Strategic Weapons: MIRV is Back In Town


May 15, 2007: Russia announced that it is developing a six warhead version of its new Topol-M ICBM. This new third stage could also be fitted to the naval version of the Topol-M, the Bulava, which is meant to equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The Borei class boats are replacing 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.

Multiple warheads on a missile were something sort of outlawed by the START-1 treaty, signed by Moscow and Washington in 1991. The treaty expires on Jan. 1, 2009. The START agreements were an attempt to limit the number of nuclear weapons in service. One condition was the elimination, for the most part, of MIRVs (Multiple, Independently targeted, Reentry Vehicle). If each ICBM in service had but one warhead, it was easier for both sides to check if the other was complying with the treaty. But now the Russians want to use MIRVs again, possibly so they can maintain as many warheads as the U.S., but without the expensive of having so many ICBMs in service.

The Russians may need MIRVs on their SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles), because of the problems they have in getting a new SLBM into service, and keeping older SSBNs (subs that carry the SLBMs) in service. 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 some of these goodies, and the Bulava can equipped with the new, six warhead, MIRV, with smaller (150 kiloton) warheads. In addition, the Russians want to be able 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 are not worried about several Bulava tests that failed, as it often takes as many as 14 test launches before a SLBM is ready for service. Bulava has another six or so chances to get it right. It looks like the earliest the Bulava can enter service is 2008, and that might just slip to 2009, so that Bulava can enter service with six MIRV warheads.


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