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Railgun test shot  (Source: U.S. Navy on YouTube)
Goal is to create a 64 MJ cannon capable of firing ten high impact metal slugs per minute

The U.S. Navy is anticipating the railgun will play a key role in battlefields of the future.  To that end it's investing deeply in the technology, gunning to make the U.S. the first to deploy the wild weapons technology.  The U.S. Navy and its research wing -- the Office of Naval Research (ONR) -- announced this week that in 2016 the railgun efforts will see a crucial test: the first live fire demonstration at sea.
 
I. A Brief History of Railguns
 
France’s Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplee first proposed the concept of an “electric gun” in 1918, later getting a patent on the technology in the U.S. in 1922.  Railguns have long been speculated to potentially have critical advantages over traditional guns.  Like missiles and other propellant based high-speed projectiles, they can achieve much higher velocities that traditional projectiles which lack internal propulsion.  However, railguns are expected to be much cheaper than rockets, given that their ammo can be crude metal slugs.
 
Railguns operate by utilizing the Lorentz force or "Lorenz (sic) force" as the U.S. Navy refers to it as in a press release.  This phenomenon involves the application of force from electromagnetism on point charge.
Railgun
A railgun operates via a homopolar motor armature, typically a conducting metal rod.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The simplest form of the railgun -- the one the U.S. Navy will likely look to first deploy -- involves a sliding metallic conductor that acts as a homopolar motor in the cannon, accelerating down a pair of magnetized rails of opposite charges.  The armature can be integrated into the projectile itself, but typically it is attached to the rails so that nonmagnetized projectiles can be fired from the cannon.
 
More exotic variants use electrical arcs across ionizing gas to create a propellant effect similar to a traditional chemical (e.g. firepowder) based cannon.
 
Given the benefits, military designers worldwide have long been chasing after railguns.  In World War II, the Nazis hatched designs to build anti-aircraft railguns.  Recent analyses suggest these plans may have been technically feasible, however, they would have used as much power as half the city of Chicago, making them somewhat farfetched.  They were never built.
 
II. Railguns Approach the Battlefield
 
With the advent of high-energy solid-state switches and high-energy-density capacitors, at last the power necessary to rapidly magnetize the rails and eject the projectile has been at least made a practical reality.
 
The U.S. Navy has been kicking around prototypes for some time.  Its plan is to deploy a 64 Megajoule cannon to warships sometime around 2020-2025.  That device will use tungsten slugs and will fire at speeds of around 5,800 m/s (19,000 ft/s or roughly 13,000 miles per hour).  At that rate the cannon will be able to accurately to hit a 5-meter (16 ft) target from roughly 200 nmi (370 km) away.  The goal is to be able to fire 10 shots per minute.
 
The tungsten slugs are expected to have enough kinetic force to punch through even the best tank armor of today.  Line of site is a problem with railguns, but the advent of drone sighting technology -- a key area of research at the U.S. Navy -- will likely nullify this disadvantage by the time the tech hits the high seas.
 
Currently the Navy's prototypes are being tested on land by the Dahlgren Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NAVSEA), a team based in Dahlgren, Virginia.  The Surface Warfare Center -- which targets nearer term warfare solutions -- collaborates with the Naval Research Lab (NRL), which handles more speculative and pure research projects.
 
After much land-based testing, the cannon will soon be ready to test at its desired destination -- on the high seas.  In 2016 the U.S. Navy plans to deploy a prototype cannon with a range of 110 nmi (204 km) aboard one of the Navy's Spearhead-class joint high speed vessel (JHSV) for live fire testing.

HSV Swift
The second JHSV vessel, the U.S.S. Swift [Image Source: Florida Times-Union]

The JHSV is the Navy's next generation troop ship.  Currently, 10 are either built or under construction and another 13 will be added by the year 2041.
 
The JHSV is technically a non-combatant, however, it was selected for this test due to its flexibility and roomy deck.

BAE railgun
BAE's prototype railgun [Image Source: U.S. Navy]

One of the biggest challenges facing railgun designers is to shrink the cannons down to the size of traditional naval artillery.  Currently a team at UK-based BAE Systems plc (LON:BA) and the Electromagnetic Systems (EMS) Division at privately-owned U.S. defense contractor General Atomics, have both delivered the Navy competing prototype designs.
 
