delta IV appeared), and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. The other two Boreis (Alexander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh) benefited from all those delays and were built much more quickly.

The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon boats. The Boreis are 170 meters (558 feet) long and 13 meters (42 feet) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs are carried. Work on the Yuri Dolgoruky was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. A successful land based missile, the Topol-M, was quickly modified for submarine use. This "Bulava" was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles. The Borei also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow. The Bulava has a max range of 10,000 kilometers with six warheads and 8,000 kilometers with ten warheads.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers (a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs). Each of these boats will cost at least two billion dollars. This high cost, by Russian standards, is partly because many factories that supplied parts for Russian subs were in parts of the Soviet Union that are not now within the borders of present day Russia. So new factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis, and their missiles, will be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

The government has insisted that the Bulava will be made to work, no matter what it takes. 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 and fringe benefits to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain.





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