Russia OK's Bulava SLBM for full-scale production

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 4, 2008 at 7:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Russia's troubled Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile has finally won its decadelong battle for survival.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced Monday that the Kremlin had already approved full-scale production of the long-troubled Bulava.

The Bulava (NATO designation SS-NX-30) is designed to have a range of 5,000 miles. It failed eight of its first 16 operational firings, and respected Russian military analysts such as Ilya Kramnik of RIA Novosti have been arguing openly in the Russian media that it should be scrapped and the new generation of nuclear strategic submarines adapted to be armed instead with the much older and liquid-fueled but highly reliable Sineva SLBM.

However, on Nov. 28 the Bulava SLBM turned the tide. The nuclear-powered Typhoon-class strategic submarine Dmitry Donskoi fired one in the White Sea off Russia's arctic northern coast, and it hit its designated target on the Kamchatka Peninsula about 4,200 miles east of Moscow, RIA Novosti reported.

Buoyed by the success, Ivanov announced Monday that another Bulava would be test-fired before the end of this month.

"Before the end of the year, another Bulava test (launch) will be conducted, while our defense industry enterprises have already started full-scale production," he said, according to the report.

The Bulava program was approved in 1998 under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and, like so many programs launched at that time, it was plagued with incompetence and problems.

The Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, which was charged with designing the new missile and adapting it from the successful Topol-M ICBM, had no previous experience in developing SLBMs.

Its designers at first failed to account for and overcome the far heavier resistance that seawater presents to any underwater ballistic missile launched compared with the much lighter and less dense oxygen and nitrogen of the atmosphere. So the early Bulavas exited the ocean at awkward angles, which had serious effects on their ballistic flight trajectories and consequent accuracy.

Things subsequently got better, but Kramnik was able to write as recently as last month, "It is nevertheless clear that the Bulava, also known as R-30 in the Russian navy, 3M30 in the Main Missile/Artillery Directorate of the Defense Ministry, RSM-56 on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- START -- SS-NX-30 NATO designation -- hasn't met expectations so far, with four of the seven test launches failing and the last one 'partly successful,' according to official reports."

Kramnik also reported that problems were continuing "in different phases of the missile's flight, from the first minutes after the launch to the warhead dispensing, which indicates that the missile's components need further improvement."

Kramnik acknowledged that none of the current problems was insurmountable. But he estimated that reliably eliminating them could "take up to three years and 12 to 14 test launches, and therefore delay the entering into service of the Project 955 submarines, weakening Russia's strategic nuclear force, as seven Project 667BDR ballistic missile submarines will be decommissioned until the middle of the next decade."

However, former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ivanov, his right-hand man, have pledged to push through the Bulava program. While the new Project 955 strategic submarines designed to carry them could be adapted to carry liquid-fueled Sinevas instead, that could prove to be a longer, more complex process and more costly than fine-tuning the Bulavas.

There is nothing certain in love and war -- or in technological development programs either. And if the Bulava SLBM fails a significant percentage of its upcoming test flights, its future again could be thrown into doubt. But right now the Bulava is finally riding high, and its deployment prospects look good.

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