It's possible that both companies' railguns will be deployed in 2016.

General Atomics Railgun
A railgun prototype from General Atomics [Image Source: U.S. Navy]

Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, the Navy's chief engineer, comments on the upcoming tests:

The electromagnetic railgun represents an incredible new offensive capability for the U.S. Navy.  This capability will allow us to effectively counter a wide-range of threats at a relatively low cost, while keeping our ships and sailors safer by removing the need to carry as many high-explosive weapons.

Rear Adm. Matt Klunder, the chief of naval research, adds:

Energetic weapons, such as EM railguns, are the future of naval combat.  The U.S. Navy is at the forefront of this game-changing technology.

The Navy has been actively developing the railgun technology since at least 2005, according to a press release.  The Navy says it does not plan to deploy railguns permanently aboard the JHSVs, due to their noncombatant status.  It has not decided on the final destination for the cannons; one possibility is the Littoral combat ship (LCS), a newer class of naval vessels that are expected to comprise a key portion of the U.S. Navy's future combat fleet.

Source: The U.S. Navy [press release]



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RE: Sweet technology
By Dr of crap on 4/9/2014 3:06:01 PM , Rating: 1
It just seems like a modern cannon to me. Like it states line of site is needed. No propellants.

Have there been many injuries because the missiles on board the ships have caused our service guys injury???
Seems like a way, and not a good one, to justify the cost.


RE: Sweet technology
By Etsp on 4/9/2014 3:15:55 PM , Rating: 3
quote:
Have there been many injuries because the missiles on board the ships have caused our service guys injury???
While under hostile fire? Absolutely YES.


RE: Sweet technology
By M'n'M on 4/9/2014 4:17:21 PM , Rating: 2
USS Arizona strikes a bell. As does the USS Juneau and HMS Hood.


RE: Sweet technology
By Souka on 4/10/2014 4:39:27 PM , Rating: 1
So for decades the navy big gun ships are being decommisoned as big cannons are >typically< not needed in modern war.

Now we're going to spend how many billions on a big-cannon system? Article says the shells can penertrate even the toughest tank armor. Wow... a single tank.

A tank can easily be taken out by a number of other methods, and more accurately with current tech, without a near-line of sight cannon.

But hey, very cool tech. Can't wait for a portable version like that Arnold Schwarteneager movie of the 90's (w/James Cahn)

My $.02


RE: Sweet technology
By Reclaimer77 on 4/10/2014 6:36:10 PM , Rating: 3
There's a big difference between a Navy Battleship, and a multipurpose vessel with a single railgun.

quote:
Article says the shells can penertrate even the toughest tank armor. Wow... a single tank.


Don't base your opinion of the railgun's abilities on the article. It can do a LOT more than blow a tank up.


RE: Sweet technology
By Cypherdude1 on 4/12/2014 9:18:58 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
So for decades the navy big gun ships are being decommisoned as big cannons are >typically< not needed in modern war.
I agree. It's too bad the USA no longer has any active 16" battleships. They're all museums now. Not only do battleships have foot thick steel, compared to the USS Cole, they also have plenty of room for multiple rail guns. If the USA had money, we could redesign our battleships with modern labor saving devices. Then they could have a smaller crew and be cheaper to run.

The problem is, the USA is broke. That is, our large USA corporations have not been paying any taxes so the country is broke. You're not going to hear about this on any of the cable news channels because they are... sponsors!!! You should know, because the USA no longer has enough money, they're shrinking the size of the Army to pre-WW2 levels and eliminating the A-10 Warthog.

There are several documentaries you must see:
1. Inside Job , not available via Netflix Streaming, only DVD.
2. We're Not Broke
3. Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream
4. Gasland I & II
5. Split Estate


RE: Sweet technology
By YearOfTheDingo on 4/10/2014 10:01:59 PM , Rating: 2
You're judging the value of a weapon system based solely on its ability to destroy enemy assets. It's like saying handguns are useless because a hand grenade is more effective at killing. The intimidation factor is what's relevant here. The rail gun gives us the ability to fire a shot across the bow of an enemy ship from a long distance away. It's more useful, really, since most of the time we don't want to start a shooting war. We could not do the same with a Harpoon missile.


