Iosif Vissarionovich might have accused Bulava’s proponents of dizziness after the SLBM’s test firing on October 7. There’s no mistaking it was a clear boost to a troubled program. Success always trumps failure. It may even turn out that all of Bulava’s design, production, and assembly problems are resolved. But one would think the history and current state of the Bulava would call for more cautious, guarded optimism. This successful test was necessary, but far from even close to sufficient to complete the program.
The biggest news story after this successful test was the report that, as a result, the Bulava SLBM and Borey-class SSBN weapons system might be accepted into the arms inventory as early as mid-2011.
A highly-placed Navy Main Staff source told Interfaks:
“Before the end of the year, another two test launches of the missile are planned, if they are as successful as today’s launch, then it’s legitimate to consider the issue of the quickest completion of tests of this strategic system. I’m proposing that the acceptance of Bulava into the arms inventory could happen in the middle of next year.”
He follows adding that serial production of the SLBM and its deployment in proyekt 955 Borey-class SSBNs will ensue.
The Navy Main Staff source doesn’t go into exactly what ‘quickest completion’ entails, but others do. Presumably, this means another test from Dmitriy Donskoy before the end of October and, if that’s a success, the first launch from Borey-class Yuriy Dolgorukiy before year’s end.
Vesti.ru conjectures that ‘quickest completion’ might mean a second, ‘insurance’ shot from Yuriy Dolgorukiy in early 2011, then a volley firing of two missiles in spring or early summer. After this, if every test is a success, the weapons system would be accepted, serial production would begin, and Bulava would be deployed on Yuriy Dolgorukiy. That’s if everything goes right.
An irrationally exuberant Defense Ministry source even told RIA Novosti:
“The successful launch of the missile gives a basis to suppose that the entire system ‘submarine plus missile’ will be accepted into the Russian Navy’s arms inventory by the end of the year or at the beginning of next.”
Former Armaments Chief Anatoliy Sitnov was pretty confident, telling Interfaks and ARMS-TASS that no specialists are expressing doubts about Bulava, and ‘broken links’ in its production process have been overcome.
Old RVSN general Viktor Yesin told Interfaks he agrees it’s possible to plan for completing Bulava testing by mid-2011. But he retains some caution:
“The tests conducted instill hope that the two flight tests of the Bulava ballistic missile coming before the end of this year will be successful. If this happens, it’ll be possible to confirm that the designers and producers overcame a period of failures in the creation of the new submarine-launched missile system.”
Yesin also notes that only the telemetry can say if all the Bulava’s systems were working normally.
Forum.msk’s Anatoliy Baranov is skeptical about making Bulava part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces even if the next two tests are successful, and make the tally 8 successes in 15 attempts. He says having a missile you want to produce doesn’t mean you can produce it quickly in the necessary quantity:
“Incidentally, no one has answered for the strategic decision which left the country practically without a naval component of strategic nuclear forces [SYaS]. Don’t believe that the resignation of MIT director Solomonov is a sufficient measure of responsibility considering the possible consequences of such a mistake, and the fact that today our naval strategic nuclear forces [MSYaS] already lag the strategic enemy by a factor of 5. But even given the most successful confluence of circumstances, we will have a gap between old missiles and submarines going out of service and new ones coming into service because the possibilities of domestic industry in serial production of solid-fuel missiles are very limited. The Votkinsk factory produces 5-6 solid-fuel ‘Topol-M1’ missiles, there aren’t other producers. This means the production of new missiles of the ‘Bulava’ type puts an extra load on production which already can’t cope with the creation of new land-based missiles — see, straining the RVSN rearmament program even worse. In the best case, the necessary complement of armaments for the 3 new ‘Borey’ class SSBNs will be produced in nearly 15 years. This is a catastrophe.”
Andrey Ionin doesn’t agree with Sitnov above. He told Gazeta.ru that the Defense Ministry shouldn’t be impatient:
“A state commission report on successful testing and a formal decision on accepting the system for regular use doesn’t change the fact that the problem of low quality in joint production has not been eliminated.”
Carnegie Center Moscow associate Petr Topychkanov says:
“Three successful tests in a row is not a reason to put a type into serial production.”
But, unlike Baranov, he points out that the production run for Bulava doesn’t have to be too big since there are, and will be, relatively few tubes to fill.
Pavel Felgengauer in Novaya gazeta is skeptical about how close the Bulava RVs came to their intended targets, but, more important for this discussion, he calls saying that Bulava is almost ready for deployment after this successful test a “dangerous adventure.” He adds:
“And here is a ‘raw’ missile, not completely ready and the not tested ‘Yuriy Dolgorukiy,’ a crew which clearly hasn’t mastered its submarine — and missile launches right away. Very bold to put it mildly.”
Viktor Baranets sums it up:
“A successful launch instills some optimism. But it’s still a long time before accepting the missile into the arms inventory. And of 13 launches only 6 (including yesterday’s) [October 7] were recognized as successful. Or ‘partially successful.’ But this is not cause to launch the missile into a serial run. Higher ‘positive indicators’ are needed. Our specialists and foreign ones believe the quantity of successful launches should be steadily above 90%.”
There is need not to be in a hurry to carry out the subsequent tests. The impact of the success although positive should not give rise to impatience to carry out subsequent tests. The same extent of quality checks and inspection procedures should be followed scrupulously as already done for the first and as planned for the 3 identically manufactured missiles. Any failure at this stage due to by-passing of inspection procedures will create recurring doubts for ever in the future.