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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Bulava missile: is there any alternative?

RIA Novosti

16:14 20/09/2010
Tests of the RSM-56 (SS-NX-30) Bulava solid-propellant, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), now under development in Russia, are to resume in late September 2010.

Tests of the RSM-56 (SS-NX-30) Bulava solid-propellant, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), now under development in Russia, are to resume in late September 2010. Of 12 test launches, only three were a complete success, and another two can be called partially successful.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, now in the United States, said Moscow would be forced to revise the entire Bulava SLBM production and quality-control system with another abortive launch.

An unsuccessful Bulava launch, the latest to date, was conducted on December 9, 2009. Subsequent launch deadlines were repeatedly put off. Media reports say the Bulava's manufacturer, Votkinsk, has continued to identify and eliminate various production defects.

The defense minister's statement raises the following questions:

1. What action can be taken to rectify the situation with the Bulava program with another abortive launch?

2. Does Russia have an alternative missile today?

Analysts have explained the Bulava's development problems by production defects and inadequate quality control. This situation is the result of the deplorable state of the national defense industry after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the termination of numerous promising military programs.

After Russia resumed such programs, it faced a substantial decline in management and production ethics.

Moreover, the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology developed the Bulava missile virtually from scratch, utilizing only a few engineering solutions embodied in the Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (SS-27 Sickle B).

It will take a lot of time and effort to get back on track. This can be accomplished by improving production and the quality-control system, better coordinating cooperation between suppliers and contractors and making a far greater effort to solve the human-resource problems.

The entire Russian defense industry and Votkinsk in particular are hard pressed for young, skilled specialists.

As far as an alternative missile is concerned, the situation deteriorated in 2007. At that time, only one Project 955 Borei (Dolgoruky) class strategic ballistic missile submarine, the Yury Dolgoruky, was built and launched. Borei class submarines will be equipped with Bulava missiles.

Two other Borei class submarines, the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh, were in the initial construction stages. During the same period, analysts discussed the possibility of equipping Project 955 submarines with liquid-propellant Sineva missiles, currently being installed on the upgraded Project 667 BDRM (Delta Class IV) submarines.

This was an attractive option, all the more so as Sineva missiles have virtually the same impressive specifications as the Trident-II (D5) SLBMs wielded by the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. However, the required modifications were seen as a rather costly undertaking because the somewhat larger and heavier Sineva missile requires different storage, servicing and launch conditions.

The Yury Dolgoruky, the lead Borei class submarine, has been undergoing tests for a long time. The Alexander Nevsky will be launched soon. Construction of the Vladimir Monomakh has made considerable headway. And the keel of the fourth Borei class submarine has already been laid. It would be more difficult and more expensive to refit these submarines for the Sineva.

There is only one alternative: The Bulava design should be upgraded, so as to facilitate sustained production runs and sufficient reliability. This is what Serdyukov probably had in mind while noting the possibility of overhauling the Bulava production and quality-control systems.

It is still unclear what organizational measures will be implemented if, God forbid, the upcoming launch ends in failure. Quite possibly, the main developer, namely, the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, would be replaced in favor of the State Rocket Center "Academician Makeyev Design Bureau" which has developed the overwhelming majority of Soviet and Russian SLBMs, including the Bark solid-propellant missile. The latter program was terminated by government decision in favor of the Bulava.

Although it is now impossible to install Bark missiles aboard Project 955 submarines and to resume production of such missiles, the Makeyev Design Bureau's rich SLBM-development experience should prove useful.

Specific deadlines for commissioning the Bulava missile remain unclear. As a result, the Russian Navy is forced to extend the service life of Soviet-era missiles. On August 23, 2010, the K-51 Verkhoturye nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the lead submarine of the Project 667 BDRM program, arrived at the Zvyozdochka Ship Repair Center in Severodvinsk, northern Russia, for a thorough refitting.

Launched in 1984 and upgraded in the late 1990s, the Verkhoturye and her sister submarine, the Yekaterinburg, were to have been scrapped within the next three-four years. However, they will now be fitted with Sineva missiles and other modern equipment on a par with four other Project 667 submarines.

RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik

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

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