Electromagnetic railgun set for high-energy field trials

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The US Navy is set to conduct trials of an electromagnetic railgun that can launch projectiles at speeds in excess of Mach 6 without the need for chemical propellants.

Electromagnetic railgun (US Navy photo by John F. Williams)
Electromagnetic railgun (US Navy photo by John F. Williams)

According to the US Office of Naval Research (ONR), field demonstrations will take place at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division’s new railgun Rep-Rate Test Site.

Initial repetition rate (rep-rate) fires of multi-shot salvos have been carried out at low muzzle energy and the next tests will increase launch energy, firing rates and salvo size. Railgun rep-rate testing will be at 20 megajoules by the end of the summer and at 32 megajoules by 2018.

“Railguns and other directed-energy weapons are the future of maritime superiority,” said Dr Thomas Beutner, head of ONR’s Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department. “The US Navy must be the first to field this leap-ahead technology and maintain the advantage over our adversaries.”

The railgun relies on a massive electrical pulse, rather than gunpowder or other chemical propellants, to launch high-velocity projectiles (HVPs) at distances over 100 nautical miles at speeds in excess of Mach 6. At that velocity the low-drag, guided projectiles to use kinetic energy for lethaility, thereby reducing the amount of high explosives required on ships.

The US Navy is developing and testing railgun barrels capable of firing numerous rounds per minute with a tactically relevant barrel life, as well as the associated power and auxiliary systems. In addition, the weapon’s power system now is small enough to fit aboard current and future US Navy ships.

“The railgun will be an effective deterrent against growing and increasingly complex threats,” said Beutner. “Its power level surpasses traditional gun technology, and it reduces explosive ship-board risks to sailors and marines at sea.”

In 2013 BAE Systems was awarded $34.5m by ONR to develop an electromagnetic railgun under Phase 2 of the US Navy’s Innovative Naval Prototype (INP) programme. In 2012, during Phase 1 of the INP programme, engineers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia successfully fired BAE Systems’ EM Railgun prototype at tactical energy levels. In the same year, BAE Systems received funding of $33.6m from ONR to develop and demonstrate an HVP.