Russia's newest submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Bulava, failed during a scheduled test launch on July 15, the Russian Defense Ministry announced July 16. This is the seventh failure out of 11 Bulava tests dating back to 2005 and raises questions about both the status of the Russian defense industry and the long-term future of the Russian nuclear deterrent.
The Russian Defense Ministry said July 16 that a July 15 test of the Russian Bulava (SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) was a failure, RIA Novosti reported. This marks the seventh failure (the Kremlin claims six) in 11 tests of a missile whose development has fallen years behind schedule, despite being a priority for the Kremlin. The test was conducted in the White Sea from the Dmitry Donskoi, a Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine being used as a test-bed (the missile is designed to be fitted to the next-generation Borei (Project 935) class ballistic missile submarines; the lead boat of the class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, is still conducting sea trials). The Defense Ministry said the test missile self-destructed. Though this statement is vague, it currently appears as though the test missile was successfully launched from the submarine (suggesting that it exited the water and the engine ignited) before it self-destructed, apparently while the first stage was still burning. Multi-stage, intercontinental ballistic missiles are incredibly complex to begin with. Launching them from a submerged submarine, and igniting the first-stage engine only after a missile in excess of 36 tons exits the water, only compounds these problems — not to mention the additional design constraints posed by the maritime environment and submarine safety requirements and space limitations. Every missile design experiences failures — at times many failures — in testing. In addition, generally, engineers learn more from failures than they do from successes. A subsystem or structure that fails or breaks can be identified and improved, while potential failure points that hold up on test day are harder to identify and rectify. Though obviously since the test missile self-destructed there is considerably less information to go on, Russian engineers may well learn something important from this failure. But in this case, this clouds the point. Testing was suspended at the end of 2008 while components were tested and a design review was conducted following a pair of failures in the final quarter of 2008. Questions about technical design flaws and production quality were raised. (A lack of quality assurance is a particular issue, as this goes to the heart of the Russian military-industrial base). At least three previous failures also appear to have involved the first stage. The July 15 test was intended to validate improvements and changes made as a result of those findings. Further complicating matters, Moscow has been aggressively pushing the Bulava forward on an increasingly tight timeline — one that could be contributing to the failure rate. Ultimately, with negotiations on a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty now under way and the competition between Washington and Moscow continuing apace, Russia ideally wants to remind the United States unambiguously of the credibility of the Russian deterrent. While a successful missile test could have been politically useful at the moment by demonstrating a potential resolution to the design challenges of the Bulava at a time when both the White House and the Kremlin are figuring out their next moves, the success or failure of an SLBM test is not a political matter. Nor is the current credibility of the Russian deterrent in question. The week began with a pair of successful tests of the Sineva (an upgraded SS-N-23 "Skiff") SLBM from a Delta IV class ballistic missile submarine on July 13 and 14. But while the Sineva design does indeed work, and currently represents the core of the Russian sea-based deterrent, it is based on an older, liquid-fueled design, and the Delta IV subs have only limited service life ahead of them. Although Russia has a credible deterrent at the moment (Russia and the United States remain the world's largest nuclear powers by an order of magnitude), continued failures of the Bulava — especially at this late stage — continue to raise very real questions about the capabilities of the Russian defense industry and the long-term future of the Russian nuclear deterrent.