Thirteen is a Lucky Number for the Russian Navy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 184

Russian Borei Class Submarine designed to carry the Bulava missile.
If August and September were months the Russian navy would like to forget, October 2010 began with very good news for the navy, its high command, and the defense ministry. On October 7, the re-configured Delta-class SSBN, Dmitri Donskoi, conducted a successful launch in the White Sea of the Bulava Sea Launched Ballistic missile (SLBM). The missile’s warhead impacted in the Kura missile-test facility on Kamchatka. This thirteenth test firing of a Bulava breathes new life into a key component of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Among the preceding twelve tests, five were considered successful and only one of those involved warhead impact on target. The Bulava (RMS 56) missile, a three-stage, solid-fueled system, will serve as the chief armament of the new Borei-class SSBN’s, the first of which, the Yuri Dolgoruki, has completed its factory sea trials prior to undergoing the state sea trial before its acceptance into naval service. Two more Bulava launches are scheduled for this year. The Bulava will be capable of carrying ten warheads with an operational range of 8,000 kilometers. Two more Borei-class SSBN’s, Aleksandr Nevskii and Vladimir Monomakh, are currently under construction. Each Borei-class SSBN will have 12 launch tubes. They are expected to serve as the backbone of Russia’s sea-based strategic nuclear forces until 2045 (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 8).
The run-up to the launch on October 8 was covered extensively in the Russian press. As early as October 5, the media in Murmansk reported on the upcoming launch. In response to questions about the potential success of the test, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, refused to offer any guarantee, stating only that he hoped it might prove successful. Vysotskiy also stated that the Bulava would not be accepted by the navy on the basis of test firings from the Dmitri Donskoi (Murmanskoye Informatsionnoye Agenstvo, October 5). On October 7, Aleksandr Emelianenkov reported that the Dmitri Donskoi was at sea and preparing for the test launch.  Admiral Vysotskiy suggested that the launch would occur soon and that every effort had been made to ensure quality control in the assembly of the test rocket at the Votkinsk factory. Vysotskiy still refused to make any predictions, only saying that he hoped the missile would fly (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 7).
The admiral’s circumspection on the missile test was, of course, quite understandable. The real test of the Bulava will come when it is placed on board the Yuri Dolgoruki and that SSBN conducts successful launches. One week earlier, the press announced that the Yuri Dolgoruki had returned to port after completing its factory trials and that the crew was preparing the vessel for its upcoming state sea trials. As that report indicated, the navy expects the SSBN to enter naval service by the end of the year as part of the Northern Fleet, but its operational status still depended on the state test firings of the Bulava, which was to be its chief weapons system (Murmanskiy Vestnik, September 28).
Reporting on the successful launch of the “Bulava” from the Dmitri Donskoi was generally positive. Aleksandr Emelianenkov noted that “13” was a lucky number for the Bulava development team. In an interview with the present director of the Central Design Bureau, Andrei Diachkov, Emelianenkov raised the progress of the Borei-class SSBN program, especially the preparation of the crews for this “fourth-generation” SSBN. Diachkov cited early problems with funding the construction, which had created instability in the program, but said that the completion of the factory trails was a good indication of serious progress. Diachkov also confirmed that if a second Bulava launch from the Dmitri Donskoi was a success, the third would take place from the Yuri Dolgoruki (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 8). Other reports stressed the long, anxious wait for success that had preceded the launch on October 7. Kommersant began a short article on the launch with the headline: “Bulava At Last Flew Successfully.” It quoted Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, the former Chief of Staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces and now a leading analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for US and Canada Studies, saying that the test appeared to be a success, but final determination of this interpretation will depend upon close analysis of the flight telemetry (Kommersant, October 8).
Pavel Felgenhauer was even more pessimistic in his assessment of the success, noting that past successes were followed by failures, thus raising the risk of more smashed hopes in what he described as the defense ministry’s frequent appeals to military pathos in place of moral authority or compelling logic. Felgenhauer noted that the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, had immediately informed President Dmitry Medvedev of the successful Bulava test and that subsequent press releases had laid out a rapid program for the series production of the missile and its placement onboard the Borei-class SSBN’s. Felgenhauer highlighted earlier failures and drew attention to the fact that the Borei-class SSBN’s will have only 12 launchers per ship in comparison with the 24 launch tubes on the US Navy’s Trident-class SSBN’s, which entered service in 1981. Citing critics of the Bulava program among Russia’s former designers of SLBM’s, Felgenhauer concluded that the program has been a major “white elephant” for Russian defense procurement that may never work and remains a dangerous system for launches at sea. In this context, the latest test may have been more of a success in the “political marketplace than in enhanced military capabilities” (Novaya Gazeta, October 11).
In fairness to the navy, it should be noted that Admiral Vysotskiy did not comment on the launch.  Instead, the press reported that he had taken the decision to remove active duty sailors from the cruiser Avrora, the vessel which had fired the shot signaling the Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace. The Avrora will still belong to the navy, but be manned by civilians from the navy’s central museum (Izvestiya, October 11). Given the terrible news of the last two months, it would seem that the Russian navy has some reason to look upon the latest test as the end of a nightmare. Subsequent tests will determine whether any optimism is warranted.