Saturday, December 11, 2010

Railgun: so far, nice bang for the buck

Slow, steady progress. I don't know all the details I wish I did, but I get a good vibe from this program. Every time it breaks above the NL, it just sounds "right." Right not just in the technological progress, but in how the program is being run.
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.

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.
For about the price of 1/4th of an LCS ...
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.

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."
We can get there, I'm confident. Once we do, then comes the interesting part - how do you operationalize it?

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.

When?
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.

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 continued support - I think that sounds about right. It may just come in time.

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.

From Gun to Missile to Gun. A new era for a primary weapon perhaps? The gun never left us of course ... but could she regain her top billing?

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.

Good news.


44 comments:

Byron said...

I'm just a dumb shipfitter, but what is the velocity at the end of the 100 mile trip? Granted, I know what a kinetic kill is and how it works; it's been the stuff of science fiction for decades. The hard sci-fi authors "knew" what the results would be, and what the theory is. The way it "should work" is in atmosphere, a rail gun round will lose energy as it forces it's way through the air. If that is true, by the time this projectile has traveled 100 miles it has already bled off a considerable amount of energy and just like a bullet will actually begin to drop.

Inquiring minds and all that...

GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY!!!!!

Byron said...

Ok, I grok it now :) . The point brought up about the GPS package and extremely high accelerations is a good one. I think that will be the sticking point. I expect the round to be tungsten with a ceramic coating. It'll have to be something that won't warp from heat (which would be a bad thing, accuracy-wise).

ewok40k said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UjRT1BF05k
use this vid to sell the system to Skippy! I am sold already :P

Retired Now said...

The EMI  guru's at Dahlgren will be interested in this.   Will it create any huge EMI issues ?

Just like that electromagnetic EMALS catapault for USS FORD.    Big EMI challenge.

( Note to NAVAIR:  Steam does not create any EMI for ships and jets on deck. )

jim said...

Very impressive. I wish progress wasn't measured in decades, but such is life.

So, what are the unsolved problems left? Just thinking out loud:

1) Getting to full power -- ie 64MJ. Looks like they feel confident this won't be too hard. They tripled power in the last few years from 10MJ-33MJ. They need one more doubling to hit their target.

2) Rails that can last for many shots. Can't tell from the news how much progress they've made here. I assume the rails need to last for many (tens? hundreds? thousands?) shots for this to be a useful weapon. Sounds like the rails currently get used up very quickly -- maybe even just one shot.

3) Guided projectiles. I assume these will use GPS. So you need a high-G GPS kit, which I think is a solved problem. And you need some guidance mechanism, like steerable fins. Is a railgun projectile that much harder of a problem than Excalibur? If so, how much harder?

4) Electricity supply. A one-off on land is one thing, rapid fire with ship-board power is another. No current ship can supply this kind of power. So it'd be some future ship or a retrofit of an existing ship in the 2020s. The hope is ultra-capacitors, right? My impression was that there's still significant work to get those to work though.

....

So, many problems still to solve, hence the notional 2025 timeframe. As a non-expert, in terms of publicly available info it seem the durable rails and ship-board energy supply problems still are far from a solution.

jim said...

Oh, and here's a news blurb from their 2007 test firing. http://www.strategypage.com/militaryforums/29-5228.aspx

In the blurb the Navy guy says the projectile will undergo hundreds of thousands of gs at launch. I believe the Excalibur and similar guided projectiles undergo tens of thousands of gs, so that's an order of magnitude improvement needed in GPS + steerable surface.

Also of note is that in the 2007 blurb the Navy was bragging about a 2020 operational use. So the past 3 years have already seen a 5 year slide to the right. Given the technological hurdles still remaining, that probable won't be the last slide. Hope I'm wrong though.

Southern Air Pirate said...

Hey that is great Navy, but when is NAVAIR going to make this electromagent system work with out causing billions of dollars damage to the testing version?

Anonymous said...

Baby steps, cut and try, get the whole system reliable, not just the bullet projector, keep the cost low. Show 'em David Niven in "Spitfire" once a week.

Keep quiet about it. Go 3 shifts. Name the first ship "Monitor II".  

I'm thinking it might have to show up at the last minute and save our ass.

Vigilis said...

