The U.S. Navy’s railgun is one of those future weapons that’s awe-inspiring when you watch the railgun firing videos. Once limited to science fiction and video games like Halo 5, a U.S. Navy admiral is discussing the possibility of skipping at-sea prototype trial in favor of deploying a fully operational railgun on to the Zumwalt destroyer the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, which is scheduled to go into the Navy’s service by 2018. In the past, the Navy has also discussed deploying a U.S. Navy laser cannon.
“The Zumwalt-class is one of a number of options being explored for the electromagnetic railgun,” said Lt. Cmdr. Hayley Sims, a Navy spokeswoman. “Due to the size, weight and power requirements, some platforms will be better suited for the technology than others.”
While it almost sounds like fiction, a railgun uses energy to fire chunks of metal at Mach 7 with a massive destructive force. And that’s working today. The Navy railguns were developed by BAE Systems and can deliver up to 32 megajoules of energy. They operate by sending electrical pulses over magnetic rails to generate electromagnetic force, which drives the hyper-velocity projectile down the barrel. The round currently has a feature called command guidance, and can already be used to intercept guided nuclear missiles, but the railgun rounds may be engineered for self-guidance in the future.
“We’re talking about a projectile we’re going to send well over 100 miles. We’re talking about a projectile that can go over Mach 7. We’re talking about a projectile that can go well into the atmosphere. We’re talking about a gun that is going to shoot a projectile that is about one-one hundredth of the cost of an existing missile system today,” said Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research, said according to Military.com.
Besides cost savings, the railgun round has other major benefits. The 23-pound projectile can be fired from Navy 5-inch guns and even 155mm artillery weapons. The railgun’s firepower relies on kinetic energy instead of high explosives, so U.S. Navy ships will no longer need to store the explosives, removing a weakness for enemies to target.
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The Zumwalt destroyers are also a modern marvel of technology. The $4.4 billion U.S. stealth destroyer began its sea trials this past fall, with the USS Zumwalt being captained by Navy Captain James Kirk.
“We are absolutely fired up to see Zumwalt get underway. For the crew and all those involved in designing, building, and readying this fantastic ship, this is a huge milestone,” said Captain Kirk.
In February 2015, Vice Admiral William Hilarides said the new U.S. Navy railgun may end up replacing one of two other guns on the third Zumwalt ship’s deck house if engineering studies determined it’s feasible. The first two ships in the Zumwalt class, the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and USS Michael Monsoor (DDG-1001), are unlikely to receive the new Navy railgun, but it seems very likely now the USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG-1002) will be getting the new weapon design immediately based upon recent comments by the Navy.
In fact, U.S. Navy Admiral Pete Fanta, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, believes the railgun prototyping phase can be skipped, although no final decision has been made. Officially, the plans for the railgun prototype will have the future weapon being installed on the Joint High Speed Vessel USNS Millinocket(JHSV- 3) in 2016. But, the reason the Zumwalt is a tempting target for the new railgun is because of the Zumwalt’s power plant, which is capable of outputting 78 megawatts of electricity for use in propulsion, weapons and sensors.
The installation of the new railgun design does come at a cost. The Zumwalt destroyers were designed to field two 155mm BAE Advanced Gun Systems (AGS), which are capable of firing the Long-Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) at a range of up to 75 nautical miles. Although these guns are removed, the railgun has a range of over 110 miles.
“The Navy is determined to increase the offensive punch of the surface warships,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. “To do that with a limited budget, it needs to look at everything from smart munitions to railguns to lasers.”
Speaking of lasers, it’s also expected that the new Zumwalt destroyers will also field the new U.S. Navy laser cannon, which is designed to take out jets, planes, and unmanned drones. Last year, Admiral Klunder indicated the Navy’s laser cannon was ready to be deployed on a ship with engines good enough to power the Laser Weapons System (LaWS).
“It’s almost like a Hubble telescope at sea,” Klunder said at the time. “Literally, we’re able to get that kind of power and magnification.”
[Photo by U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works via Getty Images]