Navy wants railguns for missile defense

The electromagnetic rail gun could offer the Navy both additional range for land strikes as well as added capabilities in ballistic and cruise missile defense. In a perfect world, the Navy would like to invest in both particular technologies.

However, in this era of sequestration and shrinking budgets, the Navy likely has to choose. U.S. Navy Under Secretary Robert Work said he’d lean towards investing more heavily on ballistic and cruise missile defense versus land strike.

“We are over capitalized in strike, land strike. We’ve got a lot of land strike. I would put all of my money into the electromagnetic rail gun for ballistic and cruise missile defense,” Work said Thursday at the Surface Naval Association conference in Crystal City, Va.

The Navy has spent the past eight years testing railguns, most notably rolling out the first weaponized railgun in January 2012. Navy leaders will have to make further investment decisions as the technology continues to mature.

However, Work said the Navy should delay the decision as they continue to decide how railguns might fit into their fleet designs. The under secretary doesn’t expect the railgun to be used in surface or submarine naval battles. He expects the railgun to fall in line with the Navy’s priority to provide power projection from the sea.

“Naval to naval exchanges just aren’t our thing right now. What it is is about projecting power in theaters where these land based anti-access aerial denial networks with guided weapons that can be thrown at range in salvos is a very, very difficult problem and the Navy is very focused on,” Work said.

Missile defense is a priority throughout the Pentagon as the rest of the world’s militaries advance their guided missile technology.

“We’re in a time of enormous technological flux and our enemies are now at a point where they have parity in guided missiles. I don’t think they are with us as far as their networks but they are doing everything they can,” Work said.

Navy leaders have read the research into missile defense and Work said it’s left the admirals excited. Right now, he said it makes the most sense in terms of the new defense strategy and selling it to Congress.

“There is an awful lot of exciting analysis that says you can do ballistic missile defense and you can do cruise missile defense with it,” Work said.

He insisted that the Navy must continue to invest in directed energy weapons research to include electromagnetic railguns.

“Woe to us if we lose … the race to directed energy weapons and electromagnetic railguns,” Work said. “That’s not going to be a future that we want.”

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • JamalTheBanker

    In response to the Manti Te’o report and the epidemic of people lying about themselves on the internet, I have to admit to you guys… I’m not a banker :_(

    But rail guns are sweet.

  • Dfens

    Rail guns are great and all, but could they possibly drag out the R&D on those things for any longer? It is nothing but R&D for the sake of more funding. All promise, no results! Yet again, this is what happens when you pay a for-profit defense contractor to do government funded research. They make a profit off of every single hour they can drag out the research, so why ever produce anything? If it were their money they were spending, they’d have put an end to this long ago and we’d have ships with these rail guns now. As it is, this research will drag out for as long as there is one taxpayer left to milk to pay for it.

    • Storm
    • S.Evans

      Give them room temperature plus (110C) superconductors and they could.

      And no, the research won’t drag on, the first prototype weapons for the DDX are already being prepared for a ship based mounting. Though the first production DDX’s coming out (Zulwalt class or something I think they’re calling it) will have to do with a new higher velocity long range 155mm gun to start with.

      Refitting to the railgun version will just be a turret and ammo storage module swapout.

      • ofbg


    • That’s strange as soon as i submitted a comment, it got deleted. There was nothing disparaging or seemingly off topic. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

    • Carlo Santarelli

      I remember reading in Populer Sciece at least thirty years ago about a railgun
      used for Artillery.

  • JJ6000

    exciting stuff. Will be interesting to see how they track and target with the thing

  • Hunter76

    So let me get this straight. These land force projection ships will have no naval combat capabilities?

  • stephen russell

    Mount this on some AEGIS class cruiser for tests & then produce for AEGIS class & some for shore use.
    Or adapt some to carriers for use or amphibs IE LHDs.

    • Rob C

      Only problem with that is a typical Aegis ship, either Cruiser or current destroyers don’t have powerplants to supply enough power use this weapon effectively. DDG-1000 is in ball-park in being able to use it, the they needed was the CGX that they cancelled. Congress is going difficult to agree on any thing new never mind something that sound exotic. They need platform to handle it, not something dating back to 1980s.

