Sometime in the next couple of years, the U.S. Navy plans to deploy an operational version of a railgun. For the few of you who don’t read Popular Science or Defense News, a railgun uses electromagnetic force to propel an object – in this case a warhead or shell – at extremely high speed along a metal track or rail. Electromagnetic force can propel an object much faster, initially Mach 7 but possibly higher, and farther, up to 250 miles, than any conventional propellant employed in naval guns or missiles. Their extreme speed means that even relatively small projectiles launched by the railgun could impact a target with greater effect than the largest shell currently available to the U.S. Navy.
The railgun is one of a class of systems, directed-energy weapons, which could revolutionize naval operations. The most serious challenge facing naval surface combatants is that of limited magazines and the need to balance available loadouts between offensive and defensive weapons. Confronted by adversaries with large inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles, naval combatants and tactical aircraft, the U.S. Navy would have to devote an increasing share of its precious magazine spaces to defensive weapons. Even then it risks running out of “bullets.” A Navy that is totally defensive or even defenseless is useless.
This could change with the advent of railguns on Navy warships. Some knowledgeable sources claim that a railgun could meet every single mission that both the Navy and Marine Corps have for naval guns. Together with lasers, which have the advantages over the railgun of instantaneous engagement and an almost unlimited magazine, railguns could not merely bend but break the cost curve that currently appears to favor the offense over the defense. Railguns and lasers offer the potential of extremely cheap cost per round fired, virtually unlimited magazines, rapid target engagement and the potential to easily shift between offensive and defensive missions.
In theory, a railgun could be deployed on any naval platform so long as it has the deck space and sufficient power. In truth, this is no small requirement. Think of the difference between early versions of all-electric cars which had electric batteries jammed into a vehicle intended for a gasoline-powered engine and the Tesla, which was designed from the ground up around its power pack. Current naval combatants were never designed to carry the power generation and management systems necessary to power directed-energy weapons. Several new types of naval ships, notably the Ford-class aircraft carriers and the three Zumwalt-class destroyers, have sufficient power to support various types of directed-energy weapons including the railgun. The former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, publicly suggested deploying the railgun on the USS Ford or one of its sister ships. Consideration is also being given to modifying the design of the Flight III variant of the Arleigh Burke destroyer to allow it to carry sufficient power generation capability and related systems to support directed-energy weapons.
The original test plan for the railgun was to use a support vessel, most probably one of the Navy’s new expeditionary fast transports (formerly the Joint High Speed Vessel). The new plan is to delay the first demonstration of a railgun in order to deploy it on a Navy combatant. This means one of the Zumwalt-class destroyers. This has pluses and minuses. While there is value in doing a demonstration as soon as possible, this means delaying some work on the railgun system. Also, there would still have to be an operational demonstration on an actual warship in order to convince the Navy that the system is real and of value.
Additional work needs to be done to improve the railgun system. Currently, the system’s developer, BAE Systems, is working to improve power management and the endurance of the gun’s rails. It is also developing a high-speed loader to support multiple railgun shots and improved hypervelocity projectiles. Eventually, there is even the prospect for deploying a land-based variant of the railgun to provide long-range artillery support as well as to counter ballistic missiles.
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