Strategic Weapons: Legacy Of Failure Is Hard To Shake

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July 24, 2013: Russia and China continue to have problems getting their latest SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) designs to work reliably. The Russian Bulava and Chinese JL-2 have both been announced as ready for use, yet neither has actually entered service. This is a common pattern with Russian and Chinese military technology and is especially true with SLBMs.

There seems to be an unending series of problems with the new Russian and Chinese SLBMs. The latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost cancelled because test flights kept failing. The Bulava finally successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. That made 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. The last two missiles make five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava has been accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 61 percent. But there are still problems to be worked out and more test firings are coming. In early 2012, Russia announced that its SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile boats) would resume long range "combat patrols" within a year. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service last December 30th. Thus, it appears that the newly commissioned Yury Dolgoruky will be the first Russian SSBN in many years to make a long range cruise, as soon as it has a working SLBM to arm it. The Russians will probably not announce this until it’s all over, lest something go wrong at sea. So far there has been no announcement one way or the other.

Then there is the Chinese JL (Julang) 2 SLBM, which was supposed to enter service five years ago and still hasn’t. This missile has had a lot of problems, as have the SSBNs that carried them. The 42 ton JL-2 has a range of 7,000 kilometers and would enable China to aim missiles at any target in the United States from a 094 class SSBN cruising off Hawaii or Alaska. Each 094 boat can carry twelve of these missiles, which are naval versions of the existing land based 42 ton DF-31 ICBM. No Chinese SSBN has ever gone on a combat cruise because these boats have been very unreliable in addition to having no dependable SLBMs to carry. The Type 94 class sub was seen recently undergoing what appears to be sea trials but it is unclear if that was a success. America, Russia, Britain, and France have all sent SSBNs out on patrols and still do. The U.S. has had SSBNs going out with nuclear armed, and ready to fire, missiles for over half a century. What is going on with China? There appears to be an unending supply of technical and political (fear of failure) problems. Russia and China are having similar problems with many other new ballistic and cruise missile designs that have been reported as out of development but not yet in service because additional problems showed up.

It doesn’t always have to be that way, but you don’t often hear about complex weapons that consistently perform flawlessly. They do exist. For example, test firings of production models of the U.S. Navy Trident II SLBM have never failed. Trident II is the standard SLBM for U.S. SSBNs. There have been 143 of these missile launches, which involve an SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear sub) firing one of their Trident IIs, with the nuclear warhead replaced by one of similar weight but containing sensors and communications equipment.

The test results for the Trident while in development were equally impressive, with 87 percent successful (in 23 development tests) for the Trident I and 98 percent (49 tests) of the Trident II. The Trident I served from 1979-2005, while the Trident II entered service in 1990.

 

 


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