A few weeks ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared the Bulava missile fully ready for operational deployment. That reported TASS on 29 June with a reference to a source in the industry who claims that all tests are completed, and that the necessary papers are signed.
In the rush of current affairs, the story did not get much attention in the West. After all, Bulava has been deployed for some years in a state of final development, so it seems like an evolutionary step to upgrade its status to operational.
In a larger strategic perspective, however, it is a remarkable milestone. The Bulava missile was the last missing piece in the transformation to post-soviet technology for Russia’s submarine based nuclear deterrent. So I thought it would be a good occasion to take a closer look at the Bulava missile.
Introducing the Bulava missile
The RSM-56 Bulava missile is Russia’s new submarine launched ballistic missile. One Bulava missile can carry up to six independently targetable reentry vehicles, which essentially means that one missile carries six independent nuclear bombs.
It is designed to be launched from the Borei family of submarines, which is Russia’s new SSBN that will replace the Delta-III, Delta IV, and Typhoon submarines (Russian names Kalmar, Delfin, and Akula). In fact, so close is the relationship between the Borei submarine and the Bulava missile that it may be more accurate to say that the submarine is designed to fit the missile. The design of the submarine was changed multiple times as Russia experimented with different missile dimensions.
Each Borei or Borei-A submarine can carry 16 Bulava missiles. With six reentry vehicles in each missile, that gives a total of 96 nuclear warheads. Russia plans to build 14 Borei or Borei-A submarines, so in theory they could fit up to 1,344 independent nuclear warheads on these submarines. The real number will be much lower, but it is still an impressive figure.
Each warhead has a nuclear payload which equals up to 150 kilotons of TNT. That is in the lower end of strategic nuclear weapons but it is nevertheless about 7-8 times more than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The relatively small payload was a conscious trade off by Russia in order to make the missile more resilient against missile defense systems.
The Bulava missile has a maximum range of around 10,000 kilometers. The operational range is a bit smaller, but it is more than enough. The missile itself is huge. It measures around 12 meters in length and has a diameter of two meters. The launch weight is about 37 tons, and each reentry vehicle can have a weight up to 1,150 kilograms.
Bulava was know as a scandal project
When the submarine Yuriy Dolgorukiy launched a salvo of four Bulava missiles on 18 May, 2018, it marked the final test in a development process which had taken 20 years and earned a reputation as a scandalous money drain.
But as Denis Komarovsky points out in Izvestia1, it is not entirely fair that “Bulava” came to be understood as a synonym for a pretentious project which doesn’t work as planned. After all, the development began at a point in time when the Russian state lacked resources for proper financing. Developers would show up to the first live tests well aware that the equipment didn’t meet industry standards.
It also did not help the Bulava’s reputation that it was the first entirely new missile system to be developed in an era of televised mass media. The Russian military press was not kind to the aspiring missile, and every failed attempt would lead to discussions about the future of the project. Truth be told, earlier missiles had also failed many of the first tests, but it didn’t happen in front of rolling cameras.
In 2009, one of the failed tests created a somewhat funny anecdote when a Bulava missile became the source of UFO hysteria in Norway. The phenomenon became known as the Norwegian Spiral Anomaly. In fact, the third rocket stage had failed which made the Bulava spin uncontrollably.
Lobbyists and different fractions in the Russian government and military industrial complex utilized the Bulava’s problems to further their own agendas. An espionage scandal also hurt the reputation of the project. In 2012, three engineers were convicted for selling secrets about the missile to China.
In the end, though, the Bulava overcame the problems, and the performance in the tests improved. The four-missile salvo that finished the Bulava’s development program reflects not only the importance of the weapon system, but also that the government insisted on a hard final test. Although not unprecedented, four missiles is an unusually large salvo size for a final test. But the kind of reputation that the Bulava had built up required something unusual before the missile could be declared operational.
The strategic rationale for the Bulava missiles and Borei submarines
The story about the Bulava missile begins with the START II arms reduction treaty. This treaty never actually entered into force because Russia withdrew from the process as a response to the American withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. But in the early 1990s, everyone thought that START II would become a reality.
START II would ban multiple warheads (MIRVs) in strategic missiles, so one missile would carry only one warhead. However, there was an exception for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) which could still be MIRVed. This made sense because the inclusion of SLBMs would essentially remove the entire submarine-based dimension in the nuclear triad unless the countries were to build a ridiculous number of submarines.