This is not an improved offensive naval weapon, in my opinion.  Google "SDI". Wikipedia has a nice photo of a seven gram Lexan projectile was fired at 23,000 feet per second at this cast aluminum block. Enough destruction to destroy missile guidance and cheap enough to buckshot more than one at a time.

The proposed kinetic method offers little marginal military value for any intended purpose other than anti-MIRV NMD.  For that, it would not only be safer and more economical than existing interceptors, it would be non-nuclear and as effective. Moreover, by co-siting launchers at selected commercial, nuclear power plants, huge cost savings can be realized for both input power and certain HSA considerations. 

Nuclear carriers could use to thwart Chinese modified Dong Feng 21 missiles - DF-21(D).  The naval need is for nuclear aircraft carrier anti-missile defense.  Cruisers, not so much. 

sobersubmrnr said...

There's no propellant involved, so what causes all those flames?

pk said...

perhaps a heat treated martinsitic stainless with a nitrided coating?

Surfcaster said...

Heat? Igniting sourrounding oxygen? Released energy? Ton of that happening at that point.

Surfcaster said...

<span>Heat? Igniting sourrounding oxygen? Released energy? Ton of that happening at that point.</span>

Maybe my eyes are playing with me but one of the electrical doo-hickeys seemed to zap itself during / after the firing, about 3/4s back on left side.

sid said...

Hmmm...

What are the odds the DDG-1000  electrical system meet whatever the NVR equivalent is to Level III Survivability standards?

Or, for that matter, Level I even?

Anonymous said...

Fire one shot. How big is the local EMP? Will all systems aboard be knocked out?

xformed said...

Couple of thoughts...

1)  Nice to consider getting rid of explosives, but...when E-power is a critical factor in battle damage, and do we fight sitting still, or run as fast as we can while not shooting becomes a decision point...

2)  Most likely large banks of capacitors will be a part of the IOCed system.  Back to battle damage:  Considered the huge electrical discharge issues? Not to say magazines don't explode, but you can have a chance to flood them and maybe save your vessel/crew.  Eddie Electron...not so compliant.

I have read the battery powered green vehicles will pose quite a challenge to first responders, for the reason of having large capacitors.  Try using one of the big saws to get someone wout with those sitting in the mix.

Revolution will need to happen to handle such problems.

Southern Air Pirate said...

How are we going to generate the Megajoules required to power the capacitors to fire this bad boy off? I mean our current crop of gas turbine powered SWO's, drink fuel like Dean Martin drank Gin. Also, I wonder how much electrical power will be there to to power the NGEN AEGIS and the Railgun. The final thing I think about is at least with in the DDG-1000 is no one has fully explained to me how this IPS will work and can it handle the electrical loads, moving the ship through a storm, and how provide power to run both the Sonar/Radar/ECM systems. The only thing that I can think of which might have enough electrically to power this bad boy might be a A4W or D2G at least. So then that will limit us to only two yards in friendly US territory that will be able to successfully dry dock this ship, Bremerton Naval Yard and Norfolk Naval Yard. Hmmm not good

ewok40k said...

Definitely its time to revisit CGN idea - or even , dare I say, BBGN?

Retired Now said...

RF power decrements by the square of the distance.   NSWC DD  (Dahlgren) is concerned what a North Korean small nuc might do if fired straight up to 400,000+ foot altitude and detonated.   The resultant HEMP might induce even 1 watt  (not 1 kw ) onto some cable running partially outside the skin of the ship.   And even that 1 watt of power induced on a satnav cable could easily destroy the entire system on the interior of the warship.   COTS equipments are now-a-days operating in the microamp and microvolt ranges.    So 1 watt, even if attenuated by 50 db, would destroy the inside satcom below decks system.

So, now NAVAIR NAVSEA decide to put EMALS electronic catapaults on CVN-78, 79  and maybe install powerful electromagnetic rail guns.  Where ?  50 to 100 miles away from our new warships ?

Nope,  The U.S. Navy is going to install these incredibly powerful EMP generators (if you will) right here onboard our very own warships !    Perhaps 75 feet (not miles) away from 40 Super Hornets prowling around the flight deck of USS FORD, armed with their ever present giant fuel tanks and perhaps even a small missile or two.    Want to bet that the NSWC DD database for Fleet EMI problems will grow by leaps and bounds in the future ?   This is good news for civil servants and their contractor partners in crime, who will have absolute job security investigating (but not resolving) many "strange" EMI problems in the next 30 years.

