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Let’s get ready for the Bulava summer

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OPINION: Hundreds of Russia’s top officers were watching the latest of military hardware at the Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square on Monday. However, their thoughts were more likely on the fate of the missile that was not on display; the prestigious Bulava submarine missile.

The ice on the Dvina river delta is breaking up and spring is coming to Severodvinsk, home to the largest submarine yard in Russia. At port in Severodvinsk is “Yury Dolgoruky” – the 4th generation Borei-class strategic missile submarine – waiting for the sea ice to break up out in the White Sea. With the sea ice gone, the submarine is scheduled to sail for its first test-launch of the Bulava-missile. 

Test-firing of submarine launched ballistic missiles is nothing new in itself. The Russian submarine fleet has done that in northern waters since the 60ies. But the Bulava is somewhat different. Huge and long-lasting technical problems have delayed the mass production. Too many failed test-launches have made the missile infamous, like in December 2009 when a Bulava went into spin after launch and was visible over large areas in northern Norway.

Half of tests have failed - so far
Seven out of 15 tests have failed, so far. The two last, and successful, tests took place in late October last year. All the tests have so far been carried out from “Dmitri Donskoy” - a Typhoon-class submarine rebuilt into a test-platform for the Bulava-missile. After the successful October tests, the missile designers said more tests would take place in December, but then from the submarine the Bulava is designed for; the Borei-class. That did not happen.

The official version was that the submarine could not sail from Severodvinsk due to the ice-conditions in the White Sea. But ice is nothing new for the White Sea during winter. Most likely, the designers didn’t took the risk to make the virgin launch from Borei-class sub “Yury Dolgoruky” to be yet another failure. Therefore, the tests were postponed to the spring when the ice is gone. That is within some few weeks from now.

Why so much prestige?
Well, first of all the Bulava will be the cornerstone in Russia’s nuclear triad. The Borei-class submarines to carry the missile are the by-far most expensive weapon Russia ever has built. For internal public reasons it is embarrassing from Kreml that the missile don’t work. No other Russian weaponry has got more coverage in domestic media than the Bulava. The non-working Bulava-missile has become the symbol of the widespread loss of military technicians and researchers with the Russian arms industry over the decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

So, they have a brand new multi-billion dollar nuclear powered submarine, actually the first ballistic missile submarine to be put on sea from Severodvinsk since 1992. It has been ready for nearly two years now, been test-sailing the White Sea. But, no need for such high-tech, fantasy-expensive weapon-platform when you can’t arm it because the missiles are not reliable.  Yes, we do understand the prestige and the nervous tension among officers and arms-designers.

More seriously; the Bulava-missile is technically, if working, said to able to outmanoeuvre any anti-missile defence system. A working Bulava will in other words secure Russia’s position as a global nuclear super-power for the foreseeable future independent of any other countries attempt to create missile shields. And here is likely the core of the technical challenges; problems with the navigation systems and the missiles capabilities to mislead any detection systems on its pre-ballistic launch, and while ballistic; its abilities to change course. 

Remove some stars when it don’t work
Therefore, the coming fate of the Bulava-missile is likely what the officers in Russia’s strategic missile forces were thinking about today when they could see the proud President and Prime Minister watching the Victory Parade in Moscow. Both Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have highlighted the importance of the Bulava-missiles to succeed. Both have visited Severodvinsk to oversee the construction of the Borei-class submarine. Removing stars on a general or two is the easy way for Kreml and the government in Russia to show that they take responsibility when things don’t work.

We don’t know if it is the fear of losing stars, or if it is an inflated smug conceitedness that prompted the Defence Ministry last Friday to announce that the upcoming test launch of the Bulava-missile may be broadcasted live on the Ministry’s website. It is however a daring move to invite the world-wide audience to watch live the launch of the world’s most lethal weapon, espesially since it might not work, or maybe espesially if it indeed work, depending on how you see it.

Several tests are planned for the coming spring and summer with “Yury Dolgoruky” if no failures happens. Then; the submarine will sail to Russia’s Pacific fleet where it will replace older Delta-III class strategic submarines. Sailing east will also “Aleksandr Nevsky” – the second in line of the coming Borei-class submarines.

Later, other Borei-class submarines will join Russia’s Northern fleet here in the Barents Region where they will replace the Delta-IV class submarines. Those who where dreaming of less nuclear weapons in the Barents Region following the new START treaty will have to re-orientate and adjust with the facts; Russia’s nuclear submarine force will obtain an even more important role in the future. And the Barents Region plays a key strategic role in that war-game.

Welcome to the Bulava summer 2011!