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US Navy unveils electromagnetic railgun prototypes

Published time: July 11, 2014 23:58
AFP Photo / US Navy photo by John F. Williams / HO

AFP Photo / US Navy photo by John F. Williams / HO

Prototypes of the US Navy’s much vaunted electromagnetic railguns were unveiled this week. The new technology, capable of firing projectiles at up to 5,600 miles per hour, is set to revolutionize naval warfare.

The Navy demonstrated two working railgun prototypes aboard the USS Millinocket in San Diego, developed by the Office of Naval Research. The high-tech weapons function by using an electrical pulse which creates an electromagnetic force to propel a projectile

In addition to supplementing or replacing traditional artillery aboard Navy vessels, railguns also offer a large price advantage over conventional missiles. Railgun projectiles are believed to cost about $25,000 per unit – 100 times less than traditional missiles, according to Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research.

“We only have so many [missiles] on our ships. I can put hundreds and hundreds of these projectiles on our naval vessels with that gun system,” he said.

The downside to current railtech technology is a shorter projectile range, some 110 miles, as conventional missiles can still travel about twice as far, said Klunder.

“We think that it is part of our future,” he said. “And we think that it truly is going to make our adversaries very, very nervous in the future.”

One additional advantage of railguns is the absence of potentially dangerous propellants. According to John Perry of BAE Systems, which was awarded the prototype contract chosen by the US Navy, that could make future warships safer for the men and women serving aboard them.

“That means sailors no longer have to handle propelling charges and the safety and liability issues related to that,” said Perry.

The new railguns fit into the Navy’s current three-pronged plan to boost its firepower, which includes reviving its long-range missile capability lost after the retirement of the 600-mile-range Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile system. Defensive missiles would likely be replaced or enhanced by ship-based lasers, while railguns would complement (but not replace) offensive long-range missiles.

Despite any shortcomings, the main advantage of the railgun will be the unprecedented kinetic projectile speed, which is some six times faster than a bullet fired from a standard handgun and delivers 32 megajoules of energy.

“Literally it is like taking a huge freight train and going through the wall that's a few feet to my left at over 100 miles an hour. Right through that wall,” said Klunder.

In anticipation of railgun deployments, the Navy is already building vessels capable of producing the energy needed for operating them – that being America’s newest and largest destroyer class, the Zumwalt. Three DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class vessels will be launched in the coming years.

The Navy predicts that railguns could be rolled out as soon as 2017, and plans to mount a prototype aboard a Joint High Speed Vessel the year prior for further testing.

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