Monday, May 23, 2011

The Coming Summer of Bulava

There have been a lot of critics and commentators regarding Russia’s Bulava Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which is, arguably one of the best-known weapons in the world even before she enters service. Over the years, observers around the world have watched, as failure after failure had been reported. One of the most spectacular malfunctions came in December 2009, when a number of mysterious swirling white and blue lights appeared over the skies of Norway, the result of failed Bulava test launch in the Barents Sea. I remember the day very well, because I suddenly became inundated with phone calls and emails at my office asking why I was (or more precisely, “we” were) “attacking” Norway? The jokes were meant in good-natured fun, but what it represented was another public failure of a program that desperately needed a “win.”

Things have changed a lot in eighteen months.

Today Bulava is roaring towards her first deployment later this year, after a pair of spectacularly successful full-range tests in late 2010. In fact, the Russian government is so confident in the fixes and improvements to Bulava that they are planning to broadcast the test launches from the Barents Sea live to the world. This is an amazing shift in transparency from a country that historically closes itself off. Clearly the Russian leadership views Bulava as a potential “game-changer,” and is planning to leverage the first new strategic strike system in a generation for all it is worth in the decades ahead.

The Road to Bulava
Those with memories long enough to remember the end of the Soviet Union two decades ago, probably recall that at the very end, Russia was producing an extraordinary variety of newly deployed strategic ballistic missile systems to provide deterrence to the Rodina. Two of these, the RSM-56 Rif (Russian Designation – R39, NATO Named – SS-N-20 Sturgeon) and RSM-54 Vysota (Russian Designation – R-29RL, NATO – SS-N-23 Skiff) were state-of-the-art SLBMs, had finally matured and thus deployed aboard the USSR’s two newest Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs), the Project 941 Akula (Russian – Shark-class, NATO – Typhoon-class) and Project 667B (NATO – Delta IV-class). These missiles were and continue to be extremely capable second-strike weapons, able to provide follow-up nuclear strike capabilities for up to a year aboard their submarines lurking under the polar icecap.

In addition, there were well-defined plans to improve these Soviet SLBMs into first-strike weapons, much like the American/British Trident D-5 (UGM-133) carried aboard the Ohio-class (SSBN 726) and Vanguard-class (S28) SSBNs. However the events of 1989 through 1991 stopped this effort to make the Soviet SSBN/SLBM the equal of the United States and Great Britain. The breakup of the USSR at the end of 1991, and the decade-long economic and social depression that followed stopped every weapons modernization program in the Defense Ministry’s portfolio of projects dead in its tracks. And while the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, which included the missile-carrying SSBNs, were kept at least on life support financially, there was virtually no work on new strategic submarine/missile designs for the better part of the next decade.

This situation began to change, with the appointment (in 1999) and eventual election (in 2000) of Vladimir Putin as President of Russia. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, reestablishment of basic social structures and finance allowed Putin’s government to selectively begin modernization of a few key military systems, including SSBNs and SLBMs. Paid for with Russia’s flood of money from it’s fast-growing oil and gas sector, the first result was an improved version of the liquid-fueled RSM-54, the R-29RMU Sineva (Blueness), which went into service in 2007. However, the old hope of a SLBM that could meet and even exceed the capabilities if the U.S. Trident D-5 was still out there, thus the RSM-56 Bulava (Mace, NATO SS-NX-32) was born.

RSM-56 Bulava Development
Bulava is unique in that she is the first all-new strategic strike system from anywhere in the world to be developed since the end of the Cold War. The Bulava was designed as a replacement of the solid-fuel R-39 SLBM and while there are similarities to the recently updated Topal-M, she was, in essence, designed from scratch. Bulava is a three-stage solid fuel missile with an operational range of between 8,000 and 10,000 kilometers. Its guidance system is believed to be Russia’s GLONASS navigational satellites and its launch platforms are the Project 955 Borei and Project 941 Typhoon-class nuclear submarines. Bulava has also a relatively low flight trajectory, thus allowing some analysts to qualify it as a ‘quasi (or semi) ballistic missile.’ This lower trajectory allows for higher speeds. Bulava especially can maneuver in and out of different altitudes making it all the more difficult to intercept.

