Submarines: Battling the Bulava Bull

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September 4, 2007: Engineers and scientists who build Russia's ballistic missiles are fighting back at government efforts to rush the new, 45 ton, Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) into service before it's ready. Although the Bulava failed four of six recent tests, the Russian navy recently announced that the missile would go into mass production. In the past (during the Cold War), it was customary to conduct 12-30 (or more) tests, over 80 percent of them successful, before a new SLBM (or ICBM) was mass produced.

The Bulava is a slightly modified version of the new land based Topol-M ICBM. The Bulava is a little shorter, to fit into the missile tube, and thus has a shorter range of some 8,000 kilometers. Bulava has three stages and uses solid fuel. Currently, each Bulava carries a single 500 kiloton nuclear weapon, plus decoys and the ability to maneuver. The warhead is also shielded to provide protection from the electronic pulse of nearby nuclear explosions. Take away all of these goodies, and the Bulava could be equipped with up to ten smaller (150 kiloton) warheads. But the big thing is still trying to defeat American anti-missile systems.

The Bulavas will be carried on the new Borei Class SSBNs. These boats are closer in design to the older Delta IVs, than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon/Akula boats. The Boreis are 558 feet long and 44 feet wide. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and twelve Bulava SLBMs will be carried. Work on these boats was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. Then it was decided to take a successful land based missile, the Topol-M, and quickly modify it for submarine use. The Bulava was a larger missile, cutting the Borei's capacity from twenty to twelve missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes, and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles.

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 of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

The new Borei class boats are a big deal politically, and the current government feels itself under a lot of pressure to get these subs into service. That won't happen until there is a SLBM for the SSBNs to carry. Engineers and missile designers fear that the government is rushing Bulava into service, not caring if the missile actually works. Weapons designers have seen this before, especially during the Soviet period. The solution was to try and get the defective weapons fixed while they were "in service." Sometimes it worked, sort of, often it did not. But the Soviet Union was all about smoke and mirrors, and the politicians didn't really care. As long as they appeared strong. Apparently old habits are hard to kick.

 


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