The new age of highly advanced weaponry is upon us. It’s loud, it’s powerful, and it’s incredibly, effectively, destructive.
I’m talking (this time) about railguns. Real, functional, powerful railguns. The U.S. Navy has announced their plans to start placing these immensely destructive weapons on their ships. Weapons that can tear through walls like a pencil punctures a balloon. If you thought lasers were going to change the game, rail guns are going to blast the doors wide open.
Here comes the BOOM.
I’ve been asked, repeatedly, to do a story about railguns. While I’ve discussed railguns before, I haven’t had the chance to really delve into the specifics of the illustrious, if slightly enigmatic, advanced weapons system.
“Over the last few years, the Navy and the Marine Corps have been developing hugely impressive – I call them Star Wars-like – weapons systems,” said Rear Adm. Matt Klunder, Chief of Naval Research. “Based on the hugely impressive performance we’ve been witnessing, we thought it was really about time to let the American public see them.”
And boy, do they ever let us see. Behold the might and power of the indomitable RAILGUN:
There are five parts to the system:
- The launcher, which sends the projectile out
- The energy storage (think of it as a big battery)
- The pulse forming network (basically a large capacitor)
- The hypervelocity projectile, or HVP, which is the thing that’s being shot out of the gun
- The gun mount
Railguns use an electromagnetic force – known as the Lorentz Force – to rapidly accelerate and launch a projectile between two conductive rails. A precisely controlled high-power electric pulse is delivered to the rails where the magnetic field is generated. Range can be controlled by varying the nature of the electromagnetic pulse, giving railguns a significant advantage over traditional powder guns.
“[The railgun] will help us in air defense, missile defense, it will help us in ballistic missile defense,” Klunder said. “It’s really an incredible deterrent capability.”
What they mean by that is this: the railgun can shoot a projectile over 100 miles, according to Klunder. It can go at mach-7 speed. The projectile could go well into the atmosphere. And, amazingly, for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost of the projectiles we have in current operations.
“We’re talking about a gun that’s going to shoot at about 1/100th of the cost of an existing missile system today,” Adm. Klunder pointed out. “We’re also talking about a system that has no gunpowder. That’s a great safety benefit for our ships.”
In addition, railguns complement kinetic weapons currently onboard surface combatants, and they also offer a few specific advantages. First being, of course, cost. As Adm. Klunder pointed out, against specific threats, the cost per engagement is orders of magnitude less expensive than comparable missile engagements. They also can expand the current capabilities of powder guns, enabling the conversion of expensive missiles for use against only the most complex threats.
Railgun technology has an overall effect of dramatically increasing the capacity of the current inventory. Additionally, Adm. Klunder says, they can carry hundreds of these weapons systems on ships. The Navy’s new “Star Wars capability” is, interestingly, as effective as it is affordable.
“If we can do tremendous deterrents for our country and don’t have to go into conflict I’ll take that every day,” Adm. Klunder said.
A prototype system, currently in development at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., will be demonstrated aboard a joint high speed vessel in fiscal year 2016, explained Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, the Navy’s chief engineer. The Navy is using the USS Millinocket JHSV as a vessel of opportunity because of its available cargo and topside space.
Because JHSVs are non-combatants, there is no plan to install this system on other ships of the class, and the prototype will not be integrated into the ship in any way. However, they do have plans to start integrating railguns onto other ships in fiscal year 2018, based on how well the test gun works, and the Navy said the rate of return speaks for itself.
“We’ve fired the railgun hundreds of times and gotten tremendous results,” Adm. Klunder said.
The Navy will use the results of the JHSV demonstration to inform requirements for a future deployable system, including a timeline to deliver it. The railgun effort is one of the Navy’s highest priority programs because it provides a cost affordable solution to a costly problem in this austere, fiscally constrained environment.
When referencing how this behemoth system of mass destruction operates, I’m reminded of a quote by Doc Brown from “Back to the Future”:
“This sucker’s electrical.”
“You’ll still have projectiles,” Fuller points out, “but instead of having magazines, it will be battery magazines.”
That means, he went on to explain, that all the parts of the system don’t necessarily have to be in line. Because it’s electrical, if they so choose, they could put the pulse forming network in one place, and the battery someplace else, and essentially ride the current. Or, potentially, if you’re on a ship with high electrical power it just comes right off the grid of the ship.
How much heat does this sucker pack into one punch? A whopping, intense, 32 mega joules. So why that particular number? According to the Navy, that’s the exact amount of power they need to execute every mission the railgun is designed to handle for the safety of our country: ballistic missile defense, cruise missile defense, air defense, long range strike defense and more.
Though they might be asked to go higher someday, Adm. Klunder says 32 mega joules is what it takes, and they have everything they need to be very relevant. Which is nothing to bat an eye at.
“It’s pretty much like a freight train going through the wall at over 100 miles an hour,” Adm. Klunder said. “That kind of energy.”
Don’t think they’re about ready to get into the specifics of this system, though. The real deep-depth stuff is all still as secret as they come.
“There’s energetics involved in the materials we use,” Adm. Klunder said, though mentioning that he would not go into details. “I use the term ‘secret sauce’; well, there’s a lot of secret sauce in that one.”
Though that’s not to say this will be a complicated device to operate. It’s not exotic technology, Rear Adm. Fuller says, but it is designed to be easily manned and easily operated. For future operations, the Navy says they hope to have a battery recharge or, as energy systems increase, it could be a straight integrated system. The key is to get a large amount of power to the pulse forming network.
In order to get a repetition rate for the weapon itself, Klunder explains, you need to rapidly recharge your capacitors. Right now, they’re starting with batteries, and using that as a baseline to move forward.
The other military branches are interested as well, and there is an expectation that they too, will be sporting railguns in their repertoire in the next few years. Which is good, since this device seems to be able to knock anything out of the air, from almost any distance, with powerful precision. Hard to beat when it comes to weaponry. Unless you have Zeus’s throwing arm, I suppose.
This is no longer science fiction; this is reality. But for a first step in technological warfare weapons, this is one heck of a powerful one. A hugely capable, multi-mission gun is not just an advancement, it’s a weapons evolution. Something the Navy is not only proud, but confident, to be making. To the enemies who would challenge the railgun-clad forces, Adm. Klunder says they can give it their best shot, but they won’t win.
“I really think it will give our adversaries a moment of pause to go, ‘Do I even want to go engage a naval ship?’, or our country, because you’re gonna lose.”
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.
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