The Future Moves at Mach 6

On display for the first time on the East Coast, this revolutionary weapon – the Electromagnetic Railgun – uses electricity instead of traditional chemical propellants to launch projectiles at distances over 100 nautical miles and at six times the speed of sound.

ONR and NAVSEA fire a high velocity projectile from the Naval Railgun during a test held at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division on 4 September, 2014.

ONR and NAVSEA fire a high velocity projectile from the Naval Railgun during a test held at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division on 4 September, 2014.

And boy, can those projectiles move.

What is an Electromagnetic Railgun?

The EM Railgun launcher is a long-range weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. Magnetic fields created by high electrical currents accelerate a sliding metal conductor, or armature, between two rails to launch projectiles at 4,500 mph.

How Does It Work?

Electricity generated by the ship is stored over several seconds in the pulsed power system. Next, an electric pulse is sent to the railgun, creating an electromagnetic force accelerating the projectile up to Mach 6. Using its extreme speed on impact, the kinetic energy warhead eliminates the hazards of high explosives in the ship and unexploded ordnance on the battlefield.

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.

What Will It Accomplish?

With its increased velocity and extended range, the EM Railgun will give sailors a multi-mission capability.

This will allow them to conduct precise naval surface fire support or land strikes, provide ship defense, and provide surface warfare to deter enemy vessels.

Navy planners are targeting a 100+ nautical mile initial capability. A variety of new and existing naval platforms are being studied for integration of a future tactical railgun system.

This is huge for the Navy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is effectiveness and affordability. Last week the Navy released video of the railgun in action, along with some updated testing footage where the projectile literally tears through metal like a bullet through a balloon. One wall-sized demonstration after another.

But don’t just take my word for it, see for yourself:

According to this news release from the Office of Naval Research, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Adm. Jonathan Greenert, outlined his thoughts on three science and technology objectives for the Navy and Marine Corps of the future, at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology (S&T) EXPO in Washington, D.C.

Speaking before nearly 3,000 attendees from across government, academia and industry, Greenert charged his audience to reduce reliance on gunpowder; increase stamina for underwater unmanned vehicles’ power and propulsion systems; and increase focus on cybersecurity.

“Number one, you’ve got to get us off gunpowder,” said Greenert, noting that Office of Naval Research-supported weapon programs like Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the Electromagnetic Railgun are vital to the future force. “We will have an incredibly deep magazine when we bring [those weapons] in.”

ONR and NAVSEA fire a high velocity projectile from the Naval Railgun during a test held at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division on 4 September, 2014.

ONR and NAVSEA fire a high velocity projectile from the Naval Railgun during a test held at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division on 4 September, 2014.

Weapons like LaWS have a virtually unlimited magazine, only constrained by power and cooling capabilities onboard the vessel carrying them. In addition, Greenert noted the added safety for sailors and Marines that will come from reducing dependency on gunpowder-based munitions.

He also cited the tremendous cost savings offered by, for instance, laser weapons fired at a dollar per shot, or low-cost Electromagnetic Railgun projectiles, versus needing to rely on million-dollar missiles, in some cases without the same range, for all threats and missions.

The railgun is more than the next step in weapons system engineering.  According to the Navy, it’s a game changer.  And you know what? I believe them. I really do.

Effective, affordable, and just a little bit flashy.  The future of the naval force is as impressive as it is formidable.

Jessica L. Tozer is a DoD contractor and the editor-in-chief for 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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