Gaining momentum: Implications of Bulava missile for strategic stability

The successful launch of the Bulava ballistic missile in June 2011 by Russia has demonstrated to the rest of the world about its growing capabilities and changing priorities.

It is generally believed that Russia has been modernizing its strategic weaponry including ballistic missiles despite the negative impact of the ongoing world economic meltdown on its economy.

The priorities of the leadership in Russia seem to have shifted. It is obvious from the launch that Russia wants to regain its lost glory and achieve military and defence capabilities required for maintaining its nuclear deterrent capabilities.

Russia, the erstwhile Soviet Union, to a greater extent had achieved technological prowess and supremacy in a number of strategic technologies especially during the peak of the Cold War era.

However, the pace at which the strategic and defence technologies grew in the erstwhile Soviet Union never remained the same after the demise and end of the Cold War.

The focus and concentration in the field of research and development in defence and strategic sectors got shifted in Russia because of the obvious reasons.

Strategic ambition

Yet, Russia in the current situation seems to have regained its momentum in the strategic defence technologies sector especially after the Georgia conflict. The attempt on the part of Russia has been to acquire strategic balance vis-à-vis the United States and China.

The successful launch of the Bulava ballistic missile is a case in point to suggest that Russia has reinvigorated its strategic ambitions and capabilities. Russia's new Bulava missile had met with a series of failures during its earlier launches.

The consistent effort made by Russia finally helped in achieving a very sophisticated technology. The successful launch of the Bulava missile has also boosted the confidence of scientific and technical community of Russia.

Until June 2011, the Bulava missile has met with seven failures out of a total of fifteen flight tests conducted so far. The recent success in the Bulava missile launch has certainly been seen as a great achievement of Russia by the strategic and technical community.

The Bulava is a submarine launched intercontinental ballistic missile. The recent test was the first launch from the Yury Dolgoruky strategic nuclear submarine. The strategic nuclear submarine was specifically designed to carry the Bulava missile. All the previous launches had been made from the Dmitry Donskoi submarine.

Russia has a plan to conduct four more Bulava ballistic missile tests. It has been anticipated that if all the four tests are successful then the Bulava missile would be inducted into the Russian armed forces.

The technical specifications and various parameters of the Bulava ballistic missile suggest that it can be equipped with ten individually targeted nuclear warheads, which would also be capable of changing their flight trajectory.

Such technical characteristics of the Bulava missile provide a different type of military capability to Russia. It will certainly be a dominant mode of both offence and defence equation in the emerging modern warfare technologies. The range of the Bulava missile is 8,000 km.

Undoubtedly, the induction of the Bulava missile and its integration into the Russian armed forces would certainly add lots of value in its overall defence and military capabilities and posture.

It would provide Russian military with a credible nuclear deterrent capability because the Bulava ballistic missile will not be vulnerable from the adversary's attack point of view. The land based and air based assets are highly vulnerable during the crisis time.

The Bulava missile would also give a new life to Russia's new Borei class of nuclear submarines. Both the nuclear submarines, Yury Dolgoruky and Alexander Nevsky would be effective only when the Bulava ballistic missile functions with the given technical specifications.

The questions which are now being posed at the global level are directly linked with Russia's fundamental goals, its intentions and behavioral patterns.

Threat perception

Does Russia need to acquire the Bulava missile at this juncture? Will Russia repeat the same mistakes, which the erstwhile Soviet Union had committed? Will the acquisition and induction of the Bulava ballistic missile be destabilizing and impact the international strategic stability?

It must be highlighted here that Russia certainly has been shifting its priorities and it has not forgotten its superpower status psychologically. It keeps haunting in the minds of the key policy makers and hence Russia wants to signal and symbolically message to the rest of the world that it might emerge again if not a Superpower then at least a force to reckon with.

Russia also firmly believes that the acquisition of such technology can only guarantee its security in the future scenario. It must be reiterated here that the sea based assets can only provide with a retaliatory capability during the case of any eventuality.

The articulation of Russia's threat perception might suggest that it will have both immediate and long term threats. In order to cope up with the emerging requirements, Russia would certainly require long range missiles with a capability to fire from the nuclear powered submarine.

At the same time, Russia would certainly be cautious enough so that it does not land up in any types of arms race with its adversaries. The economic dimension would guide Russia's strategic behavior. It will not lead itself to any perilous situation. It cannot afford to take any such policy decision.

The Bulava submarine launched ballistic missile has been designed by Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology. It is a three stage ballistic missile. It is a combination of both solid and liquid propellant systems.

The first and second stage uses solid fuel as propellant. The third stage uses liquid fuel. The technical design of the Bulava ballistic missile is such that it can maneuver during warhead separation.

The ten nuclear warheads mated with the Bulava ballistic missile can reach to ten different locations and cause unprecedented damage to its adversary in the case of any eventuality. Such characteristics of possessing advanced defence capabilities will certainly have a wider ramification on international strategic stability.

The induction of the Bulava ballistic missile would certainly trigger the inventories of China's strategic arsenals. It would probably lead to an imbalance in the existing scenario. The 'action  reaction syndrome' might destabilize the existing situation.

China would, in turn, intensify its JL-2 capability, which is intercontinental submarine launched ballistic missile. China may also like to augment its capability by enhancing the range and improving the technical specifications of its existing arsenals. China may also like to achieve a capability equivalent to the Bulava missile.

Any response by China in this regard especially in the context of the induction of Bulava missile with the armed forces in Russia will have implications for India's force structure. India has also perfected the technology for launching ballistic missiles from a nuclear powered submarine.

India might like to augment its capabilities to fulfill the requisites for having a credible and effective nuclear deterrent capability.

Despite the fact that the Bulava ballistic missile is United States-centric, it will have destabilizing impact on the South Asian region. The international strategic stability would certainly have negative consequences from the induction.