Given the global proliferation of guided-missile technologies and the ever increasing costs of defending against them, the U.S. Navy has put high hopes in the development of directed energy weapons systems, such as electrically powered electromagnetic projectile launchers (aka rail guns).
According to gizmag, “a rail gun is basically an electric motor that’s been folded out and laid flat. Like an electric motor, the rail gun uses an alternating electromagnetic field to pull along an armature (…) When it reaches the end of the rail, the armature releases the projectile, which flies toward its target.”
This new weapons system is capable of firing an aerodynamic shell at speeds of Mach 7.5 (5,700 mph /9,200 km/h) and having a reach of 110 nautical miles (126 mi / 203 km). With neither explosives nor propellant, rail guns rely only on electromagnetic forces to destroy an opponent. However, despite the hype, progress in acquiring this new weapon system has been slow.
Over at Breaking Defense Sydney J. Freedberg quotes U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who delivered a speech on the subject last week:
We’ve got a laser weapon now in the Arabian Gulf, we’ve got a rail gun under development. We’ve got some gee-whiz scientific stuff going on. Part of my job, part of our job, is to get those from the lab to the warfighter quicker… That rail gun, we’ve been working on that since the eighties; we’re gonna put it on a ship and test it next year.
In 2016, the U.S. Navy will test a prototype rail gun on the joint high-speed vessel USNS Millinocket (JHSV-3) USNI News noted; however, that timeline, the navy secretary said, is “way too long.”
U.S. Congress is also inpatient, Breaking Defense notes. The 2016 draft of the annual defense policy bill included the stipulation that the navy secretary needs “to develop a plan for fielding electric weapon systems (…) and to provide a briefing on the results of this plan to the House Committee on Armed Services by March 1, 2016.”
However, there are no signs that rail guns will enter the Pentagon’s acquisition process anytime soon. For example, the Naval Sea Systems Command — the navy’s principal ship builder — is seeking a “multi-mission rail gun weapon system to support detect, track, and engagement of ballistic missiles and air and watercraft threats,” by 2018 and an on actual warships by 2025, USNI News reports.
One of the biggest advantages of rail guns over traditional naval missile defense systems is the low price tag: some interceptor missiles can cost up to $11 million, whereas an electrically powered electromagnetic shot costs a mere $35,000. Targets that can be engaged with the new weapon include large warships, swarm boats, various aircraft, all types of missiles, and land-based military installations.
One of the reasons why progress has been so slow are the many technological challenges still unresolved USNI News notes:
Not only do the weapons require a tremendous amount of power — sometimes in short supply on naval vessels — the rails want to pull themselves apart every time the weapon is fired. In addition to the power requirements and the engineering task of keeping the weapon whole, the Navy also has had to develop a system to quickly pulse the energy through the rails to gain the velocity needed to reach supersonic speeds.