Railguns remain in Navy’s future plans

They may not be ready to punch holes in Decepticons, but the Navy is banking on electromagnetic railguns one day arming its newest ships.

Directed energy weapons have created quite a buzz at this year’s Sea Air Space Expo at National Harbor, Md. They have always been a popular prop in science fiction movies; now the Navy is deploying the first directed energy “laser” weapon early next year aboard the amphibious transport dock Ponce.

While not as popular as lasers, high-energy rail guns are also generating plenty of excitement at this year’s show. The Navy has studied arming its new DDG 1000-class destroyer and Littoral Combat Ships with just such a weapon.

“There are feasible sizes of railguns we think we can put on these ships,” Robin White, director of Surface Ship Design and Systems Engineering, said Wednesday.

The Navy has spent the past eight years testing rail guns, most notably rolling out the first weaponized railgun in January 2012. The technology stands to offer additional range for land strikes as well as added capabilities in ballistic and cruise missile defense.

Railguns are capable of launching high-speed projectiles at targets out to 100 miles with out explosive propellants. They also can be guided on target, said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of Naval Research and director of Innovation, Technology Requirements and Test & Evaluation.

These highly-advanced weapons, however, won’t come without challenges to overcome, White said. There will be power-storage issues to deal with as well as weight impacts for shipboard use. Heat dissipation and cooling will also have to be addressed.

“There will be many things to work through as we go forward, but the good news is these weapons provide tremendous advantage for shipboard use,” White said.

What type of shipboard use is still to be seen. Former Navy Under Secretary Robert Work said in January that he’d recommend delaying the decision on railguns until they Navy can decide how these weapons fit into the fleet design.

“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 in January.

About the Author

Matt Cox
Matthew Cox is a reporter at Military.com. He can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.
  • Rob C.

    I’m glad the Navy sticking with their guns to keeping the Railgun in cards for elements of the fleet. I wonder if they’ve done tests with gun being fired at ranges yet. They only show shells bursting through walls.

    I think the biggest concern is being able have ship able handle them. There only three Zulwalts going be built. LCS wouldn’t have right power generation handle these guns.

    • Nick T.

      Flight III Burke’s perhaps? Maybe mount it on a carrier? I don’t think the mass-produced railgun specs are going to be very conservative when it comes to power either, and I don’t see a Ticonderoga or Burke retrofit as particularly cost effective. Triumphant return of the nuclear cruiser perhaps?

      • Bob

        Maybe a new class of battleship?

        • blight_

          Or a Project Babylon Supergun to bombard targets from the safety of the UAE.


          A nice thought. Maybe with a missile defense system using laser tech. Railguns do have the potential of removing the cruise missile from the VLS tubes of ships. A railgun’s projectile flies significantly faster; you don’t need to fit a warhead to take some targets.

      • Rob C.

        It would have to be new design or completely redesign Burke. From what I’ve read Flight III doesn’t produce enough electrical power enable to Railgun to work.

        Nuclear design would be better idea, but i don’t know if there enough political will push ahead do it. Sadly be a very long time till they can design, build and complete new Nuclear powered Cruiser or Destroyer.

        I’d be happy if they did build a modern Battleship or Battlecruiser. A ship with armor, handle heavy fire. It may not protect it from cruise missiles, but little speed boats with bombs may not dent it.


          I don’t think, in the end, a Burke will get rail guns. They may very well be the last design that of destroyer in the US fleet without rail guns, assuming that the DDG-1000s get rail guns as an upgrade or something.

  • Moondawg

    They will be awesome, if they work.

  • wpnexp

    Think the big problem is barrell wear still. Haven’t heard how they will keep a barrel strong while passing all that electro-magnetic energy through it.

    • blight_

      It’s probably the usual barrel-killer: heat; moreso than EM.

      NMR can put out a considerable amount of Teslas, for example.

    • blight_

      Another possibility may be to use electromag to deliver rounds of comparable velocity to today’s guns. Dispensing with the propellant will mean smaller rounds, or more payload. And less powerful magnets.

      Let’s do this in steps. The Wright Brothers delivered a glider, then the engined aircraft, and didn’t try to deliver biplanes with rocket launchers in a fiscal year.

    • LonePine

      Bursts of EMag energy THAT size won’t cause dangerous levels of gamma radiation ? Could just make a “drone” ship of course. Just leave a few maint guys aboard in a shielded room.

  • Danny

    Can’t they just duck tape it?

  • Warfighter

    I bet the engineers behind this one dream of graphene every night.

  • Dfens

    I’ll bet they continue to research these right up until the funding for research stops. What a damn waste. If a private company wanted to develop a railgun, they’d be shooting projectiles to the Moon already.

