What Is a Railgun? The Navy’s Electromagnetic Weapon

Naval technology has been there for decades. From sail-driven warships to modern submarines, we’ve seen remarkable progress in this landscape. In a time of tremendous innovation, we can only expect cutting-edge advancements in naval weaponry and military machinery. 

Not that we are anticipating another world war, but there’s a need to develop the next-generation weapons to be at par with global powers. No wonder we have the railgun technology in progress. If successfully launched, the railgun should be one of the most powerful navy weapons developed in history. 

The idea of designing this kind of machinery didn’t start today. Decades back, the big brains had already figured it out but lacked the resources to bring it to materialization.

To add high-speed projectiles to the naval arsenal, the engineers are planning to design this high-end machine that can fire projectiles at a super-sonic speed several miles away. 

There’s quite a lot this super-weapon is bringing to the military landscape. First, it doesn’t rely on conventional explosives to fire missiles, but rather uses a super-powerful electric circuit. Since you don’t have to arm yourself with explosives, it makes the ship safer. Those who’ve had a glimpse of the design say the gun is also very fast and can make precise shots. 

Let’s read on to understand more about the Navy’s electromagnetic weapon in progress. 

What Is a Railgun?

In simple terms, a railgun is a special type of weapon that relies on electromagnetic force instead of gunpowder to send missiles at high velocity. The magnetic waves created by strong electric currents propel the missiles at a hypersonic velocity in the direction of the target. 

The projectiles don’t use explosives to inflict damage. The high-speed velocity coupled with kinetic energy produces a highly destructive force. Tests have revealed that the electromagnetic weapon can fire projectiles at a speed of 2.5 kilometers per second, going as far as 200 kilometers away. 

The railgun technology isn’t new to the Navy. Two decades ago, there were attempts to launch the weapon, but due to its huge power demands, the idea didn’t materialize. At that time, no ship could generate sufficient power to operate the gun. The idea only resurfaced a few years ago when the Navy revealed its plans to develop an all-electric battleship. 

A typical railgun functions more or less like an electric circuit with three elements. The barrel of the gun consists of two rails made from conductive metals, a power source, and a moveable bridge (armature) placed between the rails. The bridge is also a conductor and houses the projectile. 

The rails draw high volts from a generator, causing charges to flow between the two conductors. Electric current flows up one rail, crosses the bridge and then down to the second rail. This current flow between the two conductors creates a strong magnetic field that produces a powerful force, propelling the armature at high speed.

What Sets Railguns Apart

  • The railguns carry no internal propellants, as they rely on electromagnetic force to fire projectiles. The projectiles are also very cheap, making it less costly compared to other options.
  • Since these guns don’t use explosives, but rather rely on their high speed to cause destruction, they reduce the risk of a fire on board a ship. As such, they’re a safer alternative.
  • The projectiles travel at supersonic speed, so unlike conventional weapons, they’re less affected by wind. This demonstrates a high level of precision across large distances. 
  • Railguns are comparatively small and lightweight, and as such, it’s easy to move them from one place to another. Also, owing to their small size, it’s easy to store them.
140708-N-ZK869-005.SAN DIEGO (July 8, 2014).One of the two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard the joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Base San Diego. The railguns are being displayed in San Diego as part of the Electromagnetic Launch Symposium, which brought together representatives from the U.S. and allied navies, industry and academia to discuss directed energy technologies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Kirsop/Released)

Why the Railgun at This Time?

Naval Technology has undergone several refinements to be what it is today. Compared to what it was like in the olden days, we can only appreciate the engineers and scientists behind the innovations. 

The business of innovation hasn’t stopped yet, and that’s what makes the military landscape dynamic. To bring the physics and chemistry knowledge into the battlefield, the American Navy is exploring this new piece of technology. 

By 2005, the Office of the Naval Research had already begun developing this super-weapon. And later in 2012, a demonstration was ready, sending out missiles at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia. During the period through to 2015, some remarkable milestones were achieved, with the Navy announcing that it would test the gun from the United States Naval Ship Trenton.

Just to confirm the program was doing well, in 2017, they released a video of the gun firing high-speed projectiles. As of now, the weapon is still undergoing tests, with no signs that it would pick up any time soon. 

Nevertheless, the technology is quite promising, if successfully launched. 

Why There’s a Delay in the Launch

For a project that was launched more than half a decade ago, at least we should have the first railgun by now. However, there are a few setbacks that are stalling the project.

First, due to its huge power count, the gun generates a lot of heat during operation. In the previous tests, rails have melted during the launch, indicating that the weapon may need a special type of technology to be operated successfully.

Since the gun depends on current flow, it needs a strong source of electric power, thus limiting it to fixed locations. Using capacitors to generate charge could be an alternative, but no ship can accommodate the enormous capacitors required to generate sufficient power to operate the equipment. 

While the gun can fire projectiles at high speeds, several miles away, precision firing is still a big challenge. Firing more than 200 miles requires a high-level of accuracy, so the railgun needs some aerodynamic correction to ensure missiles are accurately directed to the enemy sites. 

Lastly, owing to the gigantic pressure created by the gun, there’s a need to create equipment that can withstand the force. As of now, none of the vessels available can measure up to this. 

With these drawbacks, the American Navy had to put the railgun research on hold and shift its focus to a technology that’s compatible with current systems. 

Currently, they’re working on the research and development of the hypervelocity projectile (HPV). These projectiles are equally as fast, but with a few tweaks, they can be fired from existing guns. It’s a cheaper alternative to electromagnetic technology, as it doesn’t require a whole set of weapons embedded in a ship. 

The hypervelocity technology isn’t new to the Navy, and therefore, it’s far easier to implement compared to the railgun. To begin with, we already have hundreds of hypervelocity launchers in service, with at least 40 guns in operation. Therefore, it’s not like we are creating anything new, but rather improving the capabilities of existing weapons. 

With electromagnetic technology, we would have to build new ships with railguns, which makes it expensive and complicated.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has never been impressed by electromagnetic technology. According to him, it’s complex and less reliable. 

Attempts to Build Similar Weapons

The electromagnetic technology isn’t only associated with the United States. Other countries like China are also working on the idea. In 2018, a Chinese engineer claimed to have designed a weapon with the “largest repeating power supply system in the world.” 

The new weapon, dubbed Yangtze Sea Monster, embraces the electromagnetic technology and might soon become the Chinese railgun. However, the details of the weapon are still not clear, and we can neither tell its firing rate nor what they’re planning to do with the gun. 

Even so, with or without the railgun, the Chinese can still do better on the battlefield. They have missiles that can travel many miles within seconds. So why invest in such expensive technology?

Most people are skeptical about the Chinese railgun, considering it a mere threat. While the equipment might be there, experts say it might take ages before it’s fully deployed. 

While the United States has spent hundreds of dollars to develop the railgun technology, it could take decades for the new weapon to be deployed. Despite undergoing several tests, the launching of the gun hasn’t been a success. Since it requires a whole new warship fitted with weapons, the United States may need millions of dollars to bring it materialization.

The practicality of the railgun technology remains a mystery, and we don’t know whether the current developments will move to the next stages. With the United States Navy turning to cheaper options like the hypervelocity technology, it might take forever to launch the first railgun.

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