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What Is Wrong With The Bulava

The Bulava in action.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Feb 02, 2007
What has happened to the Bulava missile, the submarine-launched new star of Russia's formidable strategic weapons arsenal? Everything seemed to be shining on the Bulava. It had three successful test launches in a row. It was not some radical new design with untested technology but a mature adaptation of the already tried and tested Top-M intercontinental ballistic missile. It did not lack funds for development.

With soaring global oil prices, the Russian government, as the world's largest energy exporter, has been spending more money on upgrading and modernizing its strategic rocket forces than at any time in the past quarter century.

Then suddenly it all started to go wrong for the Bulava. Test ICBM launches failed three times in a row in a brief four month period in the second half of last year. The third failure occurred on Dec. 24

"These three test failures, and only three successes, are worrisome. So the test program has been temporarily suspended," analyst James Dunnigan wrote on StrategyPage.com on Nov. 12.

"The first stage performed well, the second stage performed well, but the third stage, not so well," Anatoly Perminov, head of the Federal Space Agency said according to a report carried on StrategyPage.com on Dec. 29.

The Moscow newspaper Kommersant reported on Dec. 27 that the third stage of the missile exploded over the Sea of Okhotsk after being fired from a Dimitry Donskoy class nuclear submarine while it was sitting on the surface of the White Sea.

Kommersant also quoted Peminov as saying that Bulava would require 12 to 14 successful test launches before it could be deployed as the next generation of the sea-based leg of Russia's nuclear triad.

"Given that Bulava blasts off two or three times a year, Russia's armed forces will hardly get it sooner than two or three years," Kommersant said. "So, three failures of Bulava in a row may easily disrupt the country's program of nuclear rearmament."

The previous test failures of the Bulava occurred on Sept. 7 and Oct. 25, the RIA Novosti news agency reported on Dec. 26. RIA Novosti said that both those tests were also attempted "from a ballistic missile submarine in the White Sea."

"The first missile failed to reach its target and the second self-destructed after deviating from its trajectory," the Russian news agency said.

Kommersant also noted that the Russian navy had planned to equip the Yury Dolgoruky, the first of its new Borey 955 class strategic nuclear submarines, with the Bulava as early as this year. That now appears to be an impossible goal.

The December test failure would have been a major disappoint to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since taking office he has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to modernizing the nuclear firepower of the Russian navy, and he would certainly have wanted to see the Bulava operationally deployed on the new Borey-class submarines before he is scheduled to leave office next year.

"Two special commissions were set up to probe into the accident," Kommersant said. "The first one will focus on the course of the breakdown, while the second will attempt to find out sources that leaked to the mass media the data on the Bulava's failure.

"The two previous unsuccessful launches occurred Sept. 7 and Oct. 25 from a Russian missile submarine located in the White Sea. The first missile failed to reach its target, and the second was destroyed after it flew outside of its intended course," StrategyPage.com said.

"The R-30 Bulava, or SS-NX-30, intercontinental ballistic missile is a version of the land-based Topol-M ICBM that is cut down in length in order to fit into a submarine missile firing tube. This cuts back the amount of solid fuel propellant it can carry and reduces its range to a still formidable 4,800 miles. Each of the new Borey 955 class submarines is designed to carry 12 Bulavas and each Bulava can carry up to 10 independently-launched re-entry vehicles or MIRVs that could strike different targets, so a single Borey class submarine would have the capability to annihilate up to 120 American or European cities.

The Bulava's developmental problems suggest several conclusions: First, there is a lot more to developing a new ballistic version, or, even a significantly upgraded version of an old one than most people think. The Russian strategic missile development program is being lavishly funded once again thanks to the huge influx of energy dollars from Russia's oil and gas exports. And Russia has had more experience and a larger number of successful intercontinental ballistic missile tests than any other nation in the world. But the Bulava's problems have so far remained intractable.

Second, the Bulava's poor recent record contrasts with the exceptional reliability of most of Russia's land-based ICBMs and satellite-carrying booster rockets such as the Topol-M, the RS-20 (also known as the SS-18) and the Soyuz. This may suggest that the problem is not in the basic missile design, but in the marine engineering involved in manufacturing its launch tube; or it may be that the changes that have been made to the basic Topol-M design to adapt it for launch from a submarine have created some unanticipated technical problems. The Bulava was designed at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, RIA Novosti said.

For all their otherwise impressive record of success, Russian missile designers have encountered repeatedly problems with the challenge of designing a new generation of submarine-launched ICBMs from scratch. The "Bark" design that preceded the Bulava was scrapped and the design was taken to adapt the Topol-M or maritime use instead.

However, U.S. analysts and policymakers should not get too complacent over Russia's Bulava problems. The other strategic weapons in the Russian ICBM arsenal seem to work just fine. And like their American counterparts, Russia's rocket-men can be counted to keep wrestling with the problem until they solve it. They have a half century record of success in doing just that.

Source: United Press International

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