  • bobbymike

    One trillion for national defense. The Sandy relief bill had about $40 bllion of pork, there is more than enough money to develop all these new technologies.

    • Belesari

      Yes but not for awhile for one. Simply developing a inert dumb round to travel at mach12+ speeds and destroy missiles in line of sight is far easier thand developing a round that is supposed to be sent through the most powerful electromagnetic flux fields we can send them through with a guidance chip inside and do it all in a round less than the width of a soda can.

      We have MK-71 and tomahawks for ground support. Just build them forget the AGS.

  • Nick T.

    Finally. This what I’ve been waiting to hear. Tough we might need something big to happen if we really want the fire under this thing to get going. Still, railguns are the future.

    • ddd

      Agreed. Major problem though: power. How are the DDG-51s supposed to run the AMDR and rail guns and directed energy weapons? Thoughts, anyone? Would anyone agree it is time to start designing a new warship with power generation capacity as its central element?

      • JohnnyRanger

        I wonder if an off-the-shelf reactor (like one of the reactors used on the CVNs) would fit into the space currently occuppied by one of the missile batteries on the Aegis ships? And if even that would generate enough juice?

  • So the railguns will be used to fire against ballistic missiles in terminal phase?

  • Tritium3H

    Railguns are not going to be feasible for missile defense, at least for the foreseeable future. The interceptor on an ABM has to have terminal guidance and maneuverability…especially if it is Hit-to-Kill intercept. There is no way that a hyper-mach railgun round is going to have the sophisticated target aquisition seeker as well as precision maneuvering capability, in a package that has to withstand 60,000 plus g’s, intense heating, as well as the E-M flux.

    • Uncle Sam

      Your doubt makes me think that this must have been what skeptics were thinking about the nuclear bomb. Or trying to populate Colonies on the opposite side of the Atlantic from Britain. Or going to the moon.

      We’re Americans. We’ll get it done.

      • ltkitty

        “We’re Americans. We’ll get it done. ”

        Godbless Uncle Sam I love you. Hell yes we’ll get it done!

        • Dfens

          It seems the Phalanx intercepts missiles all the time with projectiles that don’t have terminal guidance. Someone should tell them it’s impossible.

          • red2429

            Phalanx does not shoot at anything close to mach1 must less anything faster. Try to maintain the entire complexity of the conversation before you write. Or join up and find out for yourself.

          • Dfens

            Uh, yes, it does. Dumbass.

          • red2429

            I was a CIWS tech dumbass. No it doesn’t.

          • red2429

            Where did you go? We were just starting to have fun. I guess the truth hurts.

          • orly?

            As a fellow, former CIWS tech I agree on red2429’s assessment.

            I do have my eyes open, new tech has been made available.

            Using such tech can improve things.

          • EJ257

            What if you use the railgun to put up a wall of steel in the general direction the inbound ballistic missile is coming from. The problems to date has been rate of fire and “barrel” wear. It takes a lot of energy to fire the weapon and it wears out the rails with every shot. Having anything like the M61A1 rate of fire will ruin the rails in an instant.

      • joe

        Well, with hindsight the idea of cross-atlantic colonization seems to have been a bloody bad plan. But never mind, eh? :-)

        It’s slightly surprising that they want to focus on railgun CIWS rather than railgun howitzers. It strikes me as the much harder technology to make tactically useful – defending against a regimented missile attack requires a reliable, high rate of fire, which – to date – is something that EM weapons haven’t demonstrated at all.

        Firepower, yes, but I’m not aware of any of the concept weapons firing more than one shot in series.

        • blight_

          It’s obviously a two prong approach. Perhaps the hope is that a smaller railgun can meet milestones faster than a larger one meant to be long range.

        • JohnnyRanger

          Agreed, but if you assume a rate of fire equal to, say, a modern 5″ gun, but with the longer range, higher speed, and flatter trajectory a hypersonic round implies, it WOULD be a nice bridge between the time and space where the last of a limited arsenal of SM’s and ESSM’s are expended and systems such as CIWS and RAM are in range. Granted, that is perhaps a big assumption, and granted, it would have to be one heck of a huge missile attack for us to be missing that bridge capability.

