Strategic Weapons: Betting On Borei and Bulava


January 30, 2021: In December 2020 Russia conducted a multiple missile launch from one of its new SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs). For the second time since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a submerged Borei class SSBN fired multiple SLBMs (sea launched ballistic missile) in rapid succession. This time the SSBN was off the Pacific Coast in the Sea of Okhotsk and the four Bulava SLBM warheads landed 5,500 kilometers to the west to the Chizha test range, a large body of water in northwest Russia near Archangel and long used as a landing zone for SLBMs fired from off the Pacific coast. The last such multiple missile test was in 2018 when another Borei in the White Sea (north of Murmansk) fired four Bulava SLBMs eastward for 6,000 kilometers and the warheads landed off the east coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Kura test range, a body of water used as a landing zone for ICBMs as well as SLBMs.

As impressive as these two tests were, they did not match the last multiple SLBM launch carried out in 1991 just before the Soviet Union was dissolved. That test involved a Delta IV SSBN launching all sixteen of its R29 SLBMs. While the solid fuel Bulavas could be launched every 3-4 seconds, the liquid fueled R29s required 14 seconds between launches. It took nearly four minutes for the Delta IV to launch 650 tons worth of missiles. The largest launch of SLBMs took place in 1998 when a Typhoon class SSBN launched all twenty of its R-39 SLBMs not as a test, but to destroy them in a public manner as part of the post-Cold War START disarmament agreement. The twenty R-39s did not travel far as they were programmed to self-destruct shortly after launch, which they did.

As of early 2021 Russia had four Borei SSBNs in service. There are four more under construction and two more on order for delivery by the end of the 2020s. The Boreis were the first post-Cold War Russian SSBN and the first one began construction in 1996 but took 17 years to complete. The problem was that the capabilities of Russian shipyards had declined during the 1990s because skilled engineers and workers were free to find better paying jobs and did so on a large scale. As a result, the Boreis currently being built will take about eight years to get into service. The last Soviet era-SSBNs, the Delta IV class took three or four years to complete. The seven Delta IVs entered service between 1984 and 1990 and six of them were refurbished a decade ago so they could remain in service until enough Boreis were ready.

Delays getting the new Borei SSBNs into service were made worse because problems with their new SLBMs these boats continued after the first Borei was ready for service. There were so many missile delays that the older Delta class SSBNs had to stay in service longer than they were designed for. That meant these Deltas were unable to go to sea as often, a problem that was partially solved by refurbishing six of them. As a result, Russia has had few SSBNs at sea during the last decade. The four Boreis now in service and at sea just about compensates for the growing inability of the Deltas to stay out for long periods.

The fourth Borei was also the first “improved Borei”, or “Borei A” design, and construction took longer, and cost more, than planned. One feature, adding four more SLBM launch tubes, was deleted. Borei A includes improved electronics and changes to the hull and propulsion system to make the boat quieter and more maneuverable. There are now additional sonar arrays on the sides of the boat in addition to the usual one in the bow (front). There were significant changes to the propulsion system to improve maneuverability at low speeds. The hull now has a sleeker form without the noticeable bump behind the sail (small superstructure on top of subs). One morale-enhancing new feature is a small (four-seat) sauna. There are also larger and more comfortable crew quarters. These changes made the Borei-A look more like Western SSBN as well as perform like one. These changes made to create Borei A were so expensive that the navy can only afford to build ten Boreis.

