Strategic Weapons: Unbreakable

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December 25, 2007: The U.S. Navy continued its record string of successful consecutive launches as it fired off its 120th Trident II SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile). Since 1989, none of these test launches have failed. The Trident had two failures during its 49 development test launches, but since then, has been the most reliable SLBM to ever enter service. Each Trident II costs about $65 million. The 58 ton, 44 foot long, Trident II entered service in 1990. Some of them are fired every year, to insure that the current configuration (of hardware and software) still works as it is supposed to.

In contrast, the latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava, is having an awful time in testing. While the overall (out of over 5,000 of them) failure rate for test launches of Russian rockets is eight percent (and the U.S. Trident I had a failure rate of 13 percent while in development), nearly a third of Bulava's development test launches have failed. The Bulava will 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.

The Bulava test program has been temporarily suspended in late 2006, but later started it again, and had three successful launches in a row. The Bulava is replacement for an earlier SLBM that had to be cancelled during development because of too many test failures. The Bulava is basically a navalized version of the successful Topol M ICBM. For this reason, the Russians will probably move forward with Bulava, unless there are too many more failures. The 48 ton, 56 foot long Bulava costs about the same as the Trident II.

 


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