Russia acted wisely in sticking with Bulava SLBM

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 11, 2008 at 2:05 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- It took an army of engineers, repeated tests, a decade of patience and an unwavering political will to rescue Russia's troubled Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile. Although the RSM-56 Bulava SLBM still has many critics, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister and former defense minister, a longtime supporter of the project, has announced the Bulava has now been approved for full-scale production.

There is a lesson in this that goes back to the failure-plagued years of the U.S. and Soviet pioneering intercontinental ballistic missile programs in the 1950s.

Rocket science is hard, not because of its theoretical concepts, which are actually very simple and straightforward, but because of the sheer technical and demanding complexity of building the rockets themselves. Engineering at that level doesn't require a lot of Nobel Prize-winning "brilliant" insights. It requires an enormous number of experts to test and retest every component, fuel element and interaction and to come up with myriads of engineering fixes to minor but potentially disastrous problems.

Following through ambitious ICBM and ballistic missile defense interceptor programs to their successful conclusion also requires the determination and guts of both military program directors and their civilian overlords.

Both echelons have to keep backing the program through the endless tests and unsuccessful test firings that will be long and appear almost endless, until a level operational reliability is finally reached.

The U.S. Ground-based Mid-course Interceptor -- GBI -- program went through this long dispiriting phase, and now the Bulava SLBM appears to be emerging from it, too.

The Bulava program still has many critics in Russia, some of whom would prefer to adapt the new Borey-class Project 955 subs to carry liquid-fueled RSM-54 Sineva SLBMs instead.

The Sineva has the reputation of being "old fashioned" because it is liquid-fueled and therefore flies more slowly in its boost phase than the Bulava. But it still flies plenty fast when launched, and it can carry a larger payload a longer distance than the Bulava.

The biggest argument against scrapping the Bulava, however, may have been the fact that adapting the Borey-class subs to carry the Sinevas would open a whole new set of potential engineering problems.

Russia's naval shipyards have encountered one costly delay and overrun after another on their most prestigious and strategically important projects, and the last thing Kremlin leaders wanted was to leave themselves vulnerable to a new wave of them.

In fact, the combination of the improving reliability record of the Bulava and the continued reliability of the liquid-fueled Sineva looks likely to give the Russian navy's submarine-launched ballistic missile forces formidable clout for decades, even generations to come.

As respected Russian military analyst Ilya Kramnik wrote for RIA Novosti, "The backbone of the Russian Naval Strategic Nuclear Force will be liquid-fueled RSM-54 Sineva ICBMs installed on six 667BDRM nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which will have their life cycle extended into the late 2020s, and cutting-edge solid-fuel RSM-56 Bulava ICBMs on 955/955A submarines.

"The Russian navy plans to commission eight missile submarines of the above-mentioned class to replace the 667BDR submarines. By 2020 the Russian navy most likely will have between 12 and 14 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines carrying between 192 and 224 missiles with 800 to 900 warheads," Kramnik continued.

That will ensure that for decades to come, the Russian nuclear-armed strategic submarine force will remain one of the most powerful forces on the planet.

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