The latest Russian SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30), was almost cancelled because test flights kept failing. But the government believes there is no better option than to keep trying to make Bulava work. It was recently revealed that the September 6th Bulava test launch failed because one of the engine nozzles was incorrectly manufactured. The nozzles have been replaced in the three remaining Bulava’s from that batch. The investigation into the September 6th failure concluded that the Bulava design was sound but that there continued to be problems with manufacturing components and that current quality control measures are not catching the flaws. So five more test launches are scheduled for 2014, and as many more as needed after that.
This is a step back because the Bulava was declared to have successfully completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. But additional test launches revealed more manufacturing problems. So far there have only been 12 successful Bulava test firings out of 19 attempts. The last two launches in 2011 make five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava has been accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 63 percent. But there were still problems to be worked out and more test firings were conducted in 2012 and 2013. This is where the launch failures began happening again. Before that Russia announced that its SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile carrying subs) would resume long range "combat patrols" by 2013. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (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 has a working SLBM to arm it. That has not yet happened and the resumption of SSBN combat patrols has been delayed until the Bulava is working reliably. Meanwhile, Russia has twelve Delta IV SSBNs, which are overdue for retirement and rarely go to sea at all, much less make long range cruises.
It doesn’t always have to be that way but you don’t often hear about complex weapons that consistently perform flawlessly. They do exist. For example, test firings of production models of the U.S. Navy Trident II SLBM have never failed. Trident II is the standard SLBM for U.S. SSBNs. There have been 143 of these missile launches, which involve an SSBN firing one of their Trident IIs, with the nuclear warhead replaced by one of similar weight but containing sensors and communications equipment. The test results for the Trident while in development were equally impressive, with 87 percent successful (in 23 development tests) for the Trident I and 98 percent (49 tests) of the Trident II. The Trident I served from 1979-2005, while the Trident II entered service in 1990.