Strategic Weapons: Bulava Brain Drain Blues


April 23, 2010: The designer of the Russian Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile), Yury Solomonov, has gone public with his views on the many test failures of the missile. Solomonov believes that the basic design of the missile is sound, but problems with suppliers and the work force have created many problems. The collapse of the Soviet defense industries, after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, made it difficult to get all the components needed for the Bulava. And many of the items obtained were of poor quality. When the Soviet defense manufacturing organizations disappeared (because orders fell over 80 percent in the 1990s), the surviving firms could not hold on to their best people, who found better pay and more interesting work in the booming non-defense industries. While Solomonov was fired as head of his design organization, he remains the chief designer of the missile.

Officially, the Russia government believes that the Bulava failures were a result of design flaws. But earlier investigations of the Bulava test failures found faulty missile components, the use of cheap component substitutes and poor manufacturing practices. But now the Russians believe they have identified and fixed all the flaws, and are planning several more test firings this year. So far, only five of the 13 test firings were successful. Some insiders assert that only one of the 13 tests was an unqualified success. Solomonov believes that the component quality problems have not been solved.

This is in stark contrast to the Bulava's U.S. counterpart, the much older, 58 ton, 44 foot long Trident II, which has not failed to launch successfully in over twenty years. Since 1989, none of more than 120 test launches have failed. The Trident had two failures during its 49 development test launches, but since then, it has been the most reliable SLBM to ever enter service. Each Trident II costs about $65 million, and entered service in 1990. Some of them are fired every year, to insure that the current configuration (of hardware and software) still works as it is supposed to.

 In contrast, the latest Russian SLBM, the Bulava, is having an awful time in testing. While the overall (out of over 5,000 of them) failure rate for test launches of Russian rockets is eight percent (and the U.S. Trident I had a failure rate of 13 percent while in development), more than half of Bulava's development test launches have failed. The 48 ton, 56 foot long Bulava costs about the same as the Trident II. Russian leaders insist that the Bulava will eventually succeed. It must, for the future of the Russian SLBM force is at stake.

There have been other complications. Earlier this year Russia has delayed, for two months, starting construction of their fourth Borei class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers"). Russia wants to have the new Borei class boats replace the current Delta IV class SSBNs. The first Borei is already in the service, but not yet commissioned, and two others are under construction. The problem, and unofficial reason for the delay, is the inability to make the new Bulava SLBM work.

Only eight of the twelve existing Russian Delta IV SSBNs are available for service. The Delta IVs are getting old, and have only about a decade of useful service left. Currently, it appears that the navy will get only eight Boreis. These new boats are expensive, and the navy wants to build some other expensive warships as well (carriers and attack subs).

The government has insisted that the Bulava will be made to work, no matter what it takes. The only alternative is to redesign the Boreis to use the existing R-29RM Sineva SLBM. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service, and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs. This would cost billions of dollars, and delay the Boreis entering service by several years. To many, switching to the older, but more reliable, Sineva missiles seems like a reasonable move. Liquid fuel missiles are more complex than solid fuel missiles, even though they use fuel that can be stored for long periods inside the missile. Unable, for a long time, to develop the technology for solid fuel rockets, Russia made the most of this, and developed some very effective "storable liquid fuel" rockets. It was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the solid fuel rocket construction techniques (the huge, 90 ton R-39 missile, for the massive Typhoon SSBNs, which are being retired because they were so expensive to operate.)

Borei boats have missile tubes designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter.) The Sineva, is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length of the Sineva would require substantial revisions in the existing Borei, and the two under construction. The existing solid fuel SLBM that works, and is carried in the larger Typhoon, is the R-39, and it is huge (16 meters long and 2.4 meters in diameter.) Much too large even for a rebuilt Borei.

Many Russian officials agree with Solomonov, that the root of all these problems was the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed. The smart people quickly found lucrative jobs in other industries, and there has been little new blood in the last two decades. The same thing happened on the manufacturing end. During the Soviet period, defense industries had the cash to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain.



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