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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Russia Defends Struggling Missile Program

Luke Champlin

Russian leaders remain committed to the Bulava RSM-56 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) despite a number of high-profile test failures, a top military official said Aug. 26.

“We still believe the Bulava will fly,” Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov said at a press conference in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, according to RIA Novosti. Makarov responded to criticisms of the program by contending that the failures were the result of “technical problems in production, rather than faulty design.” The Bulava program has been a centerpiece of Russia’s program to modernize its ballistic missile arsenal.

The most recent test, on July 15, failed when the missile’s first stage malfunctioned shortly after launch. The director of the Bulava program, former Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT) chief Yuri Solomonov, resigned in the aftermath of the test. Solomonov was the principal designer of the Topol-M (SS-27) ICBM. The Topol-M has been cited by Russian leaders such as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the future of Russia’s ICBM arsenal and as a means of overcoming U.S. strategic missile defense systems. Solomonov has been replaced as chief of MITT by Sergei Nikulin but was allowed to maintain his post as director of the Bulava program.

The July test represents the sixth failure in 11 flight tests for the Bulava. Prior tests have resulted in similar problems, as malfunctions in the first or third stage of the solid-fuel missile caused it to self-destruct. (See ACT, December 2006.) There has been some speculation in the Russian press that these failures have raised doubts about the future viability of the program. Some commentators have suggested that the Bulava will be abandoned in favor of the more successful Sineva RSM-54 SLBM. The Sineva, designed to be loaded into existing Delta IV-class submarines, has been in service since 2007.

At the Aug. 26 press conference, Makarov flatly denied speculation that the Sineva could be deployed in place of the Bulava. “The Sineva is a completely different system,” he said, according to RIA Novosti. To remedy the problems encountered in testing, Makarov has announced that Bulava production will be shifted from the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant to an undisclosed new location.

Anatoly Perminov, director of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia Aug. 27 that he doubted the relocation plan will succeed. According to Perminov, an attempt to re-engineer Bulava production will require a “great deal of time,” as a reorganization would require “the termination of contracts with existing companies and a new round of bids.” Perminov also said Votkinsk is the only factory in Russia capable of producing solid-fuel missiles.

The Bulava was originally commissioned as a replacement for the failed Bark RSM-52 SLBM program in 1998. The Bulava was designed as the primary SLBM for the new Borei-class nuclear submarines, and many elements of this design were borrowed from the Topol-M.