It is difficult to classify the outcome of the last attempt to launch the Bulava missile, but it definitely was not a success. The official version is that no actual launch was planned this time and the Dmitry Donskoy submarine, which went to sea with a missile on board on October 26th and returned to port two days later, still with the missile, was simply going through check-ups of launch-related procedures and equipment. However, this is probably not what happened.

The delay is far from the first for this test - we know with some certainty that it was originally planned for the week of October 12th. When the submarine finally went to sea, the plan was to conduct the launch on Monday, October 26th, but someone notices that President Medvedev was visiting the NPOmash design bureau that day - success of failure, nobody at MITT wanted to give a competitor an opportunity to discuss the status of the Bulava program with the president. The testing crew found a way to delay the launch until Tuesday.

A number of reports suggest that there was indeed an attempt to launch the missile on Tuesday. However, the missile did not respond to the launch command - the time the problem seemed to be with the launch control system. If this was indeed the case, one can argue that it was a failure - a missile is just a part of a larger system after all - but it wasn't a failed flight test of a missile if understood narrowly.

Today, a source in the Russian Navy reportedly said that the launch will take place on November 24th - a daring prediction given the history of delays.

It is understandable that the designers are having jitters about the upcoming launch - the missile failed in four of the last five tests. Moreover, it appears that there is no consistency in failures, so it is hard to know which system will be affected next. Sergey Ivanov, Vice Prime Minister responsible for the military industry, complained after the July 2009 failure that the large number or suppliers and subcontractors makes establishing good quality control difficult - seemingly unaware of the fact that the ability to deal with these problems is exactly what makes a large development program successful.

At this point it is hard to tell what the future holds for the Bulava program. Even if it ends the current string of failed tests, the confidence in the missile would probably never be particularly high. In the past, a system like that would be accepted for "experimental service" and its production would be limited to whatever had been produced already. This may still happen, although the program is already fairly large - at least three submarines are being built for the Bulava missile. Construction of the fourth one - Svyatitel Nikolay (St. Nicholas) - is scheduled to begin in December 2009. I wouldn't rule it out that if the Bulava program gets into a real trouble, this submarine could be cancelled. We'll find it out very soon.