The Boreis are essential to replace the aging Delta IVs. In many ways the Delta IVs were a superior design compared to the Boreis. There were 43 Deltas put into service between 1972 and 1990. There were actually four distinct models (Delta I, II, III and IV) that varied in size (7,800 to 13,500 tons) and capabilities. Russia had already built a class of subs to replace the Deltas and these were the enormous (24,000 ton) Typhoon/Akula class SSBNs. These proved too expensive to build and operate. Six of them entered service between 1981 and 1989, and to save money, all were retired or scrapped by 2009. One Typhoon is still around to test new SLBM designs. That’s because the missile tubes on the Typhoon are so large that they can easily be modified to handle any new SLBM design. The problems with the Typhoons were a foretaste of worse problems with the Borei and other large subs and surface ships planned. The shipyards could not get it done. Part of the problem was growing corruption, which played a role in destroying the Soviet Union, as well as a shortage of qualified managers, engineers and construction workers to design, develop and build these new ships. Because of all that Russia has had to cope and adjust its plans. In the 1990s it was decided that subs were more important than surface vessels and that meant, once all the budget and construction management problems manifested themselves after the 1990s, the subs always had priority. This led to the cancellation of several large surface ship construction plans and many modifications for submarine construction and use. More subs were retired as they became too old and expensive to operate. Money was always found to keep construction of new subs, especially SSBNs, going. There was also more patience for dealing with the seemingly endless flaws found in the new subs and their weapons. Priorities took priority.

The first three new Borei Class boats were supposed to be based in the Pacific but was changed with only two in the Pacific. One reason for that was the lack of money to refurbish and reactivate the Chizha Test Range near Archangel. This facility was used to monitor ballistic missile or SLBMs test-fired from east to west. The test range on the Pacific coast has been upgraded so that ballistic missiles and SLBM testing could continue and be accurately monitored to measure success, and accuracy, of test warheads. To continue testing the Bulava one of the Boreis had to be assigned to the Northern Fleet.

During the Cold War, most of Russia’s SSBNs were based in the north, at several bases east of the Norwegian border and facing the Arctic Ocean. But now Russia is spending over $350 million to expand and improve its submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula on its Pacific coast. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China, as well as the United States.

The Boreis are the first new Russian boomers (naval slang for SSBNs) to enter service since 1990 when the last Delta IV entered service. Borei is the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. The other two Boreis (Alexander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh) benefited from all those delays with the first Borei and were built much more quickly.

The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs and American Cold War SSBNs.. The Boreis are 170 meters (558 feet) long and 13 meters (42 feet) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs are carried. Work on 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. That should have worked but it didn’t and failed in many frustrating ways. This "Bulava" (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) SLBM was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis original capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube-launched missiles. There are also tubes for launching smaller countermeasure devices that look like torpedoes. The Bulava has a max range of 10,000 kilometers with six warheads and 8,000 kilometers with ten warheads.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers. This is a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs. Each of these Borei A boats cost at least two billion dollars, in part because money was spent on improved crew quarters. That was necessary to attract enough skilled, and volunteer, sailors to run these boats. The high cost of Boreis, 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 post 1991 Russia. New factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis and their missiles are to be built in Russia.

Without the Bulava, the only alternative was to redesign the Boreis to use the existing R-29 Sineva SLBM. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service and is used in the older Delta class SSBNs. This redesign 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 seemed 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. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge 90 ton R-39 for the massive Typhoon SSBNs.

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 design and the two still under construction in 2018. The only 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.

These delays in getting Bulava to work reliably resulted in a lot of embarrassing changes. That’s because, in early 2012, Russia announced that its SSBNs would resume long-range "combat patrols" within a year. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first Borei (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 had a working SLBM to arm it. Mass production of Bulava began in 2013, with the goal of producing at least 124 of them. Yury Dolgoruky finally made its first combat patrol in 2015, although it was understood that only about half of the 16 Bulava SLBMs carried would work if launched. Since then, the Bulava SLBM is  considered combat ready but only if you accept that about half of them may not work.

The Russian Navy has made a mess of its SSBN force and has done slightly better developing new SLBMs. This is all about what kind of SSBN force Russia will have in the future and what those SSBNs will be capable of. At the moment the answers seem to be “diminished” and “not much”.

The Delta IV refurb included the SLBM tubes and launch equipment so the Delta IV can handle the latest (MU2) version of the R-29 missile. Most of the improvements in the R-29MU2 include the third stage, which can now carry 12 warheads, each able to hit a different target. Alternatively, the R-29MU2 can carry eight warheads and numerous decoys and “penetration devices” to assist in deceiving anti-missile systems. The upgrade extends the life of the Delta IV 3-4 years which means that by the late 2020s only one Delta IV will still be in (limited) service and, depending on how much money is available, as many as ten Borei's.


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