The Defense Ministry’s inter-departmental commission didn’t make any announcement about its work or the causes of Bulava SLBM test failures as had been anticipated on 20 May. If this commission has clues about the missile’s problems, it didn’t reveal them. But Kommersant concludes that the Defense Ministry hasn’t reliably determined the causes of previous failed launches.
However, on 21 May, Defense Minister Serdyukov announced a new approach to Bulava testing. The Russians will make three identical missiles and launch them in hopes of pinpointing the same problem in each. It’s a gamble, but it could work.
RIA Novosti quoted Serdyukov:
“The problem of the unsuccessful ‘Bulava’ missile launches lies in the assembly process. We do not see any other violations there. The whole matter is missile assembly quality. Each unsuccessful launch has its own causes. They are all different.”
“Now we are working on making three absolutely identical missiles. We believe that this will allow us to precisely locate the mistake, if there is one, since it must be repeated in all three missiles. Now we are working on how to control the assembly process in order to know that all the missiles are identical. Toward November, I think, we can begin launching the missiles. After this we will be able to identify the cause precisely.”
Earlier reports had said the next Bulava test would occur in June, but Serdyukov now says November at the earliest. Over six years, only 5 of 12 Bulava launches have been successful or ‘partially successful.’ The missile launched on 9 December 2009 self-destructed after a third stage engine problem. Grani.ru recalled that other recent problems included steering system and stage separation malfunctions. Moscow had intended to put the Bulava on its new Borey, or Proyekt 955, SSBNs starting in 2007.
Gzt.ru describes the new three missile approach as an expensive “hit or miss” method. The Defense Ministry hopes launching identical missiles will point to the same problem in each, if there is one. But if they still manifest different problems, Moscow will be no closer to pinning them down. The risk is another year without getting any closer to a new SLBM.
“Serdyukov didn’t specify what will happen if in the November series of launches of ‘Bulava’ each time a different component of the missile fails. Apparently, this possibility isn’t being considered.”
Also in Gzt.ru, Defense Ministry critic Konstantin Sivkov describes the three missile plan as absurd and expensive. With each missile costing 300 million rubles, it’s a 1 billion ruble effort and there’s no guarantee the bug, or bugs, will be identified. He believes the designers will have to conduct stand tests where all components can be checked under controlled conditions. He blames defective parts allowed into the system due to inadequate production controls.
Gazeta.ru cited one Andrey Ionin, a missile designer, who agrees the problem lies in the absence of technological discipline in the enterprises of the Russian OPK. He says:
“Cooperation by several hundred enterprises, working under different forms of ownership, in different parts of the country, without observing all rules of technological discipline is pointless.”
Nevertheless, simultaneous assembly of three missiles could be a way of searching for mistakes in Bulava.
MIT missile designer Yuriy Solomonov has said repeatedly it’s defective materials, production process breakdowns, and the lack of quality control, but neither he nor military men are saying which materials or processes they suspect. He’s also said Russia lacks 50 materials needed for solid-fuel missile production.
In Kommersant, former RVSN general Viktor Yesin claims the Defense Ministry’s inter-departmental commission investigating Bulava has determined that enterprises didn’t cooperate and provided poor quality parts for the missile. Still he sees no alternative to Bulava and believes its design is workable.