July 19, 2009:
Russia's new Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) failed another flight test on July 15th. That makes six failed launches, versus five successful ones. Before the recent failed test, Russian officials believed that the Bulava would enter service this year, and that there would be five or more test firings to help make that happen. The Russian engineers believe they have identified the sources of the problems. And, apparently in line with centuries old tradition, word has come down from the top that this has to happen, or else. But the recent test failure was in the first (of three) stage of the missile, which was believed to be problem free.
The Russians have always been confident in the basic technology of 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. But as the test failure rate rose, doubts began to set in. What really made 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-M land based ICBM. The reliability of the Topol is the primary reason the Russians moved forward with Bulava, and remain confident that they can make it work, eventually. But now they are not so sure.
The Bulava will equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The first one is has just entered service. The Borei class boats will replace the aging Cold War era Delta IV SSBNs, which are being retired because of safety and reliability issues, and the high expense of running the the more recent Thphoon SSBNs. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but there are still limits to the navy budgets, and the Boreis are being built, in part, to be cheaper to operate. But first the Boreis need a reliable missile.
There are suggestions that the 40 ton R-29RM, or Sineva, SLBM be used in the Borei boats. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service, and is used in the current Delta IV SSBNs. 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. Russia continued to use liquid fuel SLBMs for so long because large solid fuel rocket motors are actually large, carefully shaped, blocks of slow burning explosives. These motors are very difficult to make, and it was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the technique. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge, 90 ton R-30, for the massive Typhoon SSBNs (which were retired because they were so expensive to operate.) And many Russian officials fear that the root of all these problems is 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 to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And those six Bulava test failures are yet another result of this brain drain.
The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M, so that it could fit into the subs missile tubes. Thus Bulava has a shorter range (8,000 kilometers) than Topol. Bulava has three stages and uses solid fuel. Currently, each Bulava is believed configured to carry ten 150 kiloton warheads.
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 get a few working Bulavas to sea in the first of their new Borei class boats, that was recently commissioned. This looks unlikely, given the failure of the most recent test, and the pattern of failed tests before it.