Saturday, November 11, 2006

The second failed test launch of Russia’s experimental Bulava (R-30 SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) has renewed doubts about the viability of the country’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

The Bulava is a three-staged missile designed to carry up to six individually targeted nuclear warheads for a range of approximately 8,000-10,000 kilometers. It is currently scheduled to enter service in 2008 after completing at least 10 additional test launches, though continuing failures could easily delay matters.

The missile tested on October 25 automatically self-destructed after veering off course shortly after launch from the Dmitry Donskoy nuclear submarine in the White Sea. The previous Bulava test launch, from the same submarine on Sept. 7, also failed when the missile fell into the sea shortly after takeoff.

Following the first mishap, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the government had become concerned about the viability of the maritime component of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. In February 2004, the navy experienced two embarrassing failures during tests of its older SLBMs when, in the presence of President Vladimir Putin, one missile failed to launch and a second exploded shortly after takeoff.

The successes of four earlier tests in 2004 and 2005 had eased initial concerns surrounding the Bulava program. The Russian government had awarded its development to the Moscow-based Heat Technology Institute, led by the well-respected missile-designer, Yuri Solomonov. Although the Institute had developed the new ground-based Topol-M (RT-2UTTH SS-27) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), it had never built a SLBM.

Mr. Solomonov had argued he could save time and money by incorporating many of the innovative features developed for the Topol-M into the Bulava program. Following his advice, the government decided to proceed directly to sea-based trials rather than conduct initial land-based testing as in Soviet times. These decisions may have contributed to the missile’s current problems.

The test failure presents a major challenge for Russian policymakers. Although Russia has more than enough nuclear weapons and constituent components, it has encountered serious problems deploying adequate numbers of strategic delivery vehicles. Since the Soviet Union’s breakup, Russian defense enterprises have manufactured far fewer ballistic missiles than required to replace the country’s aging land- and sea-based strategic deterrents.

Although the mobile SS-27 represents the cornerstone of Russia’s future ICBM arsenal, production delays have resulted in their entering operational service with the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) only this year. Missile designers continue to complain about the inability of Russian industry to supply the most advanced electronics and other materials required for missile construction as well as about the government’s failure to address these longstanding problems. Outside experts calculate Russia needs to manufacture 30 missiles annually to sustain its existing number of ICBMs.

To facilitate the revitalization of its strategic missile force, Russian officials have decided for the next few years to transition to a strategic missile fleet of only one solid-fueled ICBM (the Topol-M) and one type of SLBM (the Bulava). In late April 2006, Defense Minister Ivanov announced that, starting before the end of this year, all land and sea-based ballistic missiles entering service will be equipped with the same type of new warhead equipped with features to overcome American ballistic missile defenses.

The Bulava is similar to the Topol-M and will supersede the four SLBM types presently loaded aboard the navy’s strategic submarines. The deputy commander of the Russian navy said in March 2006 that Russia’s next (fourth) generation Project 955 Borey-class nuclear-power submarines would be equipped with 12 Bulavas. Russia plans to commission the first Borey-class submarine (the Yury Dolgorukiy) in 2008 and the second (the Alexander Nevskiy) in 2009. These ships would represent Russia’s first new strategic missile submarines (SSBNs), eagerly awaited because the existing SSBNs are becoming obsolete.

The looming mass decommissioning of large numbers of Soviet-era ICBMs will result in a precipitous decline in the relative contribution of Russia’s land-based missiles to the country’s offensive strategic triad. As Russia transitions from ICBMs with multiple warheads to Topol-Ms with a single warhead, the number of nuclear warheads fitted on its ICBMs is projected to decline from some 1,960 nuclear warheads today to 760 by 2010 and to 605 by 2015.

In contrast, the number of nuclear warheads deployed on SLBMs will decrease only slightly — from 672 in 2006 to an estimated 576 in 2015. The number of warheads aboard bombers should remain almost constant at 872 in 2005 versus a projected 866 in 2015. Unless Russian experts can overcome the recent problems with the Bulava, Russia might deploy even fewer warheads.

In light of Russia’s traditional reliance on land-based missile delivery systems, the country’s growing dependence on its more vulnerable submarines and bombers must arouse a certain degree of anxiety among its strategists.

In response, Russian policymakers might adopt risky operational procedures designed to increase the chance at least some of their strategic forces might survive an American first strike. For example, they might adopt “hair-trigger” alert tactics that authorize using nuclear weapons if intelligence data convinced Russian leaders the U.S. government might soon order a strike or already had done so.

Alternately, Russia’s civilian decisionmakers might predelegate second-strike launch authority to certain senior military commanders, permitting them to retaliate independently if they determined a U.S. attack had rendered Russia’s political leadership incapable of organizing a second-strike.

Some commentators fear Russian officials have equipped at least one of their secure underground leadership command posts with a “Dead Hand” doomsday communications rocket that could launch Russia’s nuclear missiles automatically even if an attack decapitated Russia’s nuclear chain of command.


A senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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