“Trident” against “Bulava”. Different but equal?

Rocket launch UGM-133A Trident II

Russia and the United States have developed strategic nuclear forces (SNF) with a full-fledged naval component. The key element of the latter is submarine ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The newest examples of this kind are the Russian P-30 Bulava and the American UGM-133A Trident II (D5). These missiles are very different from each other, but have the same value for the national defense of the two countries.

Old american rocket

The development of the future UGM-133A started in the early seventies and was seriously delayed. It was possible to complete the tests of the finished product only in the late eighties, and in 1990 the rocket officially entered service. The main customer of the Trident II SLBM (“Trident-2”) was the US Navy. Also, the missiles entered service with the UK. The missiles were deployed on two types of SSBNs of American and British construction.

The UGM-133A is a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile with solid propellant engines. The product has a length of 13.5 m with a diameter of 2.1 m and a launch mass of more than 59 tons. Guidance is carried out due to inertial and satellite navigation with astro-correction.

The throw weight of the Trident II reaches 2800 kg. Separating warhead (MIRV) can carry warheads (BB) for individual guidance such as W88 (475 kt) or W76 (100 kt) – 8 and 14 units, respectively. However, the missiles do not carry a full ammunition load to improve other characteristics. Last year, the production of the W76-2 block with a capacity of no more than 5-7 kt was started for solving special problems.


American SSBN USS Tennessee (SSBN-734) Ohio-class. Photo: USNavy / Wikimedia.org

At full combat load, the UGM-133A shows a firing range of 7800 km. The maximum range obtained with a reduction in the number of warheads is 11,300 km. Circular probable deviation – up to 90 m, depending on the guidance method.

New Russian product

Work on the Russian missile system based on the R-30 Bulava SLBM started in the late nineties, and already in 2004 the first tests took place. In September 2005, the first shooting with a full-scale product was performed. By the beginning of the tenth years, production was prepared, and the production of serial missiles began. However, the order for acceptance into service came out only in June 2018.

“Bulava” – a three-stage solid-propellant SLBM with the ability to carry MIRV and anti-missile defense means. The length of the rocket is 12.1 m with a diameter of 2 m. The launch weight is 36.8 tons. The throw weight is estimated at 1100-1200 kg. Control systems include inertial navigation aids based on modern components.

According to various sources, the R-30 carries from 6 to 10 BB of individual guidance. The capacity of these products is estimated at 100-150 kt. There is information about the development of warheads with the ability to maneuver on a trajectory. Together with warheads, the missile carries false targets and other means of overcoming missile defense. The maximum firing range reaches 9300 km. The accuracy indicators are unknown, but unofficial sources claim that the KVO does not exceed 90-100 m.

Media question

The naval component of the US strategic nuclear forces includes 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. In the past, there were 18 of them, but 4 ships were rebuilt into carriers of cruise missiles. The oldest of the order boats of the Ohio Ave. joined the Navy in 1984. The latter has been in service since 1997.


Covers of launchers on the deck of SSBN USS Wyoming (SSBN-742). Photo: Rebecca Rebarich, US Navy

The Ohio-class SSBN missile compartment accommodates 24 silo launchers for UGM-133A missiles. Thus, the US Navy can simultaneously put to sea up to 336 Trident II-class SLBMs. The maximum number of warheads is from 2,688 to 4,704. However, the terms of existing agreements allow deploying no more than 1,500 BB. It is also necessary to take into account that “Ohio” does not go out on patrol at the same time with the whole group.

The main ally of the USA, Great Britain in 1993-1999. commissioned four Vanguard-class SSBNs. Such ships carry 16 missiles – a total of up to 64. At the same time, there are rather strict restrictions on the number of warheads.

The real combat carriers of the R-30 SLBM are the strategic missile submarine cruisers of the project 955 Borey. To date, three such ships have been built and put into service in the Navy. The fourth, built on Project 955A, has recently completed state tests and will soon be handed over to the Navy. Another four new SSBNs are at various stages of construction.

All types of Borey submarines have 16 silos for Bulava missiles. Thus, at present they can deliver only 48 missiles with 288-480 warheads to patrol areas. In the coming months, such capabilities of the fleet will increase, however, even after that, the quantitative indicators of Boreyev and Bulav will remain limited.


