Strategic Weapons: The Bulava Blues And The Soviet Curse


October 18, 2016: In late September 2016 Russia again tested its new SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) design, the Bulava (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30). Two missiles were fired from a submerged Borei class sub. One missile appeared to be a success while the other was obviously a failure as it exploded in mid-air. That means three of the last four Bulava test launches were failures and of the 27 test launches since the first one in 2004, about 50 percent were complete or partial failures. Early on Russian officials thought they could solve the design, quality control and management problems and achieve a success rate for test launches of 80 percent. Bulava never came close.

By way of comparison an 80 percent success rate, while great for the Russians would be considered a failure for a Western SLBM. 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 American 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.

Bulava was almost cancelled several times after 2009 once it became obvious that there were some fundamental problems involved. With money and skilled personnel in short supply senior officials concluded that the best solution was to move forward as the Russian government had to either find ways to fix the management and manufacturing problems responsible or accept that these obstacles (present throughout the post-Soviet defense industries) or forever be a second rate weapons developer and manufacturer.

While some new Russian weapons systems seem to be a success, most are usually cited as being unreliable and unable to perform as advertised. After years of analyzing the details of the Bulava shortcomings most experts concluded that the Bulava design was sound and that the source of continued problems was the inability to achieve sufficient quality control when manufacturing components or assembling them correctly. There was a nationwide shortage of managers qualified to make it all work. The 45 ton Bulava SLBM is a little shorter than the Topol M it is based on, so that it could fit into the sub's missile tubes. Bulava is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter. It appears that while the Topol M is a stable and reliable design, the rearranging of components to create an SLBM that would fit into the new SSBNs missile tubes changed too many items that worked on Topol M but not in Bulava.

Designing and building a new SSBN was much less of a problem, as the sub has plenty of opportunities for something to go wrong without destroying the entire vessels. The navy accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service at the end of 2012. Ever since there has not been a reliable SLBM to arm it with. Because of that the Yury Dolgoruky has not yet become the first Russian SSBN since the 1990s to make a long range cruise. Meanwhile, Russia has twelve Delta IV SSBNs, which are overdue for retirement and rarely go to sea at all (except for training), much less make long range cruises.

The new Borei class subs are the first new Russian SSBN to enter service and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. Two Boreis are completed, fueled and crewed. They are waiting for their SLBMs. The Boreis are similar in design to the older Delta IVs. The Boreis are 558 feet (170m) long and 42 feet (13m) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs are carried. Work on the first one, 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. This Bulava was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes, and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles. The Borei also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers (a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs). Each of these boats will cost at least two billion dollars. This high cost, 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 present day Russia. So new factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis, and their missiles, will be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.


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