The Bulava Designer Resigns

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 141

Russia's Bulava missile

Last week the newest Russian Navy Bulava-30 (SS-NX-30) sea-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) disintegrated 28 seconds after launch. The latest crash came on top of a long string of unsuccessful test launches that have called into question the future of the Bulava, planned to be the only Russian sea-based ICBM after 2020-25 (Interfax, July 16). Recently, the First Deputy Defense Minister, and Chief of the General Staff, General of the Army Nikolai Makarov told reporters, "All technical problems with the Bulava have been resolved" (RIA Novosti, June 17). This week after the latest test failure, the main designer of the Bulava Yuri Solomonov (63), who also designed Russia’s newest land-based ICBM’s Topol-M (SS-27) and RS-24, resigned as general director of the Moscow Institute of Teploteckhnika – the main ICBM research and development facility (RIA Novosti, July 22).

The Bulava is planned to be deployed on a new class of Borei (project 955) strategic nuclear submarines. The first Borei-class submarine, the Yuri Dolgoruky (laid down in 1996) has been taken to sea this year for tests. Two more Borei-class submarines – Alexander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh – are being constructed at the Severodvinsk shipyard near Arkhangelsk. The Russian navy has announced plans to have up to eight new Borei-class submarines by 2020 to replace older Delta III, Delta IV and Typhoon-class strategic submarines. With the Bulava test program vexed by failures and mishaps, the Yuri Dolgoruky and its sister ships are useless without ICBM’s (Interfax, July 22).

The Russian navy today has six operational Delta III and six Delta IV strategic submarines that form the sea-based arm of its strategic nuclear deterrent. There are no plans to renovate the older Delta III class submarines, built during the 1980’s or to make new SS-N-18 ICBM’s for them. The Delta III submarines are planned to be scrapped as the new Borei-class submarines are commissioned into service. The six Delta IV submarines are being renovated and refitted with modernized SS-N-23 Sineva ICBM’s. The Sineva is currently the only Russian sea-based ICBM being produced in Krasnoyarsk. Last week two Sineva missiles were successfully test-fired from the North Pole (RIA Novosti, Interfax, July 14).

The Russian navy retains three Typhoon-class nuclear submarines – the biggest submarines ever to sail with 50,000 tons displacement fully submerged, each armed with 20 ICBM’s. Under the 1991 START-1 arms control treaty, the three Typhoon-class submarines are still counted as carrying 600 warheads, but in fact their missile silos are empty – the original SS-N-20 ICBM’s have not been produced since the late 1980’s. There are plans to rearm the Typhoon-class submarines for special operations or to carry long-range cruise missiles. Only one Typhoon-class submarine – Dmitry Donskoy – has been modified, and since 2005 it has been test-firing the Bulava ICBM’s from the Barents Sea. It was announced that of the 11 Bulava tests since 2005 – six have failed (RIA Novosti, July 22).

In 1998, Solomonov lobbied the Kremlin and the defense ministry, promising to make the Bulava cheap and fast, using technical solutions used to make the land-based Topol-M. Solomonov’s plan was opposed by the Makeyev rocket center in Miass in the Chelyabinsk oblast in the Urals, which has been the traditional design bureau making Russian sea-based ICBM’s. Solomonov – a charismatic figure – succeeded in pressing through the Bulava project, and is now paying the price for failure (, July 16). It is unclear whether his resignation will lead to the Bulava project succeeding or being terminated.

Last December RIA Novosti quoted a defense ministry official claiming that since tests began in 2005 only the November 28, 2008 launch of the Bulava had proven fully successful. At the time, there was exhilaration in the defense ministry that the Bulava saga was close to completion. A new launch was planned that would end "the first stage of testing" and allow the deployment of the Bulava (RIA-Novosti, December 16). However, the December 23, 2008 Bulava launch ended in a mid-flight explosion, like the latest test last week. Apparently, all but one of the reported 11 Bulava test launches ended with mid-flight explosions or the test warheads failed to accurately hit targets at the Kura test ground in Kamchatka.

The exact cost of this grandiose failure is not clear, since details of defense spending are totally secret in Russia. Last month, the deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, Sergei Ivanov told reporters, "The navy gets more than 40 percent of the defense budget and most of that money is spent on strategic nuclear submarines. That involves hundreds of billions of rubles" (RIA Novosti, June 3).

The present Russian defense budget is over 1,000 billion rubles (some $40 billion). It seems the development of the Bulava and the Borei submarines as well as the refurbishing of the Delta IV class submarines could indeed cost tens of billions of dollars, starving other services of money while a radical military reform is in progress. The failure of the Bulava has called into question the future of Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent. Solomonov took the blame, and it has been reported the Federal Security Service (FSB, the former KGB) will examine possible foul play – the possibility that the Bulava mishaps were caused by deliberate sabotage (RIA Novosti, July 17).

Russian leaders and military planners are in a desperate situation. The Bulava project will surely continue to soak up scarce resources, at a time of financial crisis with no clear positive end in sight. There have been calls to end the Bulava project and settle for the Sineva ICBM, which has a fine flight record. But the new Borei-class submarines are not designed for the Sineva, and redesigning them would cost much time and money. The Sineva is a relatively old ICBM, while the Bulava was being developed specifically to avoid future U.S. ballistic missile defenses (RIA Novosti, July 22). However, with a ratio of one hit after 11 attempts, the Bulava has a self-destruction capability that surpasses the capacity of any possible future U.S. BMD.