The Bulava Missile Tests and Competing Metrics

By Rafael Broze,  Research Intern, Center for Strategic Research


Submarine - photo credit: Federation of American ScientistsLast month saw the successful test of two more Russian Bulava-type SLBMs, launched from the submarine Dmitry Donskoi at the Kura Testing Range in the Russian Far East.  The positive results of the two tests, in rapid succession, are indicators that the long-troubled program may finally be hitting its stride.  It’s been 11 months now since the last failed test, and Russian defense officials seem bullish about the program’s viability, with more tests planned for later this year and for 2011.

However, there remains a strong chance that this is merely the latest false dawn in the Bulava’s troubled testing phase.  In 15 tests since the summer of 2004, the missile has exploded, malfunctioned, or otherwise failed in 7, and strings of victories have consistently been followed by strings of defeats (with failures generally attributed to manufacturing flaws, not design problems, making fixing any issues devilishly difficult).

With this patchy record in mind, Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin (in the red corner) has said that the missile won’t be deployed until it has reached 98-99% reliability, as gauged by a range of tests besides launches.  However (in the blue corner) Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has stated simply that 6 more launch tests will be required for the Bulava.  Thus we have two metrics:  99% reliability vs. 6 launch tests.  Both have deep flaws.  Basically, Popovkin has made it abominably hard for outsiders to gauge whether the Bulava is anywhere close to measuring up to his standards (since the types, conduct and results of these other tests will probably remain secret).  Ivanov, on the other hand, has proposed such a small number of additional tests that the Bulava couldn’t possibly be proven reliable.  Opacity versus irresponsibility.

To wit, let us compare the test record of the Bulava against another SLBM– the American Trident II.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, in 1988/89 the Trident II (D5) missile completed 14 full tests during its initial flight testing phase—with 2 failures and 1 partial success (as well as a 15th, aborted test).  Furthermore, one of the failures was due to a design problem which was subsequently fixed.  Since then, the Trident II has completed over 130 successful test flights.

So the Trident II gives us what neither Popovkin nor Ivanov could—a transparent and effective metric.  Unfortunately for Russia, the Bulava measures up rather poorly, with a 53% success rate vs. 78%.  At a minimum, the Bulava would have to work perfectly in 18 more tests (at the current rate, this would take 6+ years) to give a success rate of 78%.  The six tests that Ivanov proposed could, at best, give a success rate of 66%.

We will have to wait until December and then next summer in order to find out whether the Bulava’s run of bad results is finished.  But the reactions of Popovkin and Ivanov say much about the culture of bluster surrounding the development of the Bulava.  In the end, we will have to wait and see how many tests Russia finally conducts—6? 18? Until they stop exploding? More fundamentally, if the test results continue to blow hot and cold, will the Russian regime ever prove willing to admit its inability to field a new ballistic missile?


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Filed under Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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