Strategic Weapons: Bulava Triumphant


December 29, 2011: The Russian Navy's new Bulava R-30 3M30 (SS-NX-30) SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) successfully completed its sea trials on December 23rd when a Borei class submarine fired two of them. The submerged sub was in the White Sea. The two missiles landed 6,000 kilometers to the east, in the North Pacific off Kamchatka Island. This makes 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. These last two missiles make five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava has been accepted into service.

Last June another successful test was conducted, for the first time, from one of the Borei class submarines it was designed for. This was the third successful launch in a row. That was a big deal, because seven of the previous 15 tests have been failures. Until this latest test the Bulava was in danger of being cancelled. No longer, the December tests were the final ones.

Some of the failures were spectacular. In late 2009, a test took place off the northern coast of Russia and resulted in a brilliant light show, in the pre-dawn sky, that was visible to many in Norway. At first the Russians denied that the spectacular lights had anything to do with them. But within a day they admitted it was Bulava failing its 12th flight test.

After that light show, Russian political and military leaders became upset (make that VERY upset) at the inept development of the new Bulava missile. This weapon was to arm the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear submarine carrying SLBMs). The Bulava developers were told that they had until the end of 2010 to make the missile work. Otherwise, the project would be cancelled, heads would roll (OK, people will be fired), and the older R-29RM Sineva SLBM would replace the Bulava. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs.

Apparently the accountants caught wind of this and told the bosses how much such a switch would cost (we're talking several billion dollars, at least). So the final decision was that Bulava would be made to work, no matter what it took. Moreover, an investigative committee determined that most of the problems may have been due to sloppy manufacturing. So the construction of the Bulavas was  moved to a different factory. That decision was also reversed, after someone did the math. Several senior development officials have already been fired. More jobs are on the line, although the latest successful tests have saved many careers.

For a while, switching to the older, but more reliable, Sineva missiles looked like a reasonable move. 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. Unable, for a long time, to develop the technology for solid fuel rockets, Russia made the most of this and developed some very effective "storable liquid fuel" rockets. It was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the solid fuel rocket construction techniques. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge, 90 ton R-39, for the massive Typhoon SSBNs (which are being retired because they were so expensive to operate).

Many Russian officials believed that the root of all these problems was the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed (and arms 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 the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain. But it was also noted that some defense plants were better at attracting, and retaining, more capable production people. Thus the suggestion to move to another factory. But in the specialized field of building SLBMs, you have lots of irreplaceable experience at the factory currently building Bulavas.

All this was triggered by Bulava failing so many test launches. Before the spate of failed tests in 2008-9 (after three successes), Russian officials believed that the Bulava would enter service in 2010 and that there would be five or more test firings to help make that happen. The Russian engineers thought they had identified the source of the problems. But the December, 2009 test failure was in the first (of three) stages of the missile, which was believed to be problem free. That aroused suspicions that there might be widespread manufacturing problems.

The Russians had 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. They were very wrong. The American missiles had had a 13 percent (out of 23 tests of the Trident I) and two percent (49 tests of Trident II) failure rate. So as the Bulava test failure rate rose, doubts began to set in. At that point, only six of thirteen tests were a success, which equals a 54 percent failure rate.

What really made many Russians nervous was the fact that the Bulava is a 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. Moreover, 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. The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M, so that it could fit into the sub's missile tubes. Thus Bulava has a shorter range (8,000 kilometers) than Topol. Bulava has three stages and is believed to be configured to carry ten 150 kiloton warheads.

Bulava is to equip the new Borei class SSBN, which will replace the aging Cold War era Delta class SSBNs. The Deltas are being retired because of safety and reliability issues. 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. Russian doubts about Bulava are consistent with the long history of problems with their submarine launched ballistic missiles. These problems were largely kept secret during the Cold War but since then more information has emerged.

Two Borei boats are now in service and its missile tubes are designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter). The only possible replacement, the Sineva, is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length would require substantial revisions in the existing Borei and the two under construction. As some Russians expected, the final decision was to just bull ahead, declare the Bulava ready for service and install them. Based on the latest tests, this worked. Moreover, the Russians always knew that some of the 16 Bulavas on each Borei would work. Now, it's pretty certain that the successful launch percentage will climb to something respectable (like 70 or 80 percent).

Russia now plans to begin production of the Bulavas and put the two existing Boreis into service in 2012. This will be just in time, because the older Delta III SSBNs are overdue for retirement.




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