Hypervelocity rail gun could protect the fleet in future

Loren Thompson:
If U.S. warships are going to survive in the Persian Gulf or Western Pacific through mid-century, they will need defenses that consist of something more than conventional gun munitions with limited range and missiles that cost millions of dollars each. Commanders can't count on a naval air wing always being nearby.

Recognizing that tomorrow's threats to U.S. sea power will be far more demanding than those faced in the past, the Navy has been pursuing a trio of programs that might deliver much greater survivability and lethality to warships at affordable prices. One such program is developing high-power lasers that can inexpensively destroy distant targets at the speed of light. Lasers might revolutionize naval warfare, but their energy can be dissipated by environmental factors like dust and precipitation.

The other two programs are developing next-generation smart munitions and guns with far greater reach than existing weapons. The smart munition is called the Hypervelocity Projectile, and is designed to exit existing guns at much higher speeds than conventional rounds -- thereby doubling their range. The next-generation gun is called an electromagnetic railgun. Using the same hypervelocity round, a railgun could hit targets over a hundred nautical miles away with pinpoint accuracy.

"Hypervelocity" is a term of art in physics that has a somewhat fluid definition. In the case of artillery rounds, it denotes muzzle speeds in excess of about 1,000 meters per second. The railgun technology the Navy is testing today can achieve about twice that speed, potentially delivering much greater range than a conventional gun. At that velocity, many types of targets could be destroyed through the sheer energy of impact, without requiring an explosive warhead.

But the array of threats that warships must counter is constantly growing, so the Navy isn't counting on kinetic energy alone to kill targets. The Hypervelocity Projectile will carry a guided warhead capable of delivering diverse effects depending on the mission. When mated to a railgun, it will create a shipboard defense system unlike anything else in existence. Not only would the survivability of warships be greatly enhanced, but their versatility in contributing to other missions like fire support of forces ashore would be boosted.

Unfortunately, the funding stream for all of these concepts is uncertain in the current fiscal environment, with the railgun looking most at risk. Military planners aren't accustomed to thinking of guns that "fire" projectiles without the use of gunpowder and reach distances usually associated with missiles rather than artillery rounds. Producing the magnetic fields necessary to operate a railgun requires oversized pulses of power that can't be generated by most of today's warships.
If you look at operational costs the railgun is much cheaper than conventional weapon systems.  That needs to be weighed in with the development costs.  President Trump has indicated he wants to increase defense spending and this would be a good investment in my opinion.


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