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?

  • 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.

      • USS ENTERPRISE

        Well, I don’t see much of a point in replacing modern, proven guns with experimental electromagnetic guns. I mean, program cost overruns, heck, the program cost, along with procurement costs are a bit to high. Until we can “master” the rail-gun, I say stay away from replacing literally everything in our arsenal.

        • blight_

          An old argument is ammunition safety. In my mind, the second argument is using a railgun to propel a round, and even more of the round can be devoted to payload or rocket-assist to make up the difference.

          It will take a mix of modest steps to iron out the early kinks of the technology, plus the investment in the “real” railgun before we get anywhere.

          Let’s use history as an example. WW1 sucked for infantry and cavalry. The first tanks were terrible. There were a lot of tank designs, and they were generally terrible. But they achieved a limited mission to prove the feasibility of the concept, and this in turn justified subsequent investment (or not! silly peacetime…except in Germany) in the technology.

          Besides, it also means getting a product sooner before the DC critters decide “dude, where’s my railguns” and cancel everything.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            Well, frankly, you don’t really need ammo in a rail-gun. Heck, at the speeds a projectile is fired from a gun, you could load a rubber eraser and it will come out like a bullet. And yeah, agree about your other points. It would be interesting, though, to see the M1A3 toting a laser or rail gun.

          • blight_

            This would be true of any projectile fired at that velocity. The railgun is just a means of delivering a projectile at high velocity.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            Yes, but the rail gun possess the capability to fire at that velocity, for now. Take, say, the 120MM on an Abrams or Leopard. Pretty powerful, and would really chuck a “rubber eraser” some distance, but a rail gun, well. Just TOO quick.

    • 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.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Pretty accurate. Instead, money goes to the F-35.

      • Dfens

        There’s no private money going to the F-35, it’s another government rice bowl, just like railgun. Once we started paying companies to do research and development, we screwed ourselves. If a company can make a profit on R&D, why ever produce anything?

        • USS ENTERPRISE

          Ever heard of research? Lockheed Martin may not have given money to the project (which it did), but what about the time and resources that were given to the plane? That is called lost money. A lot of lost money. Billions of lost moneys. And it didn’t make profit off of R&D, it needs to make the actual planes.

  • 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

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      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.

        • USS ENTERPRISE

          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.

          • blight_

            Don’t need nuclear for a railgun until the capacitors catch up.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            Well, yeah, like I said, we need a little bit of time and progress. But I think that with the current layout of rail-guns, a nuclear reactor would take care of everything, in terms of power.

      • 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.
    Cheers

    • gar guddy

      Mikey, put Bush back in charge and I am sure it won’t get screwed up.., Ok?

  • 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.

    • crackedlenses

      If I was asking to be sucker-punched by the US as much as you are, I’d be worried about their weapons development too…..

      • Restore Palestine

        crackedhead, the US can’t even handle Afghanistan without resorting to torture and other terrorist tactics. Sucker-punch your dad for giving you a sucker’s brain.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Funny. This assessment is coming from a Palestinian refuge/terrorist. Man, look outside your box, and see the crap going on out there. Middle East can’t talk about anyone until it finishes all of its wars and terrorist activities.

    • Restore Sanity

      You are right, it would be a lot cheaper to strap a bomb to a citizen and call it self defense. I bet the guy who came up with this idea thought he should be the one to go first. What are we thinking?

  • 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.

    • blight_

      Or something like base-bleed in artillery projectiles, which releases gas behind the projectile to reduce the pressure gradient behind the round.

  • 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.