The Navy’s ultra-futuristic electromagnetic rail gun, a project under the Office of Naval Research, survived the defense spending cuts recently proposed by Congress and is moving forward. This month the Navy’s surface warfare center will fire BAE Systems’ prototype in the Virginia facility. This is the first use of an industry-built rail gun; up to now all testing was conducted utilizing the government built gun. General Atomics will deliver its version in April with Raytheon to deliver a third at a time yet to be announced. Each of the vendor’s rail guns will undergo live fire testing for two months.
Unlike conventional artillery fired from Navy ships, the rail gun utilizes a series of magnets within the gun barrel to launch the projectile instead of gun powder. In earlier tests, the rail gun was able to fire a projectile using a 33 megajoule burst of electricity, enabling the bullet to leave the gun’s barrel at Mach 8. This would have been enough to launch it 110 nautical miles away. The Navy’s end goal is to have a rail gun capable of 64 megajouels which would be capable of sending a round hurtling down range 200 miles in 6 minutes.
The rail gun presents a great deal of potential benefits. The gun itself has no moving parts and should subsequently cost less to maintain, theoretically, as there would not be any wear-and-tear. Since gunpowder is not needed to launch the projectile the ship and its crew would be safer as fewer explosives would be onboard. The same would apply to rocket propelled munitions as well. Being able to accurately hit a target from 200 miles way would further reduce danger as the ship would be far out of range for its enemies to return fire.
However, everything comes with a cost. The Navy’s plan is to outfit its destroyers with rail guns. Within the fleet destroyers vary in age quite substantially and have different parts and configurations as a result. Of specific importance are the ship’s generators which would be responsible for providing power to the rail gun on top of its current load. While the newer ships could handle this workload, many of the older destroyers may require upgrades to their power plants which would not be an inexpensive endeavor. An unknown factor as of now is the firing rate of the gun. A tremendous amount of heat is generated each time the rail gun is fired, so the system will need to be able to mitigate the effects of this heat to allow the gun to fire a rate necessary to be worthwhile – in the neighborhood of to ten 10 rounds a minute. Lastly, this heat burst and the electromagnetic pulse would negate the ability to use any kind of “smart” munition in use today. The energy release would decimate any electronics in the round.
The upcoming testing should shed light on the true viability of the system. If the defense contractors cannot deliver a rail gun that performs to expectations, one would think it would not be long before congress makes another push to shut the effort down.