It's real! Navy test-fires first working prototype railgun

The Navy’s futuristic railgun is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Navy officials told this week that the railgun, which relies on magnets rather than explosives to fire bullets at several times the speed of sound, had blasted through budget constraints that are leaving federal research programs in Washington at the drawing board.

“I think it is a great example of how our naval science and technology -- in these tough fiscal times -- can be responsive to the military’s emerging needs,” said Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research for the Office of Naval Research (ONR), which has been developing the electromagnetic railgun since 2005.

He insisted that not only will the railgun fire projectiles faster and farther than any weapon now known to man, but “in these fiscal times of belt tightening … [it’s] a more cost-effective system.”

How so? For one, because the gun and the storage of its projectiles (which are not incendiary, and weigh about 40 pounds each -- smaller and less expensive than today’s missiles) ultimately will take up less space than traditional weapons systems.

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In addition, rather than relying on chemical propellants like gunpowder, the railgun uses an electromagnetic pulse to create strong magnetic fields that propel the conductive bullet on a sliding metal sled and out of the barrel -- at 4,500 to 5,000 miles per hour and as far as 100 nautical miles away in about 5 minutes, with possible future expansion to 220 miles, according to ONR.

The Navy’s most advanced shipboard gun in operation today, the 5-inch,54-caliber lightweight gun, has a range of about 13 nautical miles, Klunder said. The Advanced Gun System (AGS), which is currently being developed for the Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer, is expected to have a range of nearly 60 nautical miles.

“We’re still talking about four times the range,” said Klunder, calling it “leap-ahead technology.”

“This is the stuff you saw in movies a couple of years ago -- cutting edge, taking out the Transformers -- and now it’s reality,” he added.

Well, almost.

On Feb. 26, ONR announced that it was getting ready to test the gun’s first prototype, built by private defense contractor BAE Systems, at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) in Dahlgren, Va. Another prototype built by General Atomics is expected to arrive at Dahlgren in the coming weeks.

ONR began firing railgun slugs in its laboratories in 2008, but this is the first time the Navy has tested the gun from a launcher that resembles what the final weapon system will look like, Roger Ellis, the EM Railgun program officer, said in an interview.

It will also indicate what the weapon can do. According to ONR, BAE initiated its tests in February, firing at 20-megajoules and planning for a 32-megajoule test soon after. (A megajoule of energy is equivalent to a one-ton car traveling at 100 miles per hour.)

“We’ve made a lot of progress, to say the least,” Ellis said. “It’s a significant step beyond previous laboratory-based launchers. [The lab models] were nothing you could put on a Navy ship ... this is closer to the fit and form of what we could put on a ship someday.”

The clear advantage to a long-range gun, of course, is to provide cover for soldiers and Marines operating in coastal areas from a safe distance at sea, and for anti-missile/aircraft capabilities. The longer the range the technology offers, the more strategic it becomes, offering the Navy new abilities to hit other targets on water and land, ONR officials said.

But there are potential obstacles, too. So far, Congress has been supportive of the railgun program, though it barely survived a snag last June. In passing its version of the FY2012 defense authorization bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee eliminated funding for the project, citing technical challenges related “to the power required and the barrel of the gun having limited life.”

Though these concerns did not stop the program from getting funding, thanks to the railgun’s friends on Capitol Hill, they highlight a number of unresolved issues, not the least of which is how the barrel will withstand repeated, massive explosions -- and creating a projectile with a guidance system that will be able to endure the ensuing heat and velocity.

Ellis told reporters in a Feb. 28 press conference that Phase II of the program, which begins now, will concentrate on improving the barrel’s lifespan and developing the repetition rate -- how many times in a row the railgun can be fired successfully. The goal is 10 rounds per minute. That means having enough energy stored to fire it up to “pulsed power” that quickly, for multiple rounds.

The energy question is a big one, as experts have said the amount of electricity necessary to operate the railgun at 32 megajoules would require a ship that that can generate enough power, one that doesn’t yet exist. It may be the massive Zumwalt class DDG-1000 destroyer, which is now being designed as a multi-mission ship at a price tag of $3.3 billion per ship.

Ellis said ONR is working on a battery system that would mitigate the problem by storing up energy much like the batteries used in hybrid vehicles, allowing the Navy to position the guns on both “new and existing platforms” and still get the pulsed power necessary to operate at optimum levels.

Phase II is expected to end in 2017, at which time the railgun, if complete, would go into a funding and acquisition phase that will take the project to full deployment on Navy ships by 2025, though there are hopes for a slightly shorter timeline, Ellis said.

So far, the railgun has cost taxpayers $240 million in research and design costs, according to ONR. Ellis said the project has been “adequately funded” for Phase II and should come in at a similar price tag.

“(Congress) did ask for a better understanding of the future of the railgun, and we are comfortable that the information we have provided will help them understand the benefits of the program,” Klunder said. "The prototype railgun is now functioning and successful and we hope this helps to increase overall confidence in the significance of the program.”