RE: Sweet technology
By deltaend on 4/10/2014 10:03:58 PM , Rating: 3
At 19,000mph, these rounds will fly nearly 17,000mph faster than our fastest rockets (not including ICBM's on re-entry) and due to the sheer speed and energy delivered can singlehandedly destroy larger vessels with a single shot. Additionally, you can load ones that explode and fragment before hitting the target, allowing for massive anti-personel or anti-air rounds to be highly effective against soft targets or inbound missiles. Lastly, you can carry significantly more rounds on a smaller vessel than you can on a larger ship and unlike missiles, these warheads won't expire or become more unreliable (dangerous?) with time.


RE: Sweet technology
By FishTankX on 4/11/2014 8:28:36 AM , Rating: 3
this tech has the destructive force of a tomahawk missile at a few hundred dollars a round vs a million and enough range (200 miles) to be used for a lot of the same applications at speeds no anti missile system could hope to engage. I'm also guessing railgun shells could punch clean through an enemy ship with that much force. sinking a ten million dollar ship with a hundred dollar slug sounds mighty potent....

also if you are trying to engage targets likely to move this is an excellent system due to high projectile speed. looking at seconds to target instead of minutes like a tomahawk. I don't think an enemy destroyee xould move fast enough to dodge a 7000mph shell fired from 100 miles away. we're talking 10 seconds to evade a shell capable of hitting a 15 foot circle. leading the target there is probably no hope for it to dodge.


RE: Sweet technology
By AntDX316 on 4/21/2014 5:31:21 AM , Rating: 2
basically railgun technology > all previous technology


RE: Sweet technology
By KOOLTIME on 4/11/2014 7:09:03 PM , Rating: 2
That explains it,

now we know what happened to flight 370,

this darn thing misfired.


RE: Sweet technology
By ven1ger on 4/9/14, Rating: 0
RE: Sweet technology
By M'n'M on 4/9/2014 3:59:20 PM , Rating: 5
quote:
Gunpowder stills needs air to explode.

Nope. The oxidizer is part of the propellant. Think about it, how would enough air get into the sealed casing, ahead of the sealed breech and behind the tightly fitting projectile.


RE: Sweet technology
By deltaend on 4/11/2014 8:20:08 AM , Rating: 2
Not to say that it wouldn't work better in an oxygen rich environment, but for every additional pound of thrust that you would get from having O2 around the bullet when it goes off, you also add proportionally more drag against the bullet as it flies. At the end of the day, gunpowder works nearly exactly like an airgun. Compressed gasses launch a projectile while expanding rapidly in order to reach equilibrium via diffusion.


RE: Sweet technology
By docinct on 4/9/2014 5:04:15 PM , Rating: 2
The Mythbusters already demonstrated this is a neat show a while back (using a pistol no less in a vacuum).


RE: Sweet technology
By drycrust3 on 4/11/2014 2:53:30 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Another thing here is that rail guns I don't think will need air to operate, it can be operated in a vacuum, I think. Gunpowder stills needs air to explode.