Jump ahead to 2020:   Question:  Where could all these new subtle Fleet EMI problems possibly be coming from ?   We just can't figure it out ....  Let's start a huge new organization to inverstigate....

Does the NAVAIR NAVSEA monster bureaucracies have any "foresight" ?   (not to mention any "hindsight" or "insight").

One possible "solution" is to ban the use of all COTS components, systems on all future warships.   That will ensure a doubling of the price of each Navy warship, so forget that "solution".

I think the solution is obvious:   steam catapaults have no EMI at all.   And can you imagine putting enough SSDG or SSTG electrical generators onboard, say, an LPD to power a railgun ?   No problem if you stop carrying any marines or equipment.    Existing (proven) and future surface to air missiles do not generate monstrous EMI,  which in effect is like creating an EMP right onboard our very own ships.    We will shoot ourselves right in our own feet.    Glad I'm retired...

LT Rusty said...

You're mixing your Heinlein's here, Byron.   :)

LT Rusty said...

Brad - 

E-power is, potentially, far worse than explosives in terms of battle damage.  You know when you attach jumper cables, the sparks you see?  Amplify that by quite a few orders of magnitude.  The flashes that you're seeing are actually plasma.  When you have a capacitor bank big enough to support a railgun shot, or multiple railgun shots set up for rapid fire, then the arc flash from shorting it out could be enough to conceivably just vaporize chunks of your ship in a big blue flash.

LT Rusty said...

1.  This won't be too difficult, really.  It's a matter of refining materials and components.
2.  This is not really a solvable problem, tbh.  The rails have to be a conductive material in order to support the EM flux that provides propulsion. Because you are essentially shorting out these two rails with your projectile's shoe (which must also be conductive) you're getting a lot of material stripped away from / deposited on the rails by the firing.  This is going to cause degradation, and require replacement of the rails.  You just have to look at them as consumables.

3.  You've already answered that question in another post.  Hard.   :)
4.  Charging the capacitors is not difficult.  If you have the power available you can charge them quite quickly ... if you don't have much power available - say, 7500 kW on a DDG - you can still get the caps up to full power, it just takes a lot longer.  You can effectively trickle-charge them just like batteries.

Byron said...

I could have called it a "Pic pocking gun" and mixed my Ringo :)

James said...

Well as far as power goes there are many systems in the works. Nukes Yes is one but also there is thorium reactors.

http://energyfromthorium.com/

Also the yare discovering ways to make and stor electricity all the time. As well as refining them to make them better and more efficent.

As for the EMP issue. No offense to those here but WTF. In todays world were a EMP bomb could be smuggled onto a container ship isnt it kinda a bad idea to go without protection? ;)

I asked the same question once about what would happen if a nuke was detonated above the US in our atmosphere. I was told by numerous people among them engineers that most modern electronics are accually pretty resistent to EMP pulses.

As for the danger to surrounding ships and the vessels themselves. Which i assume will be specially designed for this work (Did yall realise the size of the gun in the video) they are already working on it.

cdrsalamander said...

Dilithium chrystals should work as well.

James said...

LOL. Does that count as transformational technology :-D

Torium reator tech is OLD. It was around back in the 50-and 60's. However, nuclear reactors were chosen because it produced the fissable material nessesary for our cold war arsenal.

The tech is proven.

James said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/ff_new_nukes/

Couple more places....

Therapist1 said...

I was wondering how those powerful magnets effect the electronics of a more sophisticated, GPS,
round.

LT Rusty said...

Hm.  I speed-read your comment, my mind translated 'xformed' as 'xbradtc.'  Sorry about the name mixup!

mark said...

That issue was covered fairy well.  The software lined up the shot 180 degrees off, or was that the tinfoil hat explanation? 

mark said...

Norfolk Naval Yard?  Right.  Are you from France, southern air pirate?  You certainly seem to have your head up the furthest point of contact.  Even an Avondale warrior is conversant on the different ship yards which can handle the bouncing atom stuff. 

mark said...

I'm sure Dahlgren will be intersted in the EMP issues, they may have even caught the memo, since the shot was in their backyard.  What the heck.  Is this high school vacation week, here?

Grandpa Bluewater said...

As long as you have the tap from the matter-antimatter power generators for back up.

mark said...