SSBN TK-208 “Dmitry Donskoy” pr. 941UM – experimental carrier of SLBM R-30

However, one should not worry about the potential of the naval component of the Russian strategic nuclear forces. Until a sufficient number of “Boreevs” have been built, the main work in this area falls on the older SSBNs of the project 667BDR “Kalmar” and 667BDRM “Dolphin”. Now in service there are six such ships, each of which carries 16 SLBMs of the R-29RM family. Over the next few years, the Dolphins will retain the status of the base of the sea component of the strategic nuclear forces, but then they will give way to the Borey.

“Trident” versus “Bulava”

Comparison of two modern SLBMs of leading nuclear powers is of great interest. A simple comparison of tabular data can lead to unambiguous conclusions, but it is not so simple.

From the point of view of the main indicators – maximum range and throw weight – the American rocket looks like a clear leader. However, it cannot send all 2.8 tons of payload to the maximum range of 11.3 thousand km. The Russian Bulava has more modest performance, but it is not yet clear how the maximum values ​​of its characteristics are combined. Shooting accuracy is comparable, which allows you to get close hitting results.

The situation with combat equipment looks interesting – moreover, it is complicated by the lack of accurate data. The BB nomenclature for the Trident II is probably a little wider, and it also includes more powerful items. Also, the W76-2 charge of reduced power has been developed to solve special problems.


Submarine “Alexander Nevsky” and its crew

The Russian rocket carries up to 10 blocks with a capacity of up to 100-150 kt. Taking into account modern trends and in combination with the achieved accuracy, this is sufficient to defeat typical targets of SLBMs. An important feature of the Bulava is its modern anti-missile defense system, which increases the likelihood of successful passage of warheads to targets. At the same time, it is possible to equip the R-30 with a full set of BBs without the risk of going beyond the established restrictions.

According to known data, “Bulava” has an advantage in the form of increased resistance to missile defense and at the initial stage of flight. Like other modern Russian ICBMs, the R-30 is distinguished by improved engine power and a reduced duration of the active section – up to 3-4 times in comparison with its predecessors. Accordingly, the time for the reaction of the enemy missile defense system, working on ICBMs taking off, is reduced. As far as we know, the older Trident has a “normal” flight profile.

The most important advantage of the UGM-133A SLBM is their potential and actual number, provided by carriers. The US Navy has 14 Ohio-class submarines and can deploy a large number of SLBMs and BBs. This opportunity is being actively used, and in recent years the naval component of strategic nuclear forces accounts for at least half of all deployed warheads.


“Prince Vladimir” – the first representative of the improved project 955A

Russian indicators of this kind are much more modest, even taking into account the older R-29RM missiles. However, this is due to a different approach to the formation of strategic nuclear forces. Our nuclear forces rely mainly on land-based missiles. They account for the bulk of deployed BBs.

Customer requirements

Considering modern SLBMs from leading countries, it is necessary to take into account one of the most important factors – the views of the customer in the formation of tactical and technical requirements (TTT) for future weapons.

TTT for the promising UGM-133A were formed more than 40 years ago, and the finished missile entered service in 1990.Since then, the military-political situation has changed, some old threats have disappeared, but new ones have appeared. To meet the new requirements and wishes of the military, it is necessary to modernize existing SLBMs – with the known limitations of such processes.

The R-30 Bulava was created later, and the customer took into account all modern and future threats, needs, contract restrictions, etc. Thus, this SLBM more fully meets the current requirements and takes into account modern views on defense in general and the role of the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces in particular. This can explain the significant difference in the characteristics of the Bulava and previous domestic missiles, as well as the difference from the American Trident.


Bulava launch from Prince Vladimir, October 30, 2019

However, it cannot be ruled out that certain technological limitations affected the characteristics of the finished R-30. The development and production of this rocket was preceded by a difficult period that seriously hit science and industry. In the absence of such problems, TTT on a promising SLBM could look different.

Different but equal?

From the point of view of tactical and technical characteristics, modern SLBMs of Russia and the United States are seriously different. In a number of parameters, the UGM-133A Trident II has advantages, but in others the R-30 Bulava shows itself better. With all this, both models are in service and ensure the strategic security of their states.

The fact that “Bulava” and “Trident” are in service and are not being replaced, although modernization is being carried out, directly indicates compliance with the requirements of the operators and existing strategies. Accordingly, the two considered SLBMs are equally good in the framework of the defense doctrines of their countries and are suitable for solving the assigned tasks. And these factors are much more important than total kilometers and kilograms.

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