For Russia’s nuclear strategy, this initiated a pivot to sea. In the 1990s, the country’s nuclear deterrent was mostly based on ground-launched MIRVed missiles which would be banned under the new treaty. The most attractive technology in the future would be SLBMs because that could provide the greatest number of warheads with the smallest number of missiles.
Russia had inherited a submarine development program from the Soviet Union whereby Russia would have two sizes of SLBMs. A large missile would fit in an improved D-19UTTKh missile complex in the Typhoon submarines, and a smaller missile would go in a yet to be developed D-31 complex in the also yet to be developed Borei submarines. Both of these missiles would be substantially larger than the Bulava, but at least it shows that the Borei submarine was not initially planned to carry the ridiculously large R-39UTTKh Bark missile which would fit the D-19UTTKh launcher.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the D-31 was still just a paper project. The Bark missile, however, was further in the process, and during the 1990s a few test flights were conducted with little success. In 1995, Boris Yeltsin made the shocking announcement that Russia would only have one SLBM, and that this would be Bark. It made sense to prioritize because resources were scarce, but it basically left Russia with only one type of SLBM whose weight was almost 90 tons.
So when production of the first Borei submarine Yury Dolgorukiy began in 1996, it was redesigned with a big hump to fit the D-19 launcher and R-39 missile. But the navy’s leadership was skeptical about the size of the Bark missile. Needless to say that such a missile is really complicated to manage from a logistical perspective. The navy’s objections to the the size of the Bark missile was one of the reasons for the eventual abandonment of the project. The other was a shortage of high-quality solid rocket fuel to lift the enormous missile. Russia wanted to use domestic materials but the Russian factories had been unable to match the qualities of the factory in Ukraine which had produced the fuel during the Soviet era.
So in 1998, the decision was made to scrap the Bark development and to initiate a competition for a much smaller missile instead. The Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MIT) won the competition to build the Bulava missile.
In essence, this decision also meant that Russia would phase out the Typhoon submarines and bet on the Borei class as the future SSBN. One of the Typhoons, Dmitriy Donskoy, was refitted with a different launcher so it could function as a test platform for the Bulava missile while the Borei was built.
Bulava is built to beat a missile defense
Instead of overwhelming explosive power, the Bulava’s selling point is the ability to beat missile defense systems. This reflects a change in priorities in Russia’s nuclear strategy between the mid 1980s and the 2000s. The most important thing was not the size of the warhead but the certainty that the missile is resilient against countermeasures.
One example of this order of priorities is the Bulava’s low flight trajectory. It just doesn’t go very high. This is energetically a disadvantage — if the flight path had been higher, the missile could have carried heavier warheads. But Russia chose the benefits that a lower trajectory has against a missile defense system.
Another anti-anti ballistic missile feature is the ability to maneuver slightly in the initial phase so it is difficult to figure out the flight path. This makes it hard to engage the missile early. The Bulava then releases the reentry vehicles at an early point in the flight so instead of one object the missile defense system has to deal with six. It also releases a bunch of decoys to confuse the interceptor missiles.
These are just some of the features of the Bulava missile directed at beating a missile defense system. Undoubtably it also has some abilities that are surrounded by big secrecy.
Now Russia has both a submarine and a missile that were designed in the post-soviet era. This does not mean that the transformation is completed. They still need to produce many of the submarines and missiles. But the design is figured out.
Currently, Russia has three Borei submarines, and five of the improved Borei-A class are in production. Last year there were indications that a new Borei-B class was planned, but later Russia canceled the project and ordered another six Borei-A submarines instead. This will bring the total number of Borei or Borei-A submarines up to 14 within the next decade or so.
I would expect them to be able to produce the required number of Bulava missiles and reentry vehicles to follow the pace of submarine production. The Russian military industrial complex has been pretty good at turning missile designs into serial production, and the annual consumption of Bulava missiles will be limited to occasional tests.
So while the operational status of the Bulava missile does not mean that the transformation of Russia’s submarine-based nuclear forces is completed, it is a remarkable strategic milestone which shows the direction many years into the future.
- Komarovsky’s article is great. I draw heavily on it throughout this post. ↩