The current situation with sea-launched ballistic missiles is a result of what can be described a serious mismanagement, which, unfortunately, is very typical for the Russian strategic forces these days. The lack of oversight and absence of mechanism that would be able to reconcile various institutional interests create ample opportunities for ill-considered decisions and costly mistakes.
After the Soviet Union broke up, it was clear that Russia could not possibly maintain the Soviet strategic submarine fleet, so serious reductions of the submarine force were inevitable (to be sure, there were proposals to get rid of sea-launched ballistic missiles, but it was never a realistic option). So, the question that Russia confronted in the 1990s was how to proceed with keeping its strategic fleet at sea.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Russia had two types of relatively modern submarines – Project 667BDRM/Delta IV, built in 1981-1990, and Project 941/Typhooon, built in 1977-1989. Delta IVs carried liquid-fuel R-29RM missiles, Typhoons were equipped with solid-propellant R-39 missiles. By the time the Soviet Union broke up, the lead ships of each class entered overhaul, which, among other things, included replacing the old missiles with new ones.
Both R-29RM and R-39 missiles were developed at the Makeyev Design Bureau at Miass, which was working on upgraded modifications of the missiles. The new liquid-fuel missile was known as R-29RM Variant or Sineva, while the solid-propellant follow-on to R-39 was known as Bark.
The problem with the solid-propellant R-39 and its Bark follow-on was that the first stage of the missile was manufactured at the Pavlodar plant in Ukraine (the same first stage was used in the RT-23UTTH/SS-24 missile). That meant that Russia had to transfer production of the missile to its own territory. It was not impossible (the production was reportedly taken to Perm), but it certainly increased the cost of the Bark project. Given that for most of the 1990s Russia was having serious problems with financing its military, this put Bark at serous disadvantage. But the project went ahead nonetheless, since it was the only option available at the time – the new missile was to be deployed not only on Typhoons, but also on new Project 955-class submarines (the first ship of the new class, Yuriy Dolgorukiy, was laid down in 1996). In 1996, the Makeyev Design Bureau began flight tests of the missile.
The Bark missile was to become the only sea-launched ballistic missile of the Russian strategic fleet. Development of the R-29RM upgrade was apparently discontinued at some point in the early 1990s, probably because the military could not afford supporting two missile development projects. Besides, the navy, after having the chance to work with the solid-propellant R-39, strongly objected continuing with deployment of liquid-fuel missiles. Delta IV submarines would have allowed to complete their service until the missiles reach the end of their service life (maybe with moderate extension), which meant that all this ships would have been decommissioned by 2008-2010.
These plans, however, did not materialize. After the Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, Igor Sergeyev, was appointed the minister of defense in May 1997, the Strategic Rocket Forces became the dominating force in the military. That, among other things, meant taking control over the resources that the government allocated for the development of the strategic forces. Shortly after the fourth test of the Bark missile in November 1997 ended in failure (as did previous three), the Bark program was cancelled in favor of the new one, proposed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT) – the primary developer of the Topol-M missile system, which was to become the main missile system of the Rocket Forces. MITT proposed creating a “naval version” of Topol-M, promising significant savings, since the Topol-M missile was at the last stages of development (the first missiles were deployed in December 1997). Despite serious doubts about the technical feasibility of adapting Topol-M for sea-based deployment, the project was approved. Construction of the Yuriy Dolgorukiy submarine was suspended, since it now had to accommodate different missiles. The plan apparently called for equipping Project 941 Typhoon submarines with the new missiles as well.
The decision to cancel the Bark project created a gap in the submarine force – development of the new “naval Topol-M” missile was expected to take at least several years, while the R-39 missiles it was supposed to replace had already reached end of their service lives. Besides, it seems that at that time it become clear that some of Typhoons will have to be decommissioned in any event, and construction of new Project 955 submarines will not be able to compensate for that. To keep the number of sea-launched missiles at a reasonable level, the government decided to resume production of R-29RM liquid-fuel missiles and to keep six Delta IV submarines in service. After an overhaul and equipped with new missiles, these submarines could be kept in service for more than a decade – until 2015-2020.
Flight tests of the new R-29RM Sineva missile were completed in June 2004. At least one of the two submarines of the Project 667BDRM class that have completed overhaul already carries missiles of this type. Other submarines are expected to be equipped with these missiles in the next few years.
Development of the new solid-propellant missile, which became known as Bulava, apparently proved more difficult than it was expected. Although the decision to go ahead with the project was made in 1997, MITT did not present technical project until 2000. In 2002 the industry completed conversion of the Dmitriy Donskoy Typhoon submarine for tests of the Bulava missile, but the missile was not ready for tests of any kind. The first “pop-up” test, that included only a mockup of the missile, was conducted in December 2003, and seemed to be more of a desperate attempt to show at least some results of the development program than an actually useful test. The first flight test of the Bulava missile was scheduled to December 2004, but the development program suffered a setback in May 2004, when a prototype rocket motor exploded during a fire test in Votkinsk. As a result, the most that the developers could produce in 2004 was a second “pop-up” test in September 2004. It is possible that flight tests of the missile will begin in 2005, but it is unlikely that new submarines with Bulava missiles will become fully operational before 2008-2010.
The delay with development of Bulava missiles proved deadly for Typhoon submarines. Although the original plan was to keep at least some of them in service with Bulava missiles, it is now impossible. The Typhoon division was disbanded in April 2004 and the submarines are scheduled to be dismantled. The only exception is Dmitriy Donskoy, but it is likely to remain just a test bed for Bulava.