August 6, 2009:
Russia recently replaced the head of its Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov. The official reason was that Solovtsov had reached the mandatory retirement age of 60. However, senior military commanders who are doing well, are often allowed to keep going after age sixty. Solovtsov was apparently in trouble for other reasons as well. For one thing, he has been openly skeptical about reducing the Russian warhead inventory, and apparently not too happy about current plans to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear warhead holdings to about 1,500 each. Another issue that does not reflect well on Solovtsov is the effort to convert the Topol-M land based ICBM into a sea based missile (the Bulava). This missile recently failed during another test firing (its sixth out of eleven). While Bulava is a navy project, Solovtsov signed off on trying to convert the Topol-M. Russia has a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed) when there is a screw up in their area of responsibility.
Last month, the man in charge of developing the Bulava SLBM, Yury Solomonov, resigned from his post. Solomonov was also in charge of developing the successful solid fuel Topol-M ICBM. Eleven years ago, Russia gave up on another project to develop a replacement for the liquid fuel Sineva SLBM. Solomonov proposed modifying the Topol M for SSBN use. He was allowed to try, he failed, and now the navy is stuck. In theory, the Bulava should work, and a new development team is being assembled to make it so, or at least try to. A new class of Borei SSBNs are under construction, and if the Bulava cannot be made to work, these new boats (one in service, two more building) will have to be modified to use the older R-29R Sineva SLBM. Many of the best scientists and engineers have left weapons research, for better paying civilian enterprises, since the Soviet Union collapsed (and went bankrupt) in 1991. The Bulava mess is just one example of how that worked out.
The Russians have 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 than the two most recent U.S. SLBMs. But these two did much better during testing, with only 13 percent (of 23 tests of the Trident I) and two percent (of 49 tests of Trident II) failure rates. What did make many Russians nervous was the fact that the Bulava is 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. Thus the Bulava is basically a navalized version of the successful Topol land based ICBM. The reliability of the Topol M is the primary reason the Russians moved forward with Bulava, and remain confident that they can make it work, eventually.
The Bulava will equip the new Borei class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine). The first one has just entered service. The Borei class boats will replace the aging Cold War era SSBNs, which are being retired because of safety and reliability issues, and the high expense of running them. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M, so that it could fit into the subs missile tubes. Thus Bulava has a shorter range (8,000 kilometers) than Topol. Bulava has three stages and uses solid fuel. Currently, each Bulava is believed configured to carry ten 150 kiloton warheads. The warhead is also shielded to provide protection from the electronic pulse of nearby nuclear explosions. The Bulava could also carry one 500 kiloton nuclear warhead, plus decoys. Many Russians are obsessed with trying to defeat American anti-missile systems.
Russian doubts about Bulava are consistent with long time problems with their submarine launched ballistic missiles. These problems were largely kept secret during the Cold War, but since then, more information has emerged.
The continued problems with Bulava, and other missile programs, indicates that there are some serious, and fundamental, problems in the Russian missile development industry. These problems have remained hidden, because this industry was rapidly dissolved in the 1990s, and most development projects halted. Topol-M seemed to surprise even the Russians when it was revived and completed. But now the continued problems with Bulava are a reminder that Russian missile development organizations no longer have the people and resources they had back during the Soviet days.