Are the USA’s electromagnetic guns going off the rails?

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Beginning 2005, the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) started development of an electro magnetic railgun (EMRG). Using magnetic fields to accelerate a projectile instead of chemical propellant, the futuristic weapons held promises of launching projectiles at speeds of up to 5,600 mph or Mach 7 to targets up to 100nm away.

Developed alongside the Navy’s solid state laser (SSL) program, the EMRG aims – according to the latest 30 November Congressional Research Service report – to provide US surface warships increased long range lethality but also self-protection against an ever growing number of sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) by solving two key limitations called the “limited depth of magazine” (the ability to “shoot down only a certain number of enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and antiship missiles before running out of SAMs and CIWS ammunition”) and the “unfavorable cost exchange ratio” (the fact that “a SAM used to shoot down a UAV or antiship missile can cost the Navy more (perhaps much more) to procure than it cost the adversary to build or acquire the UAV or anti-ship missile.”)

The $500mn investment resulted in two prototypes, evaluated since 2012, one by BAE Systems and one by General Atomics. Lavishly mediatized by the ONR, the weapons were reported by the Navy on July 2017 to be expected to “reach a capacity of 10 rounds per minute with a 32 Mega-Joule muzzle launch for each round” by 2019. The Navy envisioned in 2015 to be able to fit an operational gun on a ship by 2025.

Yet comprehensive research published on 4 December by veterans news website Task & Purpose revealed the next-generation weapon program to be threatened by a lack of funding and Pentagon’s changing priorities. As the Congressional Research Service reports, “transitioning military technology efforts from the R&D phase to the procurement phase can sometimes be a challenge” with many falling into “the “valley of death” between research and development and procurement.” The EMRG in particular faces issues with the gun itself, the projectile, the weapon’s electrical power system, and the weapon’s integration with the ship. And sources consulted by Task & Purpose hint the dreaded valley could be the US railgun final resting place. The designated main culprit is the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), a DoD department tasked with facilitating new technology procurement. Confronted with EMRG issues, the SCO realized in 2015 the gun’s super dense, low-drag tungsten projectile, called hypervelocity projectile (HVP) could by be fired by currently in-service Army and Navy large-caliber guns at speed reaching Mach 3, faster than conventional unguided rounds. The HVP would as well be “relatively inexpensive,” facing fewer development challenges and not requiring huge generators only the Zumwalt-class destroyer currently can accommodate amongst the Navy surface combatants without major overhaul.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work declared in May 2016 “We thought railguns were something we were really going to go after. But it turns out that powder guns firing the same hypervelocity projectiles gets you almost as much as you would get out of the electromagnetic rail gun, but it’s something we can do much faster.” SCO spokesman Chris Sherwood confirmed this orientation, stating to Task & Purpose “SCO shifted the project’s focus to conventional powder guns, facilitating a faster transition of HVP technology to the warfighter.”

As such, money originally earmarked for the EMRG could go to the HVP, leaving the railgun without the necessary funding and “dead in the water” by 2019.” The common mount, “a universal system for equipping sea or land-based platforms ” is the first impacted. Without the mount, the ONR would not be able to hold demonstrations and keep Congress and Pentagon’s attention. While Congress authorized in November an additional $15mn expenditure, out of the $26mn requested by co-chair of the Congressional Directed Energy Caucus Representative Jim Langevin, Task & Purpose notes the coming appropriations fight looming represents yet another uphill battle for the railgun program, although one legislative source adds: “but nobody has any idea what will happen after 8 December.”

ONR and the SCO both publically intend to continue working on the EMRG, but Navy’s 2018 RDT&E funding request suggest another story: “appropriations for Power Projection Applied Research fell from $88.94mn in FY 2016 to $13.6mn in FY 2018 due to a reallocation of funding from railgun barrel testing; similarly, appropriation for Future Naval Capabilities Advanced Technology Development fell from $251.17mnin FY 2016 to $205.6mn.” It is likely 2018 will see the fate of the super-gun decided.

But as Pete Singer, a Senior Fellow and warfare specialist at The New America Foundation warns: “While US goes back and forth with funding on this potentially gamechanging technology, other nations may not follow our indecision.” Indeed, far from the US Congress and DoD budgetary infighting, the basic concept of the ERMG has never been in doubt, and other nations have started their own research programs. On 7 December at a military Innovation Forum in Palaiseau, France, German and French procurement agencies Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (BAAINBw) and Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA)’s Franco-German Saint Louis Research Institute unveiled an EMRG-equipped truck. Using new magnetic storage, ultrafast power switches and superconducting material technologies, the Institute is developing ultra-compact power outlets able to effectively deliver the needed power in the briefest moment. The DGA emphasized a naval platform would be its first operational application.

Concerning China, railgun technology is one of the six types of advanced arms programs described as a priority development by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission 2017 Annual Report. Details are few and far between. Chinese scientists reported advances in key railgun technologies, such as toughened barrels with reduced wear, at the 7th Chinese Electromagnetic Technology Conference in October 2015 hosted by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) 206 Institute. CASIC itself announced at the same event progress on electromagnetically launch boosted missiles and railguns designed for close in weapons systems (CIWS). A November 2015 Phoenix Television news broadcast also announced various progresses in the field, hinting at the test of an operational railgun in the next couple of years. Most recently on Oct. 10, 2017 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval University of Engineering announced its top researcher Rear Admiral Ma Weiming “designed electromagnetic launch systems as part of “a key national defense program”.” A Popular Science forthcoming article should shed more light on that issue.

Turkey is an unlikely newcomer in the field, but its Scientific and Technological Research Council unveiled a TÜBITAK SAPAN 14MJ electromagnetic railgun at the Istanbul High Tech Port in November 2016, a weapon it destine to equip Turkey’s future TF-2000-class frigates. On May 2017 at Ankara’s International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF) 2017 defense firm ASELSAN revealed for its part a model of its Tufan gun. Admittedly still in development, ASELSAN has set very and maybe too ambitious goals for its program, with a final range of 300km and a projectile speed of 9,000km/h. The weapon is to serve on land and sea against ground, naval and aerial targets. Russia’s program is much more discreet.

In January 2017, RIA Novosti reported Russian scientists of the Institute of High Temperatures have “successfully tested the country’s first railgun,” firing a projectile at the speed of 3 kilometers per second and piercing an aluminium plate several centimeters thick. Although Sputnik News admits the tests “have not produced any military breakthroughs yet ” it emphasize Russia is “considering other, more peaceful applications,” contrary to countries “staking on the railgun as a future weapon”.



Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.