Once the fodder of science fiction and video games, the electromagnetic railgun is gaining prominence as a next-generation weapon for our modern military. It is such a promising technology that a Navy admiral wants to skip the time-consuming prototype stage and begin deploying the weapon as soon as 2018.
The military use of a railgun is not a new concept. For the past several years, the Navy has been developing the weapon, and it publicly tested one in 2014. The Navy planned to install a prototype railgun on a high-speed vessel this year, but the latest estimates suggest the prototyping stage could be pushed back until 2017. To avoid this unfortunate delay, Fanta proposed the idea of skipping the prototype phase and installing an operational unit on the USS Johnson, the Navy’s third and final next-generation Zumwalt-class destroyer that is slated for deployment in 2018.
The railgun is different from conventional weapons, using electricity instead of an explosive material like gunpowder to fire a projectile. The railgun works by delivering a high-power electric pulse to a pair of conductive rails. This pulse creates a powerful magnetic field that accelerates the projectile out of the gun. Though it lacks the explosive power of a conventional weapon, the Navy’s railgun is not a “sissy” weapon. It can fire a 23-pound projectile over 100 miles at speeds of up to Mach 7 (roughly 1.5 miles per second). This rate of travel generates enough kinetic energy to inflict significant damage on a long-distance target. Besides being powerful, the railgun also is affordable, with railgun projectiles costing 1/100th the price of conventional missiles.
The Navy would like deploy the railgun because it offers an affordable alternative to conventional smart bombs and missiles. And it is eyeing the USS Johnson because of the destroyer’s massive on-board power plant, which is robust enough to provide the electrical energy the gun needs. “The Zumwalt-class is one of some options being explored for the electromagnetic railgun,” said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Hayley Sims. “Due to the size, weight, and power requirements, some platforms will be better suited for the technology than others.” If the USS Johnson is outfitted with the railgun, the new weapon may replace one of the existing 155mm turret guns that currently fire rocket-propelled missiles.