War at 5,000 miles per hour: The US Navy wants railguns now

June 3, 2016 12:59 PM (UTC+8)

 

By Kris Osborn

The Navy is considering accelerating developmental testing of its high-tech, long-range Electro-Magnetic Rail Gun by expanding the platforms from which it might fire and potentially postponing an upcoming at-sea demonstration of the weapon, service officials told Scout Warrior.

US Navy railgun experiment
US Navy railgun experiment

Such a strategy, service officials explain, might help speed-up testing of both the rail gun launcher and hypervelocity projectile. This approach might allow the rail gun hypervelocity projectile to fire a 5,000-mile and hour projectile from a wider range of existing maritime and land-based platforms such as deck-mounted Navy 5-inch guns and Army artillery systems.

“The Navy is studying the pros/cons of forgoing a 2016 at-sea demonstration of the Railgun system, with an eye toward potential opportunities for accelerating testing of Railgun and the associated hypervelocity projectile.  Discussions are ongoing,” Matt Leonard, spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Scout Warrior.

Navy officials now explain that this planned at-sea demonstration may be delayed. This might help weapons developers further accelerate development of both the gun launcher and the hypervelocity projectile it fires. While plans for the weapon’s development are still being deliberated, one possibility may the integration of the projectile onto existing weapons platforms such as the Navy’s deck-mounted 5-inch guns or Army Paladin self-propelled howitzers which fire artillery.

As a result, postponing the at-sea demonstration may help Navy developers accelerate testing of both the gun launcher and projectile, enabling them to explore firing from a range of different platforms.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has indicated that the weapon’s high-speed deadly projectile could indeed be fired from some of these existing weapons’ platforms.

Despite some of these ongoing considerations, Navy officials emphasize that no formal decisions have been made and that postponing the demonstration is, at this point, an idea being discussed, Leonard emphasized.

In the upcoming demonstration, which may be postponed or skipped, is planned for later this year. In the upcoming at-sea firing of the weapon, the kinetic energy projectile will seek to hit, destroy or explosion at sea target from on-board the USNS Trenton, a Joint High Speed Vessel, service officials said.

USNS Trenton at shipyard
USNS Trenton at shipyard

The test shots, which will be the first of its kind for the developmental, next-generation weapon, will take place at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

During the test, the rail gun will fire a series of GPS-guided hypervelocity projectiles at a barge floating on the ocean about 25 to 50 nautical miles away, Leonard explained

The weapon will be fired against a floating target, in an effort to test the rail gun’s ability to destroy targets that are beyond-the-horizon, Navy officials said.

The rail gun uses an electromagnetic current to fire a kinetic energy warhead up to 100 miles at speeds greater than 5,000 miles an hour, a speed at least three times as fast as existing weapons.

High-Speed, Long-Distance Electromagnetic Weapons Technology: 

The weapon’s range, which can fire guided, high-speed projectiles more than 100 miles, makes it suitable for cruise missile defense, ballistic missile defense and various kinds of surface warfare applications.

The railgun uses electrical energy to create a magnetic field and propel a kinetic energy projectile at Mach 7.5 toward a wide range of targets, such as enemy vehicles, or cruise and ballistic missiles.

The weapon works when electrical power charges up a pulse-forming network. That pulse-forming network is made up of capacitors able to release very large amounts of energy in a very short period of time.

The weapon releases a current on the order of 3 to 5 million amps — that’s 1,200 volts released in a ten millisecond timeframe, experts have said. That is enough to accelerate a mass of approximately 45 pounds from zero to five thousand miles per hour in one one-hundredth of a second, Navy officials added at a briefing last Spring.

Due to its ability to reach speeds of up to 5,600 miles per hour, the hypervelocity projectile is engineered as a kinetic energy warhead, meaning no explosives are necessary. The hyper velocity projectile can travel at speeds up to 2,000 meters per second, a speed which is about three times that of most existing weapons. The rate of fire is 10-rounds per minute, developers explained at last years’ briefing.

Due to its ability to reach speeds of up to 5,600 miles per hour, the hypervelocity projectile is engineered as a kinetic energy warhead, meaning no explosives are necessary. The hyper velocity projectile can travel at speeds up to 2,000 meters per second, a speed which is about three times that of most existing weapons. The rate of fire is 10-rounds per minute, developers explained at last years’ briefing.

A kinetic energy hypervelocity warhead also lowers the cost and the logistics burden of the weapon, they explained.

Although it has the ability to intercept cruise missiles, the hypervelocity projectile can be stored in large numbers on ships. Unlike other larger missile systems designed for similar missions, the hypervelocity projectile costs only $25,000 per round.

The railgun can draw its power from an onboard electrical system or large battery, Navy officials said. The system consists of five parts, including a launcher, energy storage system, a pulse-forming network, hypervelocity projectile and gun mount.

While the weapon is currently configured to guide the projectile against fixed or static targets using GPS technology, it is possible that in the future the rail gun could be configured to destroy moving targets as well, Navy officials have explained over the years.

Possible Rail Gun Deployment on Navy Destroyers:

Also, the Navy is evaluating whether to mount its new Electromagnetic Rail Gun weapon from the high-tech DDG 1000 destroyer by the mid-2020s, service officials said.

Artist's conception of Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyer in battle.
Artist’s conception of Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyer in battle

The DDG 1000’s Integrated Power System provides a large amount of on board electricity sufficient to accommodate the weapon, Navy developers have explained.

The first of three planned DDG 1000 destroyers was christened in April of last year.

Navy leaders believe the DDG 1000 is the right ship to house the rail gun but that additional study was necessary to examine the risks.

Also, with a displacement of 15,482 tons, the DDG 1000 is 65-percent larger than existing 9,500- ton Aegis cruisers and destroyers.

The DDG 1,000 integrated power system, which includes its electric propulsion, helps generate up to 78 megawatts of on-board electrical power, something seen as key to the future when it comes to the possibility of firing a rail gun.

It is also possible that the weapon could someday be configured to fire from DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.  Something of that size is necessary, given the technological requirements of the weapon.

For example, the Electro-magnetic gun would most likely not work as a weapon for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.

Kris Osborn became the Managing Editor of Scout Warrior in August of 2015. His role with Scout.com includes managing content on the Scout Warrior site and generating independently sourced original material. Scout Warrior is aimed at providing engaging, substantial military-specific content covering a range of key areas such as weapons, emerging or next-generation technologies and issues of relevance to the military. Just prior to coming to Scout Warrior, Osborn served as an Associate Editor at the Military.com.

This story first appeared in Scout Warrior and The National Interest. It is republished here with permission.

 

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