Submarines: Bulava Blues Blocks More Boreis


December 22, 2009: Russia has delayed, for at least a few months, starting construction of their fourth Borei class SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers"). Russia wants to have the new Borei class boats replace the current Delta IV class SSBNs. The first Borei is already in the service, but not yet commissioned, and two others are under construction. The problem, and unofficial reason for the delay, is the inability to make the new Bulava SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) work. The latest Bulava test was a spectacular failure (which lit up the pre-dawn sky of northern Norway, for all to see). This was the seventh failure out of 13 tests. Some insiders quietly complain that only one of the 13 tests was an unqualified success. The situation is dire, if Russia wants to maintain an SLBM capability.

The reason for is that only eight of the twelve existing Russian Delta IV SSBNs are available for service. The Delta IVs are getting old, and have only about a decade of useful service left. Currently, it appears that the navy will get only eight Boreis. These new boats are expensive, and the navy wants to build some other expensive warships as well (carriers and attack subs).

There were many delays just getting the first of the new Borei class SSBNs built. This boat, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched nearly two years ago, and there were further delays in undergoing sea trials this year. Major delays were introduced because of an accident on a new Akula SSN (nuclear attack sub) a year ago. There, a sailor hit the wrong switch and accidently triggered a fire suppressant system in a compartment where several dozen people were sleeping, killing twenty of them. The safety system was poorly designed, making it too easy for someone to do what the sailor did. Such design problems are common in Russian ships, and the additional months of inspections and modifications for the Borei is another attempt to eliminate such problems. There were also some problems with welds on the hull, and with the nuclear power plant.

The Yuri Dolgoruky was supposed to have been launched over three years ago. But there were technical problems that caused more delays. Construction of the Yuri Dolgoruky began thirteen years ago, but money shortages, and technical issues, slowed progress.

The first three new Borei Class boats will be based in the Pacific. During the Cold War, most of Russias 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 Kamchatka island. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China, as well as the United States.

The Boreis are the first new Russian boomer to enter service in 18 years, and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. The second ship in the class, the Alexander Nevsky, is nearing completion. Construction on the third, the Vladimir Monomakh, began over two years ago.

The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs, than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon boats. 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 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.

The government has insisted that the Bulava will be made to work, no matter what it takes. The only alternative is to redesign the Boreis to use the existing R-29RM Sineva SLBM. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service, and is used in the current Delta class SSBNs.

This 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 seems 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 (which are being retired because they were so expensive to operate.)

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, 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.

Many Russian officials believed that the root of all these problems was 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.




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