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BMD Focus: Bulava blues -- Part 2

By
MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Why has Russia’s formidable new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile had so many development problems?

As we noted in the previous column, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, the commander in chief of the Russian navy, has announced that the Bulava -- NATO designation SS-NX-30, a naval version of the land-based Topol-M -- NATO designation SS-27 -- has just been approved for mass production.

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The approval of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile capable of being launched from nuclear submarines with a capability of carrying up to 10 multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, on each one does not happen every day, or even every decade. The go-ahead is a tribute to the determination of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his longtime defense minister and currently First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and most of all to the huge windfall profits from record oil and gas exports at $60 a barrel for oil plus world prices that have enabled Russia’s leaders to pour so much resources into revitalizing their strategic nuclear arsenal.

But it also serves notice about the particularly erratic and unpredictable history of the Bulava’s development.

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Rocket science -- or, rather, rocket engineering -- is a far from predictable and straightforward discipline. So much can go wrong and so much needs to be learned that can only be learned from endless failures, trails and errors before eventual operational reliability is achieved. That has been the constant story of the U.S. ICBM and ballistic missile defense programs as well as their Russian counterparts.

But even in this star-crossed world, the snakes and ladders history of the Bulava SBLM stands out.

As respected Russian military commentator Viktor Yuzbashev noted in a column for the RIA Novosti news agency this week, reprinted by UPI by permission of RIA Novosti, the Bulava was only created late in the day as a somewhat desperate spinoff from the more leisurely developed and well-regarded Topol-M land-based, road and rail mobile ICBM. Under President Boris Yeltsin, “The Miass bureau designed the D-129M Bark -- NATO designation SS-NX-28,” Yuzbashev wrote.

However, as happened with so many other civilian and military projects in Russia during the chaotic, corruption-plagued and depression-style Yeltsin era of the 1990s, it all came to an unsuccessful and inglorious end. The Bark “turned out to be too big for the subs, and flight test later exposed other drawbacks. Russia canceled the project in 1998, when the missile was almost ready, because of rising costs and technical difficulties,” Yuzbashev wrote.

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The Bark certainly does appear to have been a white elephant because an entirely different institution -- the Moscow-based Heat Technology Institute -- was then given the job of coming up with an entirely different new SBLM.

As is common practice with large-scale, heavy industry design programs, the HTI engineers did not start from scratch, nor were they expected to: Instead, they sought to develop and adapt an already highly successful and established design, the Topol-M, for an entirely different kind of use.

The HTI designers were also lucky in that when the project was still in its relatively early stages Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president of Russia on Jan. 1, 2000. Immediately, the long-decaying and chaotic national government structure started to stabilize, and eventually the economy did too. Eventually the HTI engineers were able to enjoy a wealth of financial and industrial resources that their predecessors at Miass could never have hoped for.

Also, the HTI team must have been confident both about their own recent success with the Topol-M and the general record of reliability and excellence that Russia’s major booster industry has rightly enjoyed for so long. As we noted a few months ago in these columns, “Given the Russian military-industrial complex's long and excellent quality-control track record in making highly reliable long-range ballistic missiles over the past half a century, it appears unrealistic to bet against the Bulava program's long-term success and the missile's eventual deployment.”

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However, the Bulava was to face more design and testing headaches than the HTI team had anticipated.

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(Next: Light super-missile, heavy burdens)

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