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From drawing board to launch pad: The rise, fall and rise of the Bulava

24 October 2011




The Bulava missile has defied plagued test failures and now finally looks ready to spearhead Russia's nuclear arsenal. Designed specifically for use aboard the Borei-Class submarines, we profile the ballistic missile and its rise to prominence.


The STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed between the US and the USSR in 1991 and active until its expiry in December 2009, concluded fraught negotiations between the two superpowers regarding their nuclear weaponry.

"On 7 October 2010, the missile was once again tested, launched from the Dmitry Donskoy submarine whilst submerged."

The result of the agreement saw a mass reduction of nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bombers.

Russia's previous missiles of choice, the R-39 Rifs, were destroyed and the failures of its feted replacement, the R-39 Bark, heralded the need for the comprehensive development of a missile capable of spearheading Russia's nuclear arsenal aboard the Borei-Class of submarines.

The Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT) was tasked with the design, and the concept of the Bulava missile was born.

Inside the Russian missile

The missile itself has been designed and developed to be the cornerstone of Russia's nuclear triad until 2040 and is the most expensive weapon project in the country's history.

Designed by MITT, the development of the missile originally started in the late 1990s and has utilised engineering solutions from the Topol-M Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), although the Bulava is both more sophisticated and lighter.

The Bulava launches in three stages, with the initial two stages fuelled by a solid propellant and the third and final stage reliant on a liquid propellant. This allows for high manoeuvrability during warhead separation.

The missile can also be launched in an incline position, allowing Borei-Class submarines it is designed for to launch the missiles whilst moving.

Once launched, the Bulava occupies a low flight trajectory unlike other ballistic missiles and possesses a range of advanced defence capabilities in order to render it resistant to missile defence systems. Its abilities include evasive manoeuvring, mid-course countermeasures and decoys and a fully-shielded warhead, protecting it from physical and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) damage.

Coupled with the Bulava's capability of surviving a nuclear blast at a distance of 500 metres, the weapon's countermeasures make it one of the most rugged missiles in existence.

In spite of the significant investment and due care and attention, the Bulava has not been without its problems, culminating in a particularly embarrassing failure that drew worldwide attention.

World-famous failures

Failures have haunted the development of the missile.

"The Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT) was tasked with the design, and the concept of the Bulava missile was born."

Six failures in 13 flight tests and an additional failure during a ground test occurred until December 2009, prompting a comprehensive probe into the root cause of such failures. The last failure, which occurred in December 2009, gained worldwide notoriety after it produced a stunning light show in the sky above Norway and Sweden.

A stream of blue light and a white spiral appeared on the night of December 9, visible in central and northern Norway as well as parts of Sweden.

The footage was captured by amateur photographers, and had soon gone viral on the internet before being picked up by global news agencies citing possible explanations ranging from fireball meteors to the Northern Lights to even the opening of a wormhole.

The following day, the Russian Ministry of Defence was forced to acknowledge a further failure of the Bulava missile and that it was responsible for the light show. A spokesman confirmed that, although the first two stages of the missile's trajectory had worked, a technical malfunction in the third stage had caused the missile to spiral out of control.

At the time, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell had speculated that the missile's third stage nozzle was damaged, causing the exhaust to fume out sideways.

Production probe

The December 2009 failure sparked a comprehensive probe, with further tests of the missile suspended until the review of the missile programme was finalised. The failures were largely blamed on the poor quality of component production, with many critics questioning the feasibility of a programme which had already consumed a large proportion of the nation's defence budget.

Analysts continued to debate the future of the Bulava missile, with some citing a possible solution of merely re-equipping the Borei-Class submarines with Sineva missiles, a liquid-propellant, submarine-launched ballistic missile considered to be more reliable than the Bulava.

Contrary to possible solutions feted by analysts, the Russian military has persistently and adamantly remarked that there is no alternative to the Bulava.

Although the missile's chief designer Yury Solomonov resigned from his post in July 2009, he blamed the failures on the state of the Russian defence industry whilst also citing problems in the design-technology-production chain.

This criticism was echoed by Sergei Kovalyov, a Russian submarine designer, who criticised poor component quality and questioned the lack of military representatives present at the plants tasked with manufacturing them. Solomonov further alleged that the Russian industry was incapable of manufacturing 50 of the components necessary for the missile, which forced designers to improvise.

Rise of the Bulava nuclear missile

Results from the probe were delivered to the Russian government in May 2010, followed by the resumption of testing some five months later.

"The Bulava launches in three stages, with the initial two stages fuelled by a solid propellant."

Three missiles were built to near identical conditions in order to determine cause of any failures. On 7 October 2010, the missile was once again tested, launched from the Dmitry Donskoy submarine whilst submerged.

The warheads successfully hit their designated targets having travelled more than 6,000km along a normal trajectory.

A second successful launch took place on October 29 2010, followed by two further successful launches on June 28 2011 and August 27 2011.

Although Russian defence sources have continued to state the Bulava will not enter service until it is 98-99% reliable, the success of the June 2011 launch led to the commencement of serial production of Bulava missiles in the same configuration, signalling renewed faith in the missile.

Further test launches have been scheduled for late October 2011, with Russian defence minster Anatoly Serdyukov confirming that the Bulava missiles will be partially entered into service in 2012.

Signing of the original START treaty between President Bush and President Gorbachev.
The Yuri Dolgorukiy submarine was one of the Borei-Class submarines designed to spearhead Russia's nuclear arsenal.
The variants of the Bulava missile.
The Norway Spiral, caused by a failed Bulava missile launch, was picked up by news outlets across the globe.