  • Warner M. Harvey

    Poor Submarines they have a FINITE # of torpedoes and then they are USELLESS put a RAILGUN on a SUB and you will make it able to stay in the fight.

  • anon

    As the first line of the article points out, the real problem is the potential threat from Decepticons. We really need to invest more in sentient robots.

    • Drew

      Are you crazy? Have you ever seen Terminator?

  • Big-Dean

    Do any of you engineering types have an idea about how much it costs per shot to fire the rail gun? The costs would be in terms of energy consumed, wear and tear, cost of the projectile, etc.

    In the laser article it mentioned that it costs about $1 per shot (per use) which is outstanding. So as long as the laser as power it can keep shooting, which is exactly what we need.

    If we can actually make shooting the railgun really cheap, that would be vastly superior to lobbing $1M missiles every time we want to take something out


      Cost, in terms of energy, won’t be much. Say we build another battleship, with laser point-defense cannons, and rail-guns. If we put, say, two or four nuclear reactors on board, then I think we can manage with energy to spare. True, reactors are expensive, but refueling every 20-25 years? I think its a good investment. And yes, I agree with your missile analogy. Its funny how we have come to the point where we build weapons that are so expensive, and one shot, no matter how good they are.

      • blight_

        It will require a very large conventional power source and advances in metallurgy and capacitor design; especially if they want meaningful rate of fire.

        There is one perk to going with conventional rounds; rate-of-fire limited by heat, barrel wear and the time it takes to cycle new rounds. At the moment, the ability to deliver quantity of energy to capacitors, and capacitors to discharge enough of it; plus ability to delivery quantity of energy quickly, and to recharge those capacitors quickly push ready-to-use railguns into the future.


          Well, like I said, drop the conventional stuff, and go nuclear. And I can see the uses and perks say, a Tomahawk gives. I respect the cruise missile, and support it, but we are soon going to have to find a way to replace these things, and a rail-gun is the best way. Rapid fire is something a rail-gun can’t do yet, but like you stated in another comment, we are starting to expect every new weapon system to be excellent and be at the forefront overnight.

      • Restore Palestine

        Whew, BS ENTERPRISE is getting hyper in here. HaHa.

  • Mikey

    Move over Transformers here comes the future. . .WOW
    the present administration will figure out some way to screw this up.

  • Restore Palestine

    Another sign the US is getting worse as a rogue state run by criminals.

    With the economy in the toilet, the largest number of homeless and unemployed people in US history, the crumbling infrastructure in disrepair, the trade deficit and fiscal deficit at nightmarish levels, and the largest military in the world, the thugs in the US government are still pouring money into new weapons to kill people.

  • Ron C

    I’ve heard that one problem being encountered (among many) is that the rails themselves are subject to tremendous wear because of the high heat generated by the electric impulses that propel the projectile down the rail. Does anyone know what types of materials are being used on the rails? I know there are some recent advances in ultra high strength steels that might potentially mitigate such wear.

    • Blue1

      Its the friction caused by the projectile in contact with the rails. Though this has been migated somewhat by induction and frictionless material coating (slight increase in power requirements). I still think gauss tech is the way to go.

      • Rob C.

        Very true. I keep forgetting there two verisions of the Rail Gun.
        I wonder how often this thing can be handle being fired in shore bombardment. From image you’d think it being pretty violent everytime they fire the thing. Wear and tear going be huge problem.

  • Flux77
  • Flux77
  • Brandon

    I believe that the Railgun will be a great addition to the navy becuase the power and distance that it has. But the wear and tear is a concern to me

  • Tony C.

    The use of ceramics, similar to those in the combustion chamber of high performance jet engines, can mitigate some of the heat and wear issues for a rail gun. There is of course, the vacuum created behind the accelerating projectile that is a larger problem since it has a tendency to collapse the rails behind the projectile.
    This can be somewhat mitigated by using a pressurizing medium behind the projectile (such as helium), but all this comes at a cost in weight and space on a ship. The advantage to a rail gun is it can easily defeat any ballistic missile or surface skiming missile fired at the ship from which it is operating. The advantage of the rail gun over the laser is that the impacts will destroy the target in milliseconds as opposed to maintaining target track until the surface of the intended target is melted to destroy it.

  • SFP

    Think the big problem is barrell wear still. Haven’t heard how they will keep a barrel strong while passing all that electro-magnetic energy through it.

    • whitey

      no barrel, just rails like a choo choo train. I say suspend the projectile above the rails eltromagnetically, just like a choo choo train.