Navy gets set to test sea-borne electromagnetic railgun

The Navy is making plans to test its electromagnetic railgun—capable of throwing a 23-pound projectile at Mach 7.5, and at the fraction of the cost of an anti-ballistic missile—from a joint high speed vessel (JHSV) in 2016.

The weapon will be put on display for the summer aboard the USNS Millinocket. The ship is the result of the JHSV program -- a joint Navy and Army program that aimed at creating a high-speed, shallow-draft vessel that could transport midsized cargo.

Although the ship was originally designated as non-combatant, the available cargo space and topside space made it a prime candidate for the installation of the rail gun. The software for the system utilizes an open architecture, allowing the railgun to be easily equipped on different ships.

The gun will be demonstrated on the USNS Millinocket in 2016, according to

The railgun utilizes electricity to create a magnetic field to propel a round at targets such as enemy vehicles, cruise missiles or ballistic missiles. The round travels so quickly (up to 5,600 mph) that explosives are not even necessary. The heat generated by the kinetic energy of the round is enough to cause objects to explode and ignite on fire.

Each round is estimated to have a generated force of 32 megajoules. One megajoule is the equivalent of 33 metric tons traveling at 100.

"We're talking about a projectile we're going to send well over 100 miles. We're talking about a projectile that can go over Mach 7. We're talking about a projectile that can go well into the atmosphere,” said Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research. “We're talking about a gun that is going to shoot a projectile that is about one-one hundredth of the cost of an existing missile system today."

The cost of railgun projectiles is a huge advantage for the Navy—a single projectile costs $25,000 as opposed to $1.5 million for a missile. If the railgun is capable of shooting down crusie and ballistic missiles, potential attackers may have to consider the economic viability of attacking.

"That ... will give our adversaries a huge moment of pause to go: 'Do I even want to go engage a naval ship?'" Klunder told Reuters. "You could throw anything at us, frankly, and the fact that we now can shoot a number of these rounds at a very affordable cost, it's my opinion that they don't win."

DOD is carefully considering the railgun as a missile defense system—the railgun theoretically could shoot missile targets outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, which ends at about 60 miles above the surface of the Earth. However, many anti-ship ballistic missiles are also hypersonic and also are designed to conduct evasive maneuvers on the way to their targets through the use of hypersonic glide vehicles. China tested a hypersonic missile that was capable of reaching Mach 10 earlier this year.

Firing and guidance technologies for the railgun are still being considered, but officials have said that the projectiles will be able to use GPS guidance to track and find targets. The Navy is looking at fully integrating the weapon into warships after 2018.


About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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