Strategic Weapons: Russia Prepares For Failure

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August 17, 2009: Russia has told the developers of the new Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) that they have until the end of the year to make the missile work. Otherwise, the project will be cancelled, heads will roll (OK, people will be fired) and the older R-29RM Sineva SLBM will replace the Bulava. It's already been suggested that the 40 ton R-29RM be used in the new Borei SSBNs. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service, and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs.

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. Russia continued to use liquid fuel SLBMs for so long because large solid fuel rocket motors are actually large, carefully shaped, blocks of slow burning explosives. These motors are very difficult to make, and it was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the technique. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge, 90 ton R-39, for the massive Typhoon SSBNs (which are being retired because they were so expensive to operate.)

Many Russian officials fear that the root of all these problems is the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed (and sales promptly dropped over 90 percent). 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.

Russia's new Bulava failed another flight test last month. That makes six failed launches, versus five successful ones. Before the recent failed test, Russian officials believed 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 thought they had identified the source of the problems. But the recent test failure was in the first (of three) stage of the missile, which was believed to be problem free.

The Russians had 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. But as the test failure rate rose, doubts began to set in. What really made 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-M 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. But now they are not so sure.

The Bulava was to 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 Delta class SSBNs, which are being retired because of safety and reliability issues. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but there are still limits to the navy budgets, and the Boreis are being built, in part, to be cheaper to operate. But first the Boreis need a reliable missile.

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.

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. This looks unlikely, given the failure of the most recent test, and the pattern of failed tests before it.

One Borei boat is already in service, and it's missile tubes are designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter.) The likely replacement, the Sineva, is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length will 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 (and being retired as too expensive to operate) 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.

Whatever the Russians decide to do, there will be expensive problems. The cheapest solution is to just declare the Bulava ready for service and install them. As absurd as that sounds, some of the 16 Bulavas on each Borei will work. And with continued development, the percentage that will work will climb from about 40 percent, to something more respectable (like 70 or 80 percent.) That will take time, and all the Russians have to do in the meantime is avoid a nuclear war.

 


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