The upcoming test of the Bulava missile has already had more than its fair share of troubles. After the quite spectacular (literally) failure in December 2009, the program entered into a long soul-searching phase. It was clear that figuring out what went wrong would take some time - in January the Navy announced that no new test will take place until summer. In May the target date was moved to the fall. The decision to proceed with tests was approved by a commission that was assembled to look into the program troubles. Sometime at this point August 2010 emerged as the time to resume the tests.

According to the defense minister, the current plan is to test three missiles that were assembled with special care and in nearly identical conditions. Apparently, the hope is to see whether the problems are related to the design or they are a production quality control issues. This kind of approach strikes me as a bit simplistic, but at this point the designers have few other options.

It appears that the test was first scheduled to take place on August 10th, but it didn't - the State Commission was reportedly ordered to postpone the test for about two weeks. The delay was a bit longer and the next attempt to launch the missile was to take place in the early days of September. Everything was ready - the Dmitry Donskoy submarine left the port with a missile on board, all systems were prepared for the launch. It is not clear what exactly happened next - it seems that the defense minister called off the test at the very last moment. It was expected that the test will eventually take place in the end of September, but the Ministry of Defense moved it to some unspecified later date. Beginning of October appears likely, but at this point it is hard to make any estimates.

At some point before the last delay, the project changed its chief designer - Aleksandr Sukhodolskiy was appointed to the position of the general designer of sea-launched solid-propellant missiles. Yuri Solomonov retained the post of the general designer of land-based ICBMs (in July 2009 Solomonov also left the post of the Director of MITT). These changes most likely have something to do with the delays in tests, but it is hard to tell exactly what is going on. Apart, of course, from the obvious observation that the Bulava program seems to be in trouble.

The Bulava problems have already affected the submarine construction program. The lead ship of the Project 955 class, which will carry Bulava, has just completed the last round of production trials and is being prepared for being turned over to the Navy. Sevmash is building two more submarines of this class, but the fourth Project 955 sub has not been started yet - the Sevmash report lists only two ships under construction. Construction of the fourth ship, Svyatitel Nikolay, was expected to begin in December 2009, but then this date was moved to March 2010, only to be quietly postponed again.

Now all eyes are on the next three Bulava launches - although a failure is unlikely to lead to termination of the program, some serious changes would probably follow. But even if the tests are successful, it would take some time for the Bulava to prove that it is a reliable missile.