We’ve covered the sluggish progress of the U.S. Navy’s railgun program in the past, but it now looks like we are inching closer to seeing one of the electromagnetic weapons on an actual boat. After years of testing in the laboratory, the gun is finally being tested outdoors. Recent upgrades make the railgun exceptionally more durable and powerful, but when will the weapon actually make it to the high seas?
Unlike traditional propellant-based weapons systems, railguns launch shells at high speeds using a series of electromagnets. We were all teased on the concept in 2012 as footage leaked of the weapon demonstrating its capabilities on land and now it looks like the prototype weapon is receiving some major upgrades to increase its firing capacity. According to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the goal is for the railgun to be able to launch ten shots per minute at 32 megajoules. (That’s the equivalent force of 32 one-ton cars crashing into a target at 160 miles per hour.)
Needless to say, the ability to accelerate an object via electromagnetism to nearly Mach 6 speeds in a split second is no easy task. The project has been delayed multiple times over the past decade and many of these snags are due to durability and structural concerns. For example, in 2009, it was reported that even a few shots can dislodge internal components including the conducting rails and even the gun barrel itself. With the latest upgrades, the Navy now believes the launcher core could potentially fire more than 400 projectiles before structural failure, and the barrel could last for up to 1,000 rounds.
Eventually, the Navy plans to install the final railgun onboard its Zumwalt-class destroyers. With the ability to generate 78 megawatts of electricity, these ships were specifically designed to one day operate railguns, and are currently the only surface ships capable of doing so. Originally, the Navy had sought to build more than 32 of the Zumwalts, however, that number has been slashed to three.
Currently, these ships utilize 155-millimeter long-range guns as we await the railguns’ final unveiling. The USS Lyndon B. Johnson Zumwalt could be the first of the three ships to be outfitted with the Navy’s final railgun product, however, seeing as the ship is set to be christened in 2018, there is still some waiting involved.