Development of a futuristic weapon depicted in video games and science fiction is going well enough that a Navy admiral wants to skip an at-sea prototype in favor of installing an operational unit aboard a destroyer planned to go into service in 2018.
The Navy has been testing an electromagnetic railgun and could have an operational unit ready to go on one of the new Zumwalt-class destroyers under construction at Bath Iron Works.
Adm. Pete Fanta, the Navy's director of surface warfare, has floated the idea of foregoing the current plan to put a prototype on another vessel this year and instead put it directly on future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, though no final decision has been made.
"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."
Railguns use electricity instead of gunpowder to accelerate a projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound -- creating enough kinetic energy to destroy targets.
It's literal whiz-bang technology that holds the possibility of providing an effective weapon at pennies on the dollars compared to smart bombs and missiles.
There has been talk since the inception of the Zumwalt program that the massive destroyers would be a likely candidate for the weapon because of its power plant. The USS Johnson will be the third and final destroyer in the Zumwalt class.
The 600-foot-long warship uses marine turbines similar to those that propel the Boeing 777 to help produce up to 78 megawatts of electricity for use in propulsion, weapons and sensors. That's more than enough juice for the railgun.
If it's placed on the warship, the system could replace one of the forward turrets housing a 155mm gun that fires rocket-propelled projectiles.
For now, however, the official plan remains for the railgun prototype to be tested aboard a joint high speed vessel this year. But there are concerns that the plan may be pushed back into 2017, and Fanta suggested skipping it altogether.
The railgun, along with laser weaponry, are two futuristic technologies that Fanta said have evolved from being a matter of scientific research to one of practical engineering.
The Navy is interested in those weapons -- along with smart munitions that can improve existing naval guns -- because of their low cost as well as lethality.
"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."
The railgun discussion isn't widely known inside the shipyard.
Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, had no comment.
Shipbuilder Charles Davis said there was talk of a railgun when the yard began work on the first ship in the class, but he said there's been no discussion since then.
"They've been pretty tight-lipped about it," he said.