In a Dec. 23 test launch, Russia's Bulava (SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missile failed — the fifth such failure in eight trial launches from submerged submarines. The Bulava is a core element of Russia's second-strike capability — the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation after suffering a nuclear strike. The missile's repeated failure shows that it is not an element Moscow can rely on.
The Russian military has confirmed that a test-firing of its Bulava (SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from the White Sea on Dec. 23 failed. This means that the Bulava — the core project of Russia's second-strike capability and its strategic fleet — has now failed in five out of eight trial launches from submerged submarines. Second-strike capability refers to the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation even after one has suffered an overwhelming nuclear strike. Second-strike is meant to discourage a nuclear-armed opponent from launching an overwhelming nuclear attack against one's nuclear facilities, in the hopes of destroying all nuclear retaliatory capacity. Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines create this capability by being able to keep their location covert and launch SLBM's even after their country and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have been attacked. The Soviets, at the peak of their power, fielded more than 60 SSBNs as part of their second-strike arsenal. At the moment, the fleet is one-quarter of that size, and most boats are in dire shape. Russian navy strategic deterrent patrols decreased from five in 2006 to only three in 2007; as a point of comparison, the U.S. Navy operates more than 50 annually. Due to the state of the Soviet SSBN arsenal and the lack of funding for projects throughout the 1990s, the Russians are not so much updating their arsenals as looking to develop one from scratch. However, the synthesis of multiple nuclear warheads, SLBMs and a nuclear-powered submarine is one of the most technically complex and demanding endeavors on which any country can embark. At the core of this endeavor is the Russian lead boat of the Borei-class of SSBNs, the Yuri Dolgoruki, just launched this year despite having been laid down in 1996. In addition to delays characteristic of the Russian shipbuilding industry, the failure of the first SLBM design that was supposed to complement the Borei forced significant additional adjustments on the submarine engineering to accommodate the more updated Bulava design. Concurrently, the Bulava comes with a number of technological advances meant to allow it to evade current and possibly even future U.S. ballistic missile defense systems. As such, it represents a key in Russia's strategic counter to U.S. nuclear posturing. The Bulava has had several launches thus far, and three worrying failures near the end of 2006. Because these two systems — the SLBM and the SSBN — must be carefully integrated, changes late in the design process are particularly challenging and expensive to implement. With two boats now at various stages of completion, Russia is increasingly locked in to the parameters of the Bulava, even though it is not exactly reliable yet. These days, Russia — like the United States, United Kingdom and France — is looking to retool its arsenal for long-term sustainability. This is where a strategy dependent on SSBNs comes in. The Soviets always favored land-based systems more heavily than the United States did, and the bulk of their deterrent is still carried on heavy (and thus theoretically able to evade first-strike) land-based ICBMs — ICBMs that are increasingly dated. However, the only place left to hide is beneath the waves. Penetrating the oceans' depths to target SSBNs is a profoundly more complex technical exercise than targeting land-based missiles. Thus, SSBNs are the long-term choice for concealing and ensuring a meaningful retaliatory second-strike capability. While Russia still retains a small fleet of Delta IV SSBNs, and some delays can be absorbed, Moscow is on a very harsh timetable. Not only is Russia's arsenal aging rapidly, but the experienced technical knowledge base for fine-tuning the designs is essentially dying and not being replaced. The sense of urgency is only compounded by the fact that production of the Bulava has reportedly already begun, making meaningful alterations to the design — which is not yet reliable — even more difficult. There are always failures in the development of such complex systems, and engineers learn much more from failures than successes. But this latest series of tests in late 2008 was supposed to validate changes made since the spate of failures in late 2006. While a failure hardly indicates a fatally flawed design, the Bulava's track record is not yet indicative of a system the Kremlin can have much confidence in — an essential measure for any nuclear weapons enterprise.