WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- What is happening with Russia’s Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile? Almost every week, it seems, brings new surprises.
First, the Bulava broke a long run of unsuccessful tests on June 28 with an undersea launch from the Pacific followed by a flight of several thousand miles that was reported as highly successful. Probably not coincidentally, that took place just before Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush met at Kennebunkport, Maine.
However, even after that test there was a widespread expectation that a long series of further successful tests would be required before the Bulava could enter operational service as the main strategic weapon with multiple- independently targeted re-entry vehicle, or MIRV, warheads for Russia’s so-called fourth-generation Borei 955 nuclear submarines. The Moscow newspaper Kommersant on Dec. 27, 2006, quoted Anatoly Perminov, head of Russia’s Federal Space Agency, as saying the Bulava would require 12 to 14 successful test launches before it could be deployed as the next generation of the sea-based leg of Russia's nuclear triad.
"Given that Bulava blasts off two or three times a year, Russia's armed forces will hardly get it sooner than two or three years," Kommersant said.
However, as Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, commander in chief of the Russian navy, has now announced that the Bulava -- NATO designation SS-NX-30, a naval version of the land-based, well-established Topol-M -- NATO designation SS-27 -- has already been approved for mass production.
Why so soon? As respected Russian military commentator Viktor Yuzbashev wrote for RIA Novosti in an article reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti by UPI, “development has not been smooth.”
“Four of the first six test flights of the Bulava-M -- where ‘M’ stands for morskoi, or naval -- were a failure,” Yuzbashev wrote.
Yuzbashev even noted what he called “independent experts” as saying that in a recent test in late July that was hailed as successful, one of the three MIRV warheads the Bulava was carrying did not reach its destination.
When the Bulava is in operation, each one is intended to carry up to 10 MIRV warheads, each one capable of annihilating a large city.
Yuzbashev also quoted Masorin as saying that the Bulava would only undergo two more test launches this year and that its testing period would be completed as early as next year. This would suggest a far shorter testing period than the long, relative leisurely testing period predicted by Federal Space Agency chief Perminov.
Why the rush? Yuzbashev wrote that he believed it was in order to fulfill what he called “the political ambitions of some high-ranking Russian officials” who “promised that a cutting-edge submarine would be built and armed with the latest missiles capable of evading any air defenses, both existing and current ones, by the end of 2008. They have repeated this promise often and loudly enough to give the Russian public and Western politicians hearing problems. Failure to keep their word could cost them their high positions and ruin their hopes of climbing the country’s top post.
”That is why the Bulava has been put into production before the design stage was completed, and that is why they have again promised that the new sub will be delivered to the navy already armed with the new SBLM,” he continued.
Who are the “high-ranking Russian officials” with such “political ambitions” to whom Yuzbashev referred? There can only be one: longtime Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who Russian President Vladimir Putin a few months ago promoted -- some would argue “kicked out of his real power base” -- to become First Deputy Prime Minister. Ivanov has long been seen as the front-runner to succeed Putin as president of Russia when he has to step down after two full and successful four-year terms of office next year, in line with the 1996 Yeltsin Constitution.
It is certainly striking that Yuzbashev can be so outspoken in his commentary, writing for Russia’s main news agency, about someone who is still one of the most powerful figures in his government. But Yuzbashev’s frank talk also serves notice that a lot of Ivanov’s presidential ambitions may be riding on the future fate of the Bulava in its upcoming tests.
(Next: Why the Bulava has problems)