The technology behind the Navy’s railgun — an advanced cannon that engineers believe could increase a ship’s firepower at a fraction of the cost of typical munitions — is moving forward.
“Electromagnetic weapons such as railgun will play a critical role in the future of naval warfare by providing greater lethality and greater economy than existing weapons,” said Tom Boucher, the system’s program officer at the Office of Naval Research. The “railgun is capable of launching projectiles at speeds far beyond the capability of conventional gun technology and represents a revolutionary leap in naval gun technology.”
The system — which has been in development for more than a decade — could allow the Navy to defeat incoming missiles, unmanned aerial systems and swarms of attacking boats, he said in an email to National Defense. It could be employed for naval surface fire support, anti-surface warfare and air and missile defense missions.
The railgun uses magnetic fields generated by electricity to accelerate a metal conductor between two rails that then launch a projectile. The system eliminates the need for gun propellant or rockets, allowing additional rounds to be in the ship’s magazine, providing the ability to engage more targets, Boucher said.
“Reducing explosive loads aboard ship — no gun powder, rockets or high explosives — also makes the ship less susceptible to catastrophic battle damage,” he said.
Additionally, the system makes economic sense because the cost per engagement “is a fraction of opposing threat weapons, shifting cost burden to the attacking forces,” he said.
Projectiles are fired at speeds between Mach 5.9 to 7.4, according to a Congressional Research Service report titled, “Navy Lasers, Railgun and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress.”
The Navy contracted BAE Systems and General Atomics to each create a prototype railgun system.
“The two industry-built prototypes are designed to fire projectiles at energy levels of 20 to 32 megajoules, which is enough to propel a projectile 50 to 100 nautical miles,” according to the report, which was written by naval analyst Ronald O’Rourke.
Boucher said “significant progress” is being made on the effort.
The current phase of the railgun’s development, which began in 2012, is focused on the systems’ repetition, or “rep-rate” capability, he said. That includes the development of a tactical prototype gun barrel and pulsed power systems that have advanced cooling mechanisms. BAE is working with the Navy on rep-rate barrel design and fabrication and General Atomics is creating the pulsed power system.
BAE’s system is undergoing multi-shot rep-rate operations at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, in Virginia. Projectiles will be fired down the Potomac River test range over the next three years, he said.
The system has been tested at Dahlgren’s railgun advanced research facility since November. During that time, the Navy has successfully tested a next-generation 32-megajoule railgun, he noted.
“We are gradually increasing firing rate and energy level, and evaluating and grooming the system as we go,” he said. ONR plans to conduct tests at five rounds per minute in June, and anticipates that the railgun will perform rep-rate operations at 32-megajoules of energy by the end of the year, Boucher said.
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, visited the location in February and told National Defense he was pleased with the railgun’s progress.
“The resiliency of the gun, the barrel, the ability for … multiple fire without having to replace the barrel, the projectiles, the pulsed power units, the size of the pulsed power units, the size of the batteries, all those things … are getting smaller [and] are getting more efficient,” he said.
“The key now is to make sure that it goes through its testing regime, make sure we understand what it can do, put it onboard a ship [and] operate it onboard a ship,” he said. “All those things are on track.”
ONR plans to wrap up the science and technology phase of the railgun by 2019. It has been working alongside its transition partner, program executive office integrated warfare systems, and the staff at the office of the chief of naval operations “to chart a path forward for the follow-on development of an integrated railgun system,” Boucher said.
“The results of land-based testing will inform potential future demonstrations [at sea] to reduce risks and inform requirements for a future deployable system, including a timeline to deliver it,” he said. “Although there is no set timeline to deploy this capability, the Navy is pressing forward to get this revolutionary capability to sea as soon as practical.”
Wittman said it is important that the Navy develop technologies such as the railgun as quickly as possible.
General Atomic’s multi-mission medium range railgun weapon system concept (General Atomics)
“For us, time is a strategic challenge,” he said. “You cannot take 20 years to get a concept operational. You just can’t do that anymore because our adversaries do it much more quickly than we do.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has put a premium on speed, he added.
“I like what the Navy is doing,” he said. Instead of waiting for the perfect solution, it is trying to get technology onboard ships as fast as possible. The service is making strides in other emerging technologies such as a directed energy weapons, such as with the famed laser weapon system on the USS Ponce, he noted.
BAE Systems continues to test its prototype at NSWC Dahlgren, said Amir Chaboki, director of advanced weapon systems at the company.
The technology associated with the railgun has continued to mature over the past decade, he said.
“The work of our team here at BAE Systems has moved at a very rapid pace, and it’s laying the foundation for the development of a tactical, operational” system, he said in an email.
The railgun is making progress from its initial single shot and low-muzzle energy performance, toward a firing rate of 10 rounds per minute at full 32 megajoules muzzle energy, he said.
BAE has focused its work on the launcher technology and on the design and development of the integrated launch package, he noted.
“These subsystems are progressing well in terms of technological maturity — from laboratory and field testing toward the steps required for the gun to become an operational tactical system,” he said.
BAE has overcome the key technological challenges for the railgun, Chaboki said. The company is now prioritizing engineering and material improvements and validation.
“We’ve made — and continue to make — considerable progress on the size, weight and power challenges associated with the railgun,” he added.
Scott Forney, president of General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, said the company is finalizing the fourth-generation of its pulsed power system, which it will deliver to the Navy.
The company has also independently developed a more advanced cannon than the one it delivered to the service in 2012, called the multi-mission medium-range railgun, he said.
The system is smaller than previous iterations of the railgun, he noted. The company plans to test the cannon in the next few months at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, with Army and Navy officials in attendance.
By the fourth quarter of this year, the company intends to hit a stationary target with its command guidance and by the end of the year or early next year, it expects to hit a surrogate cruise missile that General Atomics is developing, Forney said.
The company has been testing components of the system for the past three years, he noted.
“We have a smaller first-generation railgun, which is our workhorse, and we’ve done about 175 shots off that gun qualifying each of the electronic components,” he said.
The company has been using the 3-megajoule system to finesse the design of the multi-mission medium-range railgun, he noted. It has been tested at a facility in Utah where it faced harsh conditions of -10 degrees Fahrenheit to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 50 mph, Forney noted.
General Atomics invested its own dollars in the system, he said. “We’ve spent a lot of money over the last several years making sure that we could go as fast as we can, and we wanted to make sure that this gun … fits on an Army platform … [and is] small enough to fit on the littoral combat ship.”
Forney said the system could be outfitted on the Army’s heavy expanded mobility tactical truck.
The company will first test the new railgun using non-aerodynamic rounds, he said.
“We [will] slowly increase our current and voltage to get to the final conditions,” he added.
Forney expected testing to last about nine months.
General Atomics’ railgun could also be used for cruise missile defense, he said. The company hopes the Army or Navy will soon test the technology on a vehicle or ship after it proves itself in Utah, he noted.