A theoretical dream for decades, the railgun is unlike any other weapon used in warfare. And it's quite real too, as the U.S. Navy has proven in a record-setting test today in Dahlgren, VA.For about the price of 1/4th of an LCS ...
Rather than relying on a explosion to fire a projectile, the technology uses an electomagnetic current to accelerate a non-explosive bullet at several times the speed of sound. The conductive projectile zips along a set of electrically charged parallel rails and out of the barrel at speeds up to Mach 7.
The result: a weapon that can hit a target 100 miles or more away within minutes.
"It's an over-used term, but it really changes several games," Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr, Jr., the chief of Naval Research, told FoxNews.com prior to the test.
For a generation raised on shoot-'em-up video games, the word "railgun" invokes sci-fi images of an impossibly destructive weapon annihilating monsters and aliens. But the railgun is nonetheless very real.
An electromagnetic railgun offers a velocity previously unattainable in a conventional weapon, speeds that are incredibly powerful on their own. In fact, since the projectile doesn't have any explosives itself, it relies upon that kinetic energy to do damage. And at 11 a.m. today, the Navy produced a 33-megajoule firing -- more than three times the previous record set by the Navy in 2008.
Ellis says the Navy has invested about $211 million in the program since 2005, ...There needs more progress on the supporting technology.
The Navy still has a distance to go, however, before the railgun test becomes a working onboard weapon. Technically, Ellis says they've already overcome several hurdles. The guns themselves generate a terrific amount of heat -- enough to melt the rails inside the barrel -- and power -- enough to force the rails apart, destroying the gun and the barrel in the process.We can get there, I'm confident. Once we do, then comes the interesting part - how do you operationalize it?
The projectile is no cannon ball, either. At speeds well above the sound barrier, aerodynamics and special materials must be considered so that it isn't destroyed coming out of the barrel or by heat as it travels at such terrific speeds.
Then there's question of electrical requirements. Up until recently, those requirements simply weren't practical. However, the naval researchers believe they can solve that issue using newer Navy ships and capacitors to build up the charge necessary to blast a railgun projectile out at supersonic speeds. Ellis says they hope to be able to shoot 6 to 12 rounds per minute, "but we're not there yet."
If the vibe I am getting from this program plays out - they will be smart enough not to over-sell, and to do a mature, calm, undramatic product development progression from lab, land, test platform, sea demonstration, ship evaluation ... and then if all works out well, design a ship around it.
Both Ellis and Carr expect fully functional railguns on the decks of U.S. Navy ships in the 2025 time frame.And what will we get?
... the railgun provides many significant advantages over convention weapons. For one thing, a railgun offers 2 to 3 times the velocity of a conventional big gun, so that it can hit its target within 6 minutes. By contrast, a guided cruise missile travels at subsonic speeds, meaning that the intended target could be gone by the time it reaches its destination.With continued support - I think that sounds about right. It may just come in time.
Furthermore, current U.S. Navy guns can only reach targets about 13 miles away. The railgun being tested today could reach an enemy 100 miles away. And with current GPS guidance systems it could do so with pinpoint accuracy. The Navy hopes to eventually extend the range beyond 200 miles.
"We're also eliminating explosives from the ship, which brings significant safety benefits and logistical benefits," Ellis said. In other words, there is less danger of an unintended explosion onboard, particularly should such a vessel come under attack.
With the advances of technology, computers, and a better understanding of what it takes to destroy a missile in flight - in 15 years and utility and effectiveness of the missile as an offensive weapon might come under significant risk. When you think about it - a missile is a very fragile thing.
A gun round designed to go from 0 to Mach 7 in just a few meters? That is a little tougher to kill.
Keep the transformationalists away from the program - don't over sell it - and follow the best practices of the 1950-60s missile programs in rolling out the new weapon. If we do that, I think we might have something here. The fundamentals of war at sea and projection of power ashore will remain the same - just how you do it will change.