As the US Navy touts the capabilities of its new, high-powered electromagnetic rail gun, the service has announced its goal of testing the weapon at sea in 2016.
The rail gun, often likened to something out of “Star Wars,” uses electromagnetic energy to fire 23-pound projectiles up to seven times the speed of sound and over 100 miles. While testing has so far taken place solely on land, the Rear Admiral Matt Klunder of the Naval Research team said that in two years the weapon would be placed on the high-speed USNS Millinocket for sea trials.
"It's now reality and it's not science fiction. It's actually real. You can look at it. It's firing," Klunder said to Reuters.
The current models of the rail gun – one developed by General Atomic and one by BAE Systems – can fire a single projectile at a time, but the next phase of development will see BAE working on a version that can fire multiple shots in rapid succession and auto-load its ammunition.
As noted by Reuters, US officials are wary of the notion that competing nations could erase the country’s edge in military capabilities -- notably, RT reported in 2012 that China has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles, which the rail gun is intended to neutralize. If the tests are successful, the weapon’s deployment could maintain that advantage even as defense budgets shrink.
"I think that's a pretty good deterrent message to our adversaries out there that want to threaten our nation," Klunder said to Fox News. "I think they're going to think long and hard about do I even want to engage the United States of America with the threat knowing that we've got a rail gun system now that will take anything out of the sky that they're going to send at us."
Perhaps just as important as the rail gun’s power is its affordability. Although the cost of firing the weapon won’t be as cheap as the new lasers the Navy is developing – as RT reported in the past, those weapons could cost as little as a few dollars per shot – the rail gun’s ammo will still be significantly cheaper than missiles, which can cost up to $1.5 million each. According to Reuters, one rail gun projectile will cost about $25,000.
"It will help us in air defense, it will help us in cruise missile defense, it will help us in ballistic missile defense," Klunder added. "We're also talking about a gun that's going to shoot a projectile that's about one one-hundredth of the cost of an existing missile system today."
Despite the gun’s power, however, there remain hurdles that need to be cleared. The rail gun’s potential to overheat is very real, and Fox News reports the Navy is still working on cooling systems to keep it in check. Meanwhile, even if tests are successful, the service won’t look into integrating it into warships until after 2018.