There has been a lot of speculation on whether or not Bulava will or will not be impacted by the new U.S.-Russian START Treaty. The generally accepted understanding is that Bulava is not affected by any restrictions or limitations. “New START” addressed only strategic weapons currently in the existing Russian arsenal and as the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publically stated, "The plans we had to develop the strategic component of the armed forces remain in force, this concerns Bulava and RS-24 Yars." However, many American analysts feel that ANY strategic ballistic missile launched from a submarine is subject to inspection and that the Russians SHOULD provide telemetric data and information on Bulava precisely because testing had already begun from subs. This contradiction in understandings highlights the ability to interpret New START in whatever way is desired by the reader. Bulava is a brand new, strategic weapon of which we know very little about. The present Russian policy of withholding information on Bulava and other strategic strike and carrier systems inhibits an American response, and restricts our missile defense policy.

Bulava Coming On Fast
Russia and the Russian Space Forces have placed a lot of hope in Bulava. It is designed to be the missile backbone of their naval submarine fleet and the cornerstone of their nuclear triad. The newest, most advanced ballistic missile on the market, a jewel to show the world that just because the Soviet Union no longer exists, that doesn’t mean that Russia is no longer a global force to reckon with.

Up to this point Bulava has failed seven out of fifteen tests; the last two however, have been outstanding successes. The main technical challenges are believed to have been issues with the navigation system, problems with the third stage propulsion systems, and officially, manufacturing defects. Many of its critics have suggested that Russia rely on the (currently) more reliable Sineva. Sineva, while comparable to the Trident, is less advanced, weighs almost double than that of Bulava and is a liquid fueled missile. As Russian defense policy analyst, Victor Litovokin, points out, “Solid fuel missiles have certain advantages as compared with liquid fuel ones. First, solid fuel missiles can stay on combat duty for a longer time than liquid fuel missiles. Second, the last ones sometimes catch fire, and there have been a lot of emergences already. But if there have been some with solid fuel missiles, they can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Third, in spite of being hermetically sealed, fuel tanks of fuel liquid missiles steam poisoning substances. Fourth, as to experts, a solid fuel missile leaves a silo quicker, thus, it’s difficult to trace it during the active phase. It means it’s much more affective in terms of survivability.” Furthermore, exclusive use of Sineva would require major changes to Russia’s new Project 955 Borei-class subs.

Nonetheless, when it works, Bulava is said to be technically capable of out maneuvering any known missile defenses on the planet. The belief is that Bulava can mislead detection systems on its pre-ballistic launch and then while ballistic, change its azimuth to confuse satellites and sensors attempting to track and intercept its flight path. Bulava has a number of countermeasures, and its warhead can withstand an electromagnetic pulse and the effects of a nuclear blast only 500 meters away. Additionally, Bulava’s payload of up-to six warheads (conventional and nuclear) are all independently targeted reentry vehicles.

The Russia Defense Ministry has announced that this summer it will test Bulava four times, the first of which will come between June 15th and June 17th from the Typhoon-class SSBN Dmitry Donsky in the White Sea. Additionally, the test launches will be televised lived, a first for Russian Defense. What this represents is a confidence in Bulava and Russian engineering that has seldom been seen before. Both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have stressed the importance of Bulava and the need for it to succeed.

Currently in play in the missile defense sphere is Russia’s standing with the west in reference to the recent NATO-Russian BMD shield, as well as current relations ‘reset’ with the United States. If Bulava works and deployed by the end of the year (which by all accounts she will be), it shifts the burden of missile proliferation onto the United States and the controversial topics of developing a new ballistic missile or continuing to upgrade and maintain its aging Minuteman III and Trident force.

As we enter the end of spring and the summer of 2011, I suspect that we will see a string of success for Russian missile systems in general, and Bulava in particular. The Sineva SLBM was successfully demonstrated twice in the past two months and if Bulava can also come through we may see a sharp change in policy, and perhaps standing on the global stage certainly a shift within European and Central Asian regional influence, for both Russia and the U.S. – that is, if anyone cares enough to take notice.

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