November 24, 2009 / 4:49 PM / 9 years ago

Q+A-Russia delays test of troubled Bulava missile

MOSCOW, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Russia on Tuesday delayed the latest test launch of its troubled new submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, the state RIA news agency reported.

RIA said the launch — which was first scheduled for late October — should have taken place on Tuesday but had been delayed again.

"In connection with the need to agree a host of questions, including technical ones... the latest launch of the Bulava should take place before the end of the year," RIA quoted an unidentified source in the Russian defence sector as saying.

The following are key details about the missile:



WHAT IS IT?

The Bulava (Mace), which is capable of carrying 6-10 nuclear warheads 8,000 km (5,000 miles), is designed to be deployed on Russia’s Project 955 atomic Borei (Arctic Wind) Class submarines.

The 37-tonne, 12-metre (39 ft) intercontinental ballistic missile is known as the Bulava-30 inside the Russian military. Its NATO reporting name is the SS-NX-30 and in international treaties it is known as the RSM-56.

Russia’s Borei class submarines can carry at least 12 of the missiles, which are the sea-based version of the Topol-M intercontinental missile.



HOW MANY FAILURES?

Of 11 previous tests that have been openly reported, at least six have been unsuccessful, including a test on July 15 when a Bulava self-destructed after a malfunction during the first stage of its flight from the White Sea.

A test launch planned for late October was aborted and the submarine which was supposed to fire the missile returned to base, local media quoted a navy source as saying.

The Russian navy does not release detailed information about the missile launches, citing national security.



WHO TESTS IT?

The missiles are usually tested by the Dmitry Donskoy Project 941 Akula (Shark) submarine, which operates as part of the navy’s North Fleet.

The missiles are usually fired from underwater in northwestern Russia towards the Kura testing site on the Kamchatka peninsula in the Pacific.



WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

The missile has been billed as Russia’s newest technological breakthrough to support its nuclear deterrent and a way to bolster the country’s once mighty submarine fleet.

But the repeated test failures are an embarrassment for the Kremlin which has touted the missile as a unique weapon capable of breaching any air defence.

The test failures have convinced a growing number of analysts — and even senior navy officers — that the Bulava is fundamentally doomed and that it would be cheaper and safer to start from scratch on a new project.

Some Russian defence analysts say the project is eating up funds better spent on other projects and that the repeated failures of Bulava are eroding morale in the navy.

Russia’s chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov, said in August that the missile has to fly otherwise Russia would have to refit all of its new generation Borei class nuclear submarines.

Asked if it would be better to deploy the reliable, Soviet-era designed Sineva missile on the new submarines, Makarov said: "The Bulava is a totally different system...To refit a submarine for the Bulava means to redesign it completely."

Makarov blamed technical glitches rather than a fundamental design fault for the test launch mishaps. He said that the chief constructor of the missile, the head of Moscow’s Institute of Thermal Technology, Yuri Solomonov, had resigned.

If Russia did scrap the Bulava it would have to scramble to develop a new submarine-launched ballistic missile before its current Soviet-built nuclear submarines reach decommissioning age in the next two decades. (Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Jon Boyle) ((guy.faulconbridge@reuters.com, +7 495 775 12 42))

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