Russia: The Struggle with Solid-Fuel Ballistic Missiles

5 MINS READDec 11, 2009 | 12:11 GMT
The Russian Defense Ministry on Dec. 10 said that a Dec. 9 test of the Russian Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile was a failure. The ongoing struggle to bring the next-generation missile online has occurred during a period of great turmoil within Russia, but has roots in Russia's past and implications for its future.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed Dec. 10 that the latest test of its Bulava (SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 9 failed. The test, which reportedly failed in the third stage, was conducted from the Dmitry Donskoy, a Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine in the White Sea that had been converted for the test program. The Bulava program continues to present difficulties for Moscow — difficulties that are rooted in Soviet work with solid-fuel SLBMs and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, but which also have implications for the future. Almost all Soviet SLBMs, including Russia's entire operational SLBM arsenal today, have used liquid propellant. This has formed the foundation of the Russian experience with naval ballistic missiles. By contrast, the U.S. Navy never fielded a single liquid-fuel SLBM even though it delayed the Polaris program considerably. The U.S. Navy was uncomfortable with cramming the highly toxic and corrosive liquid fuels then available into the tight spaces of a nuclear submarine. As an alternative, the United States did pioneering work in solid-fuel SLBMs in the late 1950s, even as the Soviets were fielding crude ballistic missile submarines armed with liquid-fuel SLBMs. In addition to the benefits in terms of safety, solid fuel has been found to be ideal for storing for long periods and at the same time being ready to launch quickly. Solid-fuel missiles also generally burn and accelerate faster. The most modern land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in both the United States and Russia are all solid fuel. Yet the Soviets had different design and manufacturing considerations than their competitors in the West, such as their greater problems with quality assurance. Though the Soviets were responsible for a number of important innovations, their missile programs were often a bit more force and a bit less finesse. It was only in 1983, after more than a decade of work, that the Soviets were able to field a solid-fuel SLBM: the SS-N-20 "Sturgeon." It was the largest SLBM in history and required the largest submarine in history to carry it. As the Soviet Union neared collapse in the late 1980s, work on a successor solid-fuel SLBM, the SS-NX-28 "Mace," began. But even as construction began on the submarine that was to carry it, trouble loomed. The entire effort took place during Russia's economic crises in the 1990s. Furthermore, many important design bureaus and manufacturing centers were located in other Soviet states and were stripped away from Russia during the collapse. A series of test failures and development problems led the program to be canceled — though it is difficult to judge technical feasibility amid turmoil and disarray like that which gripped Russia and its military-industrial complex at the point at which the cancellation decision was taken. Enter the Bulava. In 1998, the Makeyev Design Bureau (responsible for the SS-N-20) and the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (responsible for the successful land-based solid-fuel ICBM, the Topol-M [SS-27], and its predecessor) began work on a project that was almost certainly designed around a conservative approach to the new SLBM, leveraging proven design concepts with as low-risk an approach as possible. The program has since enjoyed a position of privilege and focus in terms of Russian defense spending and the allocation of resources. It is difficult to overstate the immensity of the challenges of designing, refining and manufacturing not just one but a series of mankind's most complex and technically challenging creations — modern nuclear-powered submarines, solid-fuel ballistic missiles and accurate thermonuclear warheads — not to mention getting all three to function reliably and smoothly in concert. Similarly, failures in testing and development are actually quite important. Engineers often learn more from failure than success, especially with extremely complex systems. Nevertheless, the Bulava failure Dec. 9, following a five-month hiatus since its last failure, is symptomatic of mounting problems for the Kremlin. Depending on who is counting and how they are counting, at least seven or eight of the 12 tests since late 2005 have been failures. The last success, in late 2008, was proclaimed the "first fully successful" test, suggesting some problems with previous "successes." There appear to have been multiple failures with both the first and third stages. Russia has both land-based ICBMs and SLBMs that have been proven and work in the field as part of the operational nuclear arsenal. (Russia was quick to fire off an older Topol [SS-25 "Sickle"] road-mobile ICBM the day after the latest Bulava failure.) And while there are concerns about the pace at which new missile systems are being fielded to replace aging Cold War-era systems, Russia's strategic deterrent remains large and credible. Nevertheless, the Bulava's development will continue to warrant considerable scrutiny, both in terms of the long-term shape of Russia's nuclear arsenal and as a benchmark of Russian designers' and industry's ability to overcome technical challenges in areas in which they have not inherited as extensive a design heritage from the Soviet Union.

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