The Bulava SLBM and the US-Russian Arms Talks

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 232

The image created by the disintegration of the Bulava R-30 3M30 in a failed launch

US-Russian nuclear arms reduction negotiators seem close to concluding a follow up strategic arms reduction treaty (START). The Russian press reports that Washington has agreed to serious concessions and that the new START treaty will be signed soon. The new verification measures will be less intrusive and “based on trust.” The US military control mission will be permanently removed from the Votkinsk missile factory in Udmurtia in the Urals. The US is reported to have agreed to allow Russia in the future to cipher telemetric data of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launches. Both sides will be allowed 700 to 750 strategic delivery systems (ICBM’s and bombers). The United States is reported to have agreed to include in the quota strategic delivery systems armed with conventional warheads. Moscow will be allowed to operationally deploy and move without constraints its land-based maneuverable Topol, Topol-M and RS-24 ICBM’s. The new START will not restrain Russia in developing and deploying new types of ICBM’s as long as the overall limit of warheads and delivery systems is not exceeded (Vedomosti, December 11; Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 15).

Washington appears to have moved further than halfway to meet Russian demands on a number of important issues. But this apparent success has been overshadowed last week by a major setback: the newest Russian Naval Bulava R-30 3M30 (SS-NX-30) sea launched ballistic missile (SLBM) disintegrated once again during a test launch. The Bulava was launched by a modified Typhoon-class submarine –Dmitry Donskoy– from the White Sea and was destined to hit the Kura test ground in Kamchatka, but it strayed off course, creating magnificent fireworks as it burnt high in the skies over northern Norway, amazing the local population (Interfax, December 10).

This was the twelfth test of the Bulava and only one of the previous ones was declared by a defense ministry official to have been “fully successful” (RIA Novosti, November 28, 2008). In most cases, the Bulava has ether exploded during its launch or the dummy warheads failed to hit their designated targets. The main designer of the Bulava Yuri Solomonov (63) resigned as general director of the Moscow Institute of Teploteckhnika –the Topol, RS-24 and Bulava research and development facility– after a failed test, though he continued to be the Bulava chief designer. The latest failed launch was prepared with care. Defense officials announced that the causes of the previous Bulava mishaps had been identified and removed (Interfax, November 24). The chief of the Navy, Admiral Vladimir Visotsky publicly expressed confidence in the Bulava’s success and promised to resign if the project fails (RIA Novosti, November 26).

A special commission has been formed to establish the cause of the latest failure and all further tests have been suspended (Interfax, December 14). After all previous Bulava failures commissions were formed, reports issued and causes corrected, but each time another technical mishap occurred.

The Bulava is produced for deployment on a new class of Borei (project 955) nuclear strategic submarines. The first Borei-class submarine Yuri Dolgoruky is nearly complete. Two more Borei-class submarines –Alexander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh– are being constructed at the Severodvinsk shipyard near Arkhangelsk. After the latest Bulava failure the general director of the shipyard Nikolai Kalistratov told reporters the Russian navy has “frozen” the building of the Borei-class submarines, since without the Bulava they are worthless assets (Izvestiya, December 15) The defense ministry officially denied the “freeze,” but acknowledged that the planned public initiation of the building of the fourth Borei-class submarine planned for December 22, “has been postponed until the first quarter of 2010” (RIA Novosti, December 15).

The Russian navy has announced plans to have up to eight new Borei-class submarines by 2020 to replace its older Delta-3, Delta-4 and Typhoon-class strategic submarines. The navy today has six operational Delta-3 and six Delra-4 strategic submarines that form the sea-based arm of the strategic nuclear deterrent. There are no plans to renovate the older Delta-3 class submarines that were built during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, and they are planned to be scrapped as the Borei-class submarines enter service. The six Delta-4 submarines are being renovated and refitted with modernized SS-N-23 Sineva SLBM’s to serve for at least 10 more years. The Sineva is today the only Russian sea-based liquid fuel SLBM produced in Krasnoyarsk. Continued Bulava failures have led to calls to scrap the ill-fated project and make the Sineva, with its good flight record, the only future naval SLBM (Interfax, August 14). But the defense ministry has rejected the possibility, since the Sineva cannot possibly fit the missile silos of the Borei-class submarines and the new ships will have to be scrapped (Interfax, August 26).

The Bulava is a new generation solid fuel SLBM built to avoid possible future US BMD weapons, especially air-based lasers designed to destroy missiles during their boost-phase. The Bulava uses a number of the same missile components as the Topol-M and RS-24 land-based ICBM’s. The defense ministry has denied that the Bulava failures have compromised the single warhead Topol-M (Interfax, April 10). However, the Bulava has multiple warheads (MRV) as the RS-24 that is being readied for deployment after only a couple of tests. The continued failure of the Bulava MRV may put into doubt the battle effectiveness of the RS-24.

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” (RIA Novosti, June 3). The development of the Bulava SLBM and the Borei-class submarines has undercut plans to rearm the Russian military, while at the same time putting into doubt the future of the nuclear deterrent. The apparent gains during negotiations on START may turn out to be empty, if the defense industry fails to produce modern SLBM’s to fill the designated quota.