Strategic Weapons: Bulava Gets Its Mojo Back

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November 19, 2014: The latest Russian SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) had another successful test in late October. This last test was the first one in which the SSBN (nuclear sub carrying ballistic missiles) went to sea with all 16 silos loaded with Bulavas. The missile that was used not only launched successfully but all six warheads hit their designated target areas 8,000 kilometers distant. This was the second successful Bulava test in two months. It is now believed that Bulava will finally be cleared for mass production and acceptance into regular service in 2015.

Over the last few years Bulava was almost cancelled several times because test flights kept failing. But the government believes there was no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work. For over a year now the design and manufacturing process of the Bulava has been scrutinized and tweaked. For example, a failed test in September 2013 was traced to incorrectly manufactured engine nozzles. The manufacturing and inspection process was fixed and the nozzles were replaced in the three remaining Bulava’s from that batch. By late 2013 it was believed that the Bulava design was sound but that there continued to be problems with manufacturing components correctly and that current quality control measures were not catching the flaws. So five more test launches were scheduled for 2014, and as many more as needed after that. As a result 89 percent of the last nine tests have succeeded. Overall success rate is now 68 percent (for 22 tests).

The Russians are setting the bar low for SLBM reliability, but they have little choice. The alternatives to Bulava are worse. They would like to get Bulava into service so they can get their two new Borei SSBNs into service and move ahead with construction of six more Boreis. If the Bulava reliability problems are solved, then eventually the success rate for test firings would be over 80 percent. While great for the Russians, this would be considered a failure for the United States. 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 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.

Initially it was believed that Bulava had a chance of being like the Trident. Bulava was declared to have successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. The last two launches in 2011 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 63 percent. But there were still problems to be worked out and more test firings were conducted in 2012 and 2013. This is where the launch failures began happening again. But additional test launches revealed more manufacturing problems. By 2013 there had only been 12 successful Bulava test firings out of 19 attempts. Back in 2100 Russia announced that its SSBNs would resume long range "combat patrols" by 2013. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service on December 30th 2012. Thus, it appeared that the newly commissioned Yury Dolgoruky would 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. That did not happen and the resumption of SSBN combat patrols has been delayed until the Bulava is working reliably. Meanwhile, Russia has twelve Delta IV SSBNs, which are overdue for retirement and rarely go to sea at all, much less make long range cruises.

The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M it is based on, so that it could fit into the sub's missile tubes. Bulava is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter.

The new Borei class subs are the first new Russian SSBN to enter service and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. Two Boreis are completed, fueled and crewed. They are waiting for their SLBMs. The Boreis are similar in design to the older Delta IVs. The Boreis are 558 feet (170m) long and 42 feet (13m) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs are carried. Work on the first one, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. A successful land based missile, the Topol-M, was quickly modified for submarine use. This "Bulava" was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes, and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles. The Borei also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers (a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs). Each of these boats will cost at least two billion dollars. This high cost, by Russian standards, is partly because many factories that supplied parts for Russian subs were in parts of the Soviet Union that are not now within the borders of present day Russia. So new factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis, and their missiles, will be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

 


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