<span>I'm sure Dahlgren will be intersted in the EMI issues, they may have even caught the memo, since the shot was in their backyard.  What the heck.  Is this high school vacation week?</span>

sid said...

<span>What % of China's population would be within range of a weapon stationed 100 miles off the coast?</span>

What are the odds that any surface ship will be able to close to 100nm off the China coast in 10-15 years undetected and unmolested?

James said...

Ok then you get nukes which means fewer ports to park in and more expense. Just sayin.

Wow.......

Anonymous said...

Shipmate. I was on a nuclear power carrier back in winter of 2001 to summer of 2002, we were dry docked at Norfolk Naval having some reactor work done by Newport News Naval Shipyard (that half way through the 12month dry dock, became Northrup Grumman Newport News Naval Shipyard). Why cause all of Northrup Grumman's dry docks were tied up with the refueling of the Chucky V and the construction of the George Bush. All we were having done was repairs to the secondary coolant loops of the 8 onboard reactors but still that was reactor repairs and I remember seeing as I was one of the primary fire watch team LPO's plenty of folks carrying piping in nice magenta bags and some lime green bags with the handy dandy radation yellow stickers on them closing them up.  Norfolk Naval isn't fully certified to do refuelings, but they do have the capabilities to do some limited repairs to some of the systems that provide the bouncing atom stuff. Newport News is still primary contractor for all surface ships for complete reactor builds and refuelings and Bremerton for reactor disposal.

LifeoftheMind said...

We need ASW. and about 2 dozen of those super quiet air independent drive Swedish subs would be a good idea.

Southern Air Pirate said...

I am not a member of the tinfoil hat brigade. However, I heard at more then a few AIRLANT "where we are, where we're going" conferences at the White House at Norfolk Naval Base and at the Base Theater, that EMALS was going to be in the Bush and budget into the Lincoln's refit this year. Those speeches were given back in 2000 and 2001.  Oh and it was going to be ready on arrival. Hmmm, tell me how is that going now?

Southern Air Pirate said...

Oh and I have been hearing about how the EMALS was supposed to "ready on arrival" since the DoD Bottom-Up Review circa 1995. Though then it was referred to in most of those white papers as the Next Generation Launch and Recovery equipment and it was supposed to be on the USS George Bush, CVN-77, which was supposed to be the transformational tween the old school CVN-68 hulls and the proposed CVNX-21. They were also supposed to be installed on the Mobile Off-shore Bases. Tell me again where is CVNX-21, what about the MOB, and why is the George Bush getting the current series steam cats that have been around since the 1950's in thier most basic form, instead of the EMALS? Though these steam cats are safer and more efficent the the old Hyd and Black powder cats that were created in the 1930's on.

LT Rusty said...

A railgun doesn't actually use magnets, as such.  That's something more along the lines of a coil gun.  A railgun uses two rails of a conductive material with an extremely high delta in potential between them.  When a projectile is injected between them on a small conductive sled or shoe, shorting out the rails, there is a brief - yet powerful - electromagnetic flux that propels the projectile.  But there are no true magnets there.

mark said...

My apologies.  I was wrong and showed a bit of my ass.  We'll expand the definition of Norfolk Naval yard to include both Portsmouth and NN.  Come to think of it, your ship is probably the reason MY ship got booted out of the dock and spent the winter in Dundalk.  Lets not speak of the yard in Dundalk again.

James said...

OK here we go friend gave me some Extra info i was looking up the wrong thing.

http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=ie7&q=molten+salt+reactor&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7ADRA_en


http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=ie7&q=molten+salt+reactor&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&rlz=1I7ADRA_en#hl=en&rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox&rlz=1I7ADRA_en&q=thorium+molten+salt+reactor&revid=578569593&sa=X&ei=g7gGTcOFOMGqlAeJtNipCQ&ved=0CHwQ1QIoAA&fp=8b875cfd32f7e9c4

Messages have been messing up for me for a few days....sigh.

Als obeen talkin to a guy who is pretty sure that they can get the 12-14 inch guns out to almost 300 mi. with increased round length and barrel length and a couple other things.

Salty Gator's NMCI Computer Broke said...

Ho Hum.   You cannot do volume fires with this gun, so forget USMC support.  There is no explosive warhead, so forget about hitting large formations of troops unless you can develop a warhead that can eject BB's.  I like this gun for terminal BMD.  We'll see...