      • SJE

        Well, yeah, but the question is less about whether we CAN do it, but whether its WORTH doing it.

    • BullHammer

      It’d be a “point and shoot” solution. You wouldn’t have to, per say, calculate telemetry of the projectile to meet the target in the air to destroy it; At hypersonic speeds you just shoot “at” the target, not “ahead of it” at some calculated distance/altitude/time away with slower interceptors like you’re mentioning. There is a need for a seperate DAS/DAQ systems to monitor the target (the brains of the system), and then you have a “dumb” railgun that just shoots. The projectile just has to be a metal that can handle the heat.

      • red2429

        Are you trying to convince yourself you are right? You have no idea what goes into putting rounds on target do you? Point and shoot will not work. If at one point in time you see the target, shoot at it and forget it, The target will be farther on it its path before the penetrator hits the target. Sounds simple but the faster or maneuverable the target the more difficult it is to not it out of the sky.

    • guest

      There is already tested a guided .50 cal round. So the tech is there.

      • SJE

        But a 0.5 call is not being accellerated to Mach 8+ in a millisecond.

  • Phono

    a reasonable decission.
    But I ask myself – how to align a railgun to a fast moving target?

    This type of defensive application seems not to fit the concept well, because it needs a constant alignment to the incoming thread (which is typically moving fast and near to the surface).

    After all the electromagnetic Railgun seems to me as an verry flexible und cheap way to air anything, and is in this way a verry interessting addition to artillery (because it needs no propellant charge, and has an different accelleration-curve).

    But – for sure – one can be excited what the Navy comes up with :-)

    • Musson

      We need to think of anti-missile railgun projectiles more as small shotgun pellets rather than single metal bullets. One small pebble hitting a supersonic missile is all it will take.

  • Jacob

    I keep hearing that the biggest threat to our Navy are mines and submarines. Shouldn’t we be pouring money into countering those threats instead? A railgun or laser CIWS is no good if a handful of subs force your surface ships to completely keep out of a particular area.

  • Big- Dean

    again Mr. Work proves how ignorant he is-I’m glad he’s leaving

  • george

    And I want a wife that doesn’t nag me but that ain’t goin happen.

  • Ems

    for this to work they also need to have a very high rate of fire, in addition to projectile speed. they are probably hoping that both a)speed and b)rate of fire will give them a substantial number of opportunities at hitting a supersonic target. Even then, It would be pretty amazing feat to hit a missile in the atmosphere with a dumb-bullet at range.

    • johnvarry

      Long range use RIM-161 SM-3 for ballistic intercepts. Close in use RIM-116 RAM.

    • S.Evans

      Not if your dumb bullet was fused to separate into a spread of flying rods at a certain distance from the target. Then you’ve got a variable aperture shotgun.

  • Godzilla

    I think the choice was wrong. Lasers work better for missile interception because they have faster time of flight to target. Rail guns are clearly more suited for bombardment because of the elevated kinetic energy delivered on the target. Rail guns also suffer from rail erosion issues so it is probably better to choose an application where you want more projectlie mass and less fire rate than the other way around.

    • SJE

      True, but the current lasers are nowhere near strong enough. A lot of the energy goes to just heating the air on the way to the target, and airborne particles (dust, fog, smoke) seriously deplete energy at the point of delivery. Targets can be polished to resist the laser.

    • blight_

      How reliably can you keep the laser on the same position of a moving target at long range on a moving ship for several seconds?

      An aerial platform might be better stabilized against gross wave motion, and would only have to worry about turbulence.

  • Robert C

    I think its conceivable to use them for AB Defense, but it sounds like politics to allow it happen. Anti-Ballistics is all the main focus for the Aegis equipped ships. Ticos are being retained because its felt there not enough tubes out there deploy SM-3s.

    Problem with Railguns is not Aegis couldn’t handle it guidence of the shots. Its power source. You need huge power grid onboard a ship to power a railgun. Right now aside from a Nuclear carrier, there aren’t many all-electric ships out there right now with enough power generators to do it. DDG-1000 is closest combatant that could employ this weapon.

