Strategic Weapons: The Bulava Blues Play On


December 28,2008:  A week after announcing that putting the new Russian Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) would be delayed for more testing, another test was conducted. The test was a failure. This was the tenth test for Bulava, and the fifth failure. Despite the five successful tests in the last two years, and the decision to put its new Bulava SLBMs into production, Russia has decided that several more tests would be performed before the missile was actually put into service.

Despite all this, the Russians are confident in the basic technology in 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 (23 tests of the Trident I) and two percent (49 tests of Trident II) failure rate. What did make 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 land based ICBM. The reliability of the Topol is the primary reason the Russians moved forward with Bulava.

The Bulava will equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The first one is about ready to enter service. The Borei class boats would replace the aging Cold War era 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 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M, so that it could fit into the missile tubes on the sub. Thus Bulava has a shorter range of some 8,000 kilometers. Bulava has three stages and uses solid fuel. Currently, each Bulava is believed configured to carry ten 150 kiloton warheads. The warhead is also shielded to provide protection from the electronic pulse of nearby nuclear explosions. The Bulava could also carry one 500 kiloton nuclear warhead, plus decoys. Many Russians are obsessed with trying to defeat American anti-missile systems.

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 increase the reliability of the Bulava before they make lots of them for arming the new Borei boats. This may delay deployment of the first Borei boat by a year or more.




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