The ‘Magician,’ the ‘Mace’ and the Russian Defense Industry (Part Two): When the Magic Does Not Work

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 196

Dmitry Rogozin, Russian deputy prime minister for the defense industry (Source:

As Russian defense manufacturers continue to stumble and produce failure-prone arms and equipment, Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, has been tasked by the Kremlin with fixing this under-performing sector. Yet, rather than introducing significant reforms and economic incentives to reform and restructure Russia’s arms producers, Rogozin relies on Soviet-inspired rhetoric that he expects to, as if by magic, solve the systemic problems in the defense industry (see Part One in EDM, October 25)

The Bulava Fails Again

In September 2013, Russia’s defense industry suffered a catastrophe that called into question the entire state defense plan for strategic modernization. On September 6, the Borei-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), Aleksandr Nevsky, conducted the launch of a Bulava (Russian for “Mace”) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the Barents Sea. The launch was part of the ship’s state trials before being declared combat ready. The long-awaited test of the submarine’s launch complex was a success. But the failure-prone Bulava had to be destroyed shortly after launch. This failure cast into doubt the combat readiness of the missile itself and called into question the major investment in the Borei-class SSBNs, which were supposed to be equipped with the missile as the maritime part of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad. Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu responded to the failed launch by ordering a new series of five test launches to verify the missile’s operational reliability. Shoigu, an engineer by training, looked to empirical evidence to resolve the question of the missile’s reliability (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, September 9).

Shoigu’s decision brought back memories of a decade of failures, corrections, promises, and then more failures in a system vital to the future of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. The latest unsuccessful Bulava test recalled all those earlier failures and, once again, raised the issue of systems integration and quality control at the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant, which produces the missile. Those results had also forced Yurii Solomonov, the general director and chief designer of the Moscow Institute of Technology—where the troubled SLBM was designed—to resign in July 2009. Solomonov had pushed for the solid-fuel Bulava missile to be the main armament on the new Borei-class SSBNs, replacing the liquid-fueled R-39M “Bark,” which was developed by the Makeev Design Bureau in the 1980s but was rejected in 1998 after launch test failures and high costs. The Bulava was supposed to be cheaper, more advanced and more reliable. Now, with three Borei-class submarines completed, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, put the problem succinctly: “There is no alternative to the Bulava.” And that line calls into question the fate of Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent (, September 8).
In mid-October 2012—right near the end of Anatoly Serdyukov’s time serving as defense minister—Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces conducted an exercise under the watchful eye of President Vladimir Putin. All legs of the strategic triad were involved, including test launches of a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), an SLBM and air-launched cruise missiles. The ICBM was a mobile Topol, launched by the Strategic Rocket Forces from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast and impacted on the Kura Test Range on Kamchatka. The SLBM was a two-stage, liquid-fueled SS-N-18 “Stingray,” designed by the Makeev Design Bureau and launched from the K-433 Sviatoi Georgii Pobedonosets—a Delta III–class submarine assigned to the Pacific Fleet. The K-433 launched its missile from the Sea of Okhotsk, and the SS-N-18 impacted in the Chizha Test Range near Arkhangelsk. Two strategic bombers, a Tu-95MS “Bear” and a Tu-160 “Blackjack” launched four cruise missiles, which impacted in the Pemboi Test Range in the Komi Republic. Putin thanked the crews involved in the launches and praised the General Staff for confirming the reliability of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent—in this case, a deterrent made up of weapons systems developed in the Soviet Union (Krasnaia Zvezda, October 23, 2012).

Rogozin Takes On Failure-Prone Bulava

Putin had made defense modernization the keystone of his election campaign under the slogan “To be strong is the guarantee of security.” But in July of this year, Dmitry Rogozin undermined Putin’s claim of strength to ensure Russia’s security. The outspoken deputy prime minister publicly declared that after more than a decade of Putin’s leadership, the United States still possessed the means to destroy 90 percent of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent within six hours by using advanced, conventional, strategic, precision-strike weapons associated with the Prompt Global Strike program. Rogozin further warned that Russia was decades behind the US in defense technology and that it had to spend more to close the gap (Rossiia 24 TV, June, 28). Rogozin did not suggest at that time that there were capital problems with defense industries or with the quality of the products they produced. This was, however, the very challenge that the magician would face. Defense Minister Shoigu had cast the crisis regarding the future stability of Russia’s strategic deterrence back upon Rogozin and Russia’s defense industries by questioning whether they could actually mass produce advanced, high-quality submarine-launched ballistic missiles to arm the Borei-class SSBNs.

The magician tried his usual Soviet-era-inspired trick to resolve the problem: He announced that the cause of September’s Bulava test malfunction had been found and was the result of a technical failure in the production process (RIA Novosti, September 18). One day later, however, Shoigu contradicted Rogozin by categorically stating that the cause of the failure had not been found. Rather, Shoigu declared that the Ministry of Defense would not cancel the Bulava program until it knew the cause of the failure, thus leaving open the ministry’s response to the crisis (Rossiiskaia Gazeta, September 19).

While Shoigu and Rogozin sparred over the status of the investigation into the launch failure, critics in the press were focusing on the deputy prime minister, calling into question Rogozin’s competence to lead the Russian defense industry. On September 23, defense journalist Alexander Goltz wrote a scathing article in the Russian magazine Ogonek on the condition of Russia’s defense industry and the systemic causes of its production failures. Echoing the late Vitaly Shlykov, Goltz pointed to an aging defense sector with obsolete machine tools seeking to build 21st century technology. Joseph Stalin’s mobilization of the entire economy to defense needs no longer applies. State and private firms have not mastered the integration of component production and cannot assure quality control. As Goltz sees the current crisis: “It is obvious that the Russian defense industry has its own very serious structural problems that cannot be solved in one fell swoop by Rogozin-esque escapades and endless calls for a general mobilization in the face of the aggressive West. The sorry state of basic and applied science means industry does not receive modern developments. And the fact is that the average age of employees in the defense industry are approaching retirement. And then there is the continued aging of the plant and machinery.”


Rogozin is no Dmitry Ustinov (famed Soviet minister of defense 1976–1984), and Russia is not the Soviet Union. For all the invocation of Soviet magic, the truth is that only engineers can cut metal and build components. Stalinist cheerleaders cannot solve the challenges inherent in modern technology and the integration of a complex network of enterprises functioning in a global economy. As former State Duma member and military expert Alexei Arbatov has pointed out, corruption and kickbacks are the bread and butter of the Russian defense industry ( There is no Stalinist solution this time around, only more lost years.