Strategic Weapons: Bulava Or Bust

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March 9, 2009: Despite the new Russian Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) having failed five of its ten test launches, it was recently announced that the Bulava would enter service this year, and that there would be five or more test firings to help make that happen. The Russian engineers believe they have identified the sources of the problems. And, apparently in line with centuries old tradition, word has come down from the top that this has to happen, or else.  

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 that the two most recent U.S. SLBMs. These had had a 13 percent (23 tests of the Trident I) and two percent (49 tests of Trident II) failure rate. 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 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 is 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. Apparently the Russians want to get a few working Bulavas to sea in the first of their new Borei class boats, that was recently commissioned.

 

 


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