The testing of the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is completed and the missile will now be put into operational service, President Dmitry Medvedev said. The convoluted history of the project, which has been alternately criticized and praised, is finally reaching its intended destination.
Declared fit for service
“Our industry has proven that it can create new modern and highly efficient types of strategic weapons. One of them is the Bulava missile, and now that the tests have been completed, it will be put into operational service,” Medvedev said on Tuesday at a ceremony with officers receiving promotion to higher command positions and top military ranks.
On December 23, the strategic submarine Yury Dolgoruky launched two Bulava missiles. The Defense Ministry said that the launch was successful, and the official announcement is expected within days. The military loves to announce the completion of projects in time for national holidays, as a kind of New Year’s present.
Many of the previous tests were unsuccessful, and the project has been steeped in intrigue, scandal, and investigation. Stringent measures of control had to be taken at the assembly stage. It was even rumored that the project is what caused the unique Norwegian spiral anomaly in November 2009, a blue beam of light with a grayish spiral in the sky over Norway. But now the president, who is also the Supreme Commander, has said the tests are over and the missile will be put into service.
Since the project was launched in the late 1990s, the life of the rocket has been rich enough to write a lengthy memoir.
Not a bad start at all
I intend to dispel the popular conception of the Bulava as a white elephant – that is, something big, expensive, and useless.
Only six of the 18 full-scale Bulava trials failed, which is a good result for a missile that was created from scratch during a period of economic and financial transition by a group of designers who had never made sea-launched missiles before.
The tests of the Soviet Union’s first solid-fuel sea-launched missile, the R-39 Rif, were lengthy and agonizing, with more than a half of the 17 trials failing dismally. The first successful launch of the R-39 was registered only during the sixth trial. Bulava’s first two trials were a success, and it failed only during its third trial.
Two of the subsequent 13 trial launches of the R-39 missile from a submarine also failed, but the missile was improved and ultimately put into service. The R-29RMU Sineva missile, the liquid-fuel predecessor of the Bulava, failed in 11 out of its 18 trials.
In short, compared to other missiles that fared worse even though they were created in more favorable conditions, the Bulava does not deserve such sharp criticism.
The two drawbacks of the Bulava project were that it was conceived in times of openness and that its failures occurred in two groups of three failures each. Two trials after the first group of three failures were declared “partially successful,” because the rocket did well, though the warheads’ guidance system malfunctioned.
Formally, there were five failures, one successful launch, and then three more failures. On the surface, these sarcastic and critical remarks should be no surprise.
The idea for the R-30 3M30 Bulava missile (RSM-56 in international treaties, NATO call name: SS-NX-30) was suggested rather unexpectedly.
In the 1990s, Russia’s strategic nuclear forces were living within their means, whereas all the other armed services were living off of leftovers. Russia inherited from the Soviet Union a disparate assortment of seven ground-based (more if we count modifications) and seven sea-launched missile systems, each produced by a different group of enterprises that heavily depended on plants located in Ukraine.
Unable to ensure their maintenance, Moscow decided to de-commission obsolete missiles along with their surface ships and submarines, replacing them with two types of standard solid-fuel missiles for the army and for submarines.
The Topol missile, which was designed at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), won the competition among ground-based missiles. The R-39UTTH Bark (NATO reporting name: SS-N-28), which is based on the R-39 missile of the Makeyev State Rocket Center, was leading the race among sea-launched contenders.
But a critical shortage of funds and three failures in the first three launches put an end to the Bark project in 1998. MITT won the new tender with the idea for what is now known as the Bulava missile.
Military historians like to speculate about the Bark project – which makes sense. Indeed, one might suspect a degree of lobbying and favoritism when a system that is nearly ready is dropped in favor of a vague idea proposed by a designer who had never created sea-launched missiles before. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened in the corridors of power concerning that project in 1998.
Bark’s advocates say that MITT promised to produce a sea-launched missile adjusted to the standards of ground-based systems, which would have saved funds. MITT’s designer general, Yury Solomonov, denies this rumor but admits that the main components of the Bulava missile are almost the same as those of the ground-based RS-24 Yars system.
We may learn the truth only when the projects’ materials are declassified or their participants publish their memoirs.
The sea leg of the nuclear triad
We are witnessing a dramatic shift in the nuclear triad: the Bulava missile will serve as the triad’s foundation until its ground-based component is modernized.
The first Yars missiles (NATO reporting name: SS-X-29) have been delivered to Russia’s Strategic Missile Force, and a new liquid-fuel missile is expected by 2020, although the project is only at the stage of preparing technical requirements. At the same time, 80% of Russia’s warheads are mounted on obsolete silo-based missiles, which are to be de-commissioned by 2017-2020, although earlier plans provided for extending the warranty service for some of them until 2025.
As a result, old warheads are scrapped before new ones are put into service. In this situation Bulava seems to be the only form of strategic insurance. Overall, sea-launched strategic systems will be a critically important nuclear deterrence until the Strategic Missile Force is fully modernized.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.