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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Bulava missile self-destructs due to malfunction

RIA Novosti

18:5917/07/2009 MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - The latest test launch of the new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile has failed. The missile self-destructed after its first stage malfunctioned when it was fired on July 15 from the submerged Dmitry Donskoi strategic nuclear-powered submarine in the White Sea.

In all, seven of the 11 test launches of the Bulava have ended in failure.

Russian Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov ordered the creation of the Bulava SLBM in 1998 after three failed tests of the experimental Bark solid-fuel, sea-launched ballistic missile of the Makeyev design bureau. The order was placed with the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, which promised to create a cheaper and smaller system comparable to another project by the Institute, the Topol-M ground-based ballistic missile.

Of the 11 test launches of one mockup and ten live missiles, only three test launches of live missiles succeeded. Therefore, the missile will not yet be put on combat duty.

The Bulava has a record low safety ratio, approximately 30%, which is even lower than the ratio of the D-19 launch system with the R-39 SLBM - nine failures out of 17 test launches. After the bugs had been removed from the D-19 system, it showed reliable safety - 11 successful launches out of 13.

Russia has an alternative to the Bulava missile, the RSM-54 Sineva (NATO codename: SS-N-23 Skiff), a third-generation, liquid-fuel ICBM that entered service with the Russian Navy in July 2007. It was created at the Makeyev design bureau and can carry four to 10 nuclear warheads, depending on the modification.

Currently, the Sineva missile has been supplied to three Project 667 submarines - K-114 Tula, K-117 Bryansk, and the recently modernized K-18 Karelia.

The Sineva has a longer range than the Bulava - 8,000 km, or 4,972 miles - and a larger payload. But the Bulava has a number of advantages, such as a much smaller takeoff trajectory, which complicates its interception by air defense systems, a smaller weight and dimensions, and solid-fuel engines. The latter simplifies its maintenance and use.

However, all these are only theoretical advantages compared to the Sineva, which has recently had two successful test launches, on July 13 and 14.

There are quite a few examples in Russian history when seemingly promising projects were curtailed after unsuccessful trials. One of the best-known examples is the N-1 booster designed to deliver 40-50 ton manned spacecraft into space, to orbit and then land on the Moon.

The stubbornness with which the military continue the test launches of the Bulava makes one think that it is not engineers, scientists and the military, but auditors who should analyze the reasons for its failure.

They should not look for "subversives" among workers and engineers, who are working hard to create the country's military systems for a meager monthly pay of 10,000-20,000 rubles ($631). Instead, they should call to account the highly paid directors of defense enterprises, who watched impassively as years of hard work and tens of billions of budgetary rubles were squandered.

In the Soviet period, when the government closely monitored research and technical projects using methods that have since been denounced as inhumane and unjustified, plant directors and heads of design bureaus were sometimes victimized for lesser failures.

Somehow, it seems improbable that anyone will be as much as fired for the failure of the Bulava.

The Bulava (SS-NX-30) missile carries up to 10 MIRV warheads and has a range of over 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). The three-stage ballistic missile is designed for deployment on Borei-class Project 955 nuclear-powered submarines.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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