The Blog

Cash for Clunkers, Moscow Edition

12:00 AM, Aug 13, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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The failing Russian defense industry.


The numbers seven and eleven are very lucky if you are shooting dice at the craps table in Las Vegas. However, for Russia's missile industry and strategic nuclear forces these two numbers are at present associated with rather a rather unpleasant string of misfortunes. Last month on July 15 the eleventh test launch of the Bulava (SS-NX-30) advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) failed, the seventh such failure since 2006.

Bulava is designed to be the primary SLBM for several decades, which makes it one of the key linchpins in Russia's nuclear force--the other two elements being the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers and the fleet of land-based ICBMs. If its design flaws cannot be corrected (which appears increasingly likely) planners for the Russian ballistic missile submarine force, which is the most potent leg of the Russian nuclear triad, will be facing a bit of a sticky wicket.

The three next-generation Borei-class nuclear submarines are specifically designed to fire the Bulava. The new subs represent the highest-level priority program of the Russian armed forces--being one of the few weapon systems development that the Russian government has actually funded while neglecting most of rest of its defense-industrial complex. The investment in the Borei-class design, by Russian standards, is immense. Just one of these submarines, the Yury Dolgoruky, has a price tag of 23 billion roubles (roughly U.S. $800 million) and after having completed sea tests it is ready for a full set of trial runs with the Bulava missile on board. Unfortunately, the new SLBM is not close to being cleared for deployment.

Russian military officials are now faced with a couple of unhappy options. One is to continue work on the Bulava in the hope that the program can be salvaged. This seems unlikely, as the original premise on which the Bulava's design was based--extrapolating the configuration of the single-warhead Topol-M land-based ICBM into a multi-warhead SLBM--was a flawed concept from the start.

The other route is to redesign the Borei-class subs so they could instead launch the other new SLBM in Russia's arsenal, the Sineva. But this missile had its own problems with test launches, although it is currently deployed with the Russian submarine fleet. Also there is the small inconvenience that redesigning the launch bays of the Borei submarines to enable them to launch the Sineva instead the Bulava would require a major re-fit, the cost of which has been priced out at being equal to building new submarines from scratch.

Aside from the ballistic missile submarine fleet, the other Russian strategic priority has been to try and hold onto its most important cash-generating weapons export clients, which for almost two decades have been China and India, the income from which has helped to fund the submarine program. China has almost no other options than to turn to Russia for its advanced weapons purchases and will remain in the Russian camp for now--albeit at much lower levels of purchases than the previous ten years--but Moscow is in real danger of losing India as a customer.

The subcontinent has been a major buyer of Russian weaponry for far longer than the Chinese. However, the increasing number of options being offered to New Delhi by the United States and European defense firms--and some high-profile Russian failures on deliveries to India--are forcing the Indians to consider abandoning its decades-long partnership with Moscow.

In 2004 Russia's state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, signed a landmark deal with New Delhi to provide the Indian Navy with an aircraft carrier capable of launching and recovering conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft. India was to receive the carrier for free, but would have to then pay $700 million for the refit of the Russian Navy's used Admiral Gorshkov, which involved replacing the vessel's steam power plant with a diesel propulsion system and extending the flight deck to include a ski-jump style take-off ramp. This extended take-off ramp would enable the Indians to operate a new-age, modernized carrier-capable variant of the Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum, the MiG-29K-9.41 model.

U.S. weapon programs that overrun their budgets and fail to adhere to their production schedules have nothing on the Russian shipyards responsible for the re-work of the Gorshkov, which has seen Moscow periodically coming back to the Indians to ask for more money to finish the project. The steady increases in this program's budget now have the Indians being asked to pay a whopping $2.9 billion--more than four times the original estimate.