    • Robert C

      *Part 2* – Sorry Forum made me split this up.

      Congress is going mightly difficult to get anything that not a sure thing through. Everytime something new comes out, its faulty to point politics twisted in there. Were still using modified DDG-51 as mainstay of our surface fleet. Which was principly design in the late 1980s…..took a decade get deployed finally in the ’90s. DDG-1000 was mucked up because Navy leadership kept changing its mind what it wanted out of the ship. Its not perfect, but more advanced then rest of the fleet. They need CGN to really use this well, or least new design to handle it. I doubt very much that will happen. Seriously.

    • SJE

      You can store enormous energy in capacitors, flywheels etc.

      • blight_

        Indeed you can, but when people keep insisting on range and muzzle velocity superior to contemporary weapons, there’s an obvious burden on the capacitor/flywheel/compulsators to charge quickly and deliver sustained performance.

        Unless the idea is to fire low rate of fire, single shots at a BM…how much of an engagement window do you expect to have, and what is the kill probably for the rounds you can deliver in that engagement window?

  • XRay

    If we are seriously going to give Karzai a drone force, then we better get busy with this type of weapon that can shoot down the drones that will be launched against our border cities within a year. That will wake up America…..Hopefully we won’t be that stupid. Just leave and don’t look back, or, if we are going to have a drone force there, it should be operated by us.

    • Jim

      um… a drone is easily shot down with fighter jet, or anti air missiles. Nothing special about a slow flying un-maneuverable drone except for the fact it has no pilot and can loiter for a long time…

    • Vpanoptes

      Ummm, well, seems like a bit far from Afghanistan to San Diego or Washington D.C. on on etank of gas. Maybe we could give them some tankers and then target those? Oh wait…..

      • Jim

        What? Is this a real conversation?

    • blight_

      Karzai isn’t getting satcom. He’s probably getting GCS stations.

      Even giving the guy DC-130s and Ryan Firebees makes me nervous…

  • Tribulationtime

    I think they plan use the rail gun as inicial boster of a manouvering terminal hit-to-kill warhead. You would save a lot space inside of the ship, reduce hazards of solids propelants and realibility in launch, maybe high rate of fire. At least same ship will have 2 systems. One hand, The cannon itself looks to have a lot of problems to be resolve. Other hand, missile defense is more than “very difficult” by nature.

  • Doubtom

    Lots of arm-chair flag officers here to comment on the feasibility of a weapons system. Why can’t we summon enough sane people to put forth a system which allows humanity to live peacefully with itself? We could have many more moments to sit in the sun as a result of such an effort.
    Of course, blowing the crap out of each other is definitely a lot of fun, unless or until our make-believe enemies develop the same toys, then it’s way too late to stock up on sun lotion or plan a Kona vacation.

  • johnvarry

    Railgun can kill a missile but your going to need a very very accurate targeting system to tell the railgun where to shoot.

  • SJE

    I agree with the Navy’s reasoning, but not its conclusion. The navy is overcapitalized in surface strike capabilities because that is A LOT EASIER than missile defense. I believe that they should work on rail guns for surface strike, and iron out the problems, THEN adapt for missile defense. Do you really believe that the Navy would have developed awesome Phalanx and rolling frame missiles for defense if they had not been using guns and missiles for decades for offense? Of course not.

    Where possible, always go for incremental improvements. Trying to do it all at once, and you get the F35.

  • blight_

    Is the need for a nuclear surface warfare fleet upon us? (versus the carrier arm).

    I suppose a CGN with a nuke would meet present and projected power requirements as they come up.

  • bigdogg

    Gentlemen/Ladies, I think we all know from past experience, that if our Military branch’ tell us they would LIKE something, they ALREADY HAVE IT and are just trying to get the funds for more of what they have. In this case, the Navy ( I am ex-Navy by the way ) wants both uses of this rail gun – missile defense and land support —

    • SJE

      Personally, I’d be surprised if they already had this up and going with any sort of reliability. There are serious materials science issues.

  • TJRedneck

    Hell YES!!!!!!!!!!!

  • your name

    no more cartrages or primers needed ? for shooting projectiles! What will they think of next ? un sinkable boats.