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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The White Elephant Called Bulava

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On Wednesday, Yury Solomonov, general director and chief designer of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, resigned as a result of a series of unsuccessful test launches of the Bulava, the Navy’s new intercontinental missile. The Bulava has been fully successful in only four out of 11 test launches since 2004. The latest failure was on July 15, when the missile self-destructed 20 seconds after launch from the submerged Dmitry Donskoi submarine in the White Sea.

Solomonov’s resignation is unprecedented for the Russian military, and it speaks to the seriousness of the Bulava failure not only from an economic perspective — the armed forces has spent $10 billion on what is by far its most expensive program — but also to the country’s prestige as it negotiates with the United States on a new arms reduction treaty to replace START I.

The Soviet Union and Russia have traditionally lagged behind the United States in terms of developing advanced ballistic missiles. It is therefore understandable that developing a new generation of missiles — particularly during a severe economic crisis — would be a difficult task.

The Bulava is based on the land-based Topol-M missile, which was also designed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology under Solomonov’s direction and first deployed in 1997. The Bulava is intended to carry 10 nuclear warheads on one missile and is the first attempt to develop an intercontinental naval missile manufactured completely from Russian-made components.

It would have been surprising if the Russian armed forces, which can’t supply its soldiers with bullet-proof vests or even modern army boots, would have been able to develop the Bulava without the kind of serious setbacks it has incurred.

But the numerous failures of the Bulava by no means imply that the project will be canceled. In fact, on Sunday chief Navy commander Vladimir Vysotsky expressed confidence that the Bulava would eventually be incorporated into the Navy, RIA-Novosti reported. In all likelihood, once the exact reasons for the last test failures are determined — probably toward the end of the year — test launches of the Bulava will be resumed.

The current and future leaders of Russia should draw conclusions from the Bulava. It is a stark reminder that new advanced weapons systems take decades to develop and cost billions of dollars. When the country’s leaders make the decision to invest in these types of heavy weapons programs, they must consider  all the possible consequences. It is clear, however, that this was not done for the Bulava.

The decision to develop a new submarine to carry a new multiwarhead missile was made largely because START II prohibited land-based missiles of this category. But START II was terminated in 2001 after the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.

The money that was spent on Bulava could have been better spent on repairing submarines fitted with other missiles and on the upkeep of warships, which had to be decreased significantly because of a lack of funds. In addition, the armed forces could have invested the same amount of money into the development of a new generation of land-based missiles.

Alexei Nikolsky is a reporter at Vedomosti, where this comment appeared. Richard Lourie is on vacation.