Strategic Weapons: Russians Face SSBN Disaster


December29, 2006: For the third time in four months, a test launch of the new Russian submarine based Bulava missile, was a failure. This time, it was the third stage (containing the warhead). The missile is meant to equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The Borei class boats would replace the aging Cold War area SSBNs, which are being retired because of safety and reliability issues and the high expense of running them. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A year ago, the Bulava has just completed two successful launches within three months. The 45 ton Bulava ICBM is a slightly modified version of the new land based Topol-M ICBM. The Bulava is a little shorter, to fit into the missile tube, and thus has a shorter range of some 8,000 kilometers. Bulava uses solid fuel. Currently, each Bulava carries a single 500 kiloton nuclear weapon, plus decoys and the ability to maneuver. The warhead is also shielded to provide protection from the electronic pulse of nearby nuclear explosions. Take away all of these goodies, and the Bulava could be equipped with up to ten smaller (150 kiloton) warheads. But the big thing is still trying to defeat American anti-missile systems.

Bulava was supposed to enter service in 2006, aboard the Dmitry Donskoi, a SSBN modified to accommodate the larger Bulava. Three new Borei subs are being built, to carry twelve Bulavas each. Russia currently has a dozen SSBNs in service, carrying a total of 192 older missiles. Russia had to abandon several other SLBM designs because, well, they didn't work. Finally, they simply adapted a successful land based missile to naval work, and that produced the Bulava. The Bulava is officially known as the R-30, and NATO has assigned it the designation SS-N-30.

Russian officials said it often takes as many as 14 test launches before a SLBM is ready for service, so Bulava has another six or so chances to get it right. Meanwhile, it looks like the earliest the Bulava can enter service is 2008.




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