Firstly, most explosives rely on chemical methods to produce a lot of heat in a short amount of time. Usually the explosive has its own oxidising agent, although an internal combustion engine uses the oxygen within the air as the oxidiser. Any explosive that carries its own oxidiser, e.g. Gunpowder, Dynamite, TNT, etc, can operate in a vacuum, while any explosive that doesn't, e.g. Petrol, diesel, natural gas, won't work in a vacuum.
A nuclear bomb doesn't use the electrons around an atom as the means to generate heat, it uses an uncontrolled chain reaction involving either fission or fusion of atomic nuclei to generate heat. A nuclear bomb will work regardless of whether it is in a vacuum or not (provided the trigger can operate in that environment).
A rail gun, like a nuclear weapon, relies on trigger to get it going, it needs something to start the projectile moving, but after that the electromagnetic forces are what accelerate the projectile, so whether a rail gun can work in a vacuum, for the first firing at least anyway, or not depends entirely upon the nature of the primary moving force.
Why do I say "for the first firing ... anyway"? The big drawback with a rail gun is the massive amount of current required. This generates a large amount of heat at any point of "high resistance" (in the context of rail guns, "high resistance" could be 0.01 Ohms) e.g. between the projectile and the sides of the cannon, where the cables between the capacitor bank and the rails are attached, etc. This heat is enough to melt the metal on both the rails and the projectile, thus the rails are eroded with each firing. If you look at the closeup picture you will see what looks like a huge number of electrical cables. It wouldn't surprise me if that is exactly what they are. As an example, look at the size of the cable that goes between the battery and the starter motor on your car, it is also very thick, while most other wiring in your car is quite thin. Why? Current! Large current + thinness of conductor + distance = low voltage = power loss.
The same applies to a rail gun. Every point where heat is generated is also a point where there is power loss, meaning your projectile goes slower = less range.
For a rail gun in space, there wouldn't be any heat generated until the first projectile is fired, the problem then is the time taken to fire the second projectile is governed by the time to charge up the capacitors (which would depend on the size of the rechargeable batteries and the solar cells) and the time taken for the heat generated by the first firing to dissipate. By contrast, and land or sea based rail gun could use some compressed air to flush away the heat.
If you look in the background to those pictures you can see what looks like a huge capacitor bank, and on the side is a huge transformer (and I guess somewhere are some massive diodes) to charge up the capacitors.


RE: Sweet technology
By arazok on 4/9/2014 3:23:20 PM , Rating: 2
Are you kidding?

Load a boat full of munitions and drop a bomb on it. Often the bomb doesn’t do enough damage to destroy the ship, but if it happens to hit the weapons stored below it doesn’t need to. Those things will all go off and sink the ship.

It hasn’t happened recently because the US hasn’t fought any real adversaries in recent times, but in a real war this is a very big problem.


RE: Sweet technology
By Arkive on 4/9/2014 3:39:35 PM , Rating: 2

The cost? Do you know how much munitions cost? Do you know how much a slender metal rod costs? There's defintiely long-term savings, along with the safety gained from carrying so fewer explosive weapons onboard. A win-win in my book.


RE: Sweet technology
By lagomorpha on 4/11/2014 9:24:33 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Do you know how much a slender metal rod costs?


If financed by the US Military? $1 million? More?


RE: Sweet technology
By purerice on 4/9/2014 6:30:42 PM , Rating: 2
I think it should have been "line of sight" unless they are referring to the string of DailyTech articles that go published while poorly edited.

After playing through MOO and H(a)egemonia, I just want to know what would be the reasonable range of these guns in space, not just as a weapon, but as a possible delivery tool. What power would you need to fire a 2kg package from the ISS to the moon, for example.


RE: Sweet technology
By Reclaimer77 on 4/9/2014 6:47:18 PM , Rating: 2
Depends how fast you want it to get there. If your aim was good enough, you could throw a package from the ISS to the Moon. Just don't expect Next Day Space delivery :P


RE: Sweet technology
By Bubbacub on 4/10/2014 3:46:22 PM , Rating: 2
Basic physics fail. Delta V from LEO to lunar surface is 6.3km/s (i.e two thirds of orbital velocity!).

A hefty throw is a few thousand orders of magnitude out!

There is a reason why Saturn V was so large - it takes a lot of thrust at high specific impulse to get out of earth's gravity well.


RE: Sweet technology
By Reclaimer77 on 4/11/2014 8:46:44 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
A hefty throw is a few thousand orders of magnitude out!


Bull! Drew Brees could chuck a football from the ISS to Uranus!!


RE: Sweet technology
By blue_urban_sky on 4/10/2014 11:17:32 AM , Rating: 2
If space is a perfect vacuum then infinite, you would need to build a suitable catchers mitt the other end tho ;)


RE: Sweet technology
By Reclaimer77 on 4/9/14, Rating: 0
RE: Sweet technology
By lagomorpha on 4/11/2014 9:28:00 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
This Railgun can fire FAR beyond the visual horizon. So no, it's not a line of sight weapon.


So can First World War era cannon.


RE: Sweet technology
By marvdmartian on 4/10/2014 7:29:35 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
It just seems like a modern cannon to me. Like it states line of site is needed.


quote:
Line of site is a problem with railguns, but the advent of drone sighting technology -- a key area of research at the U.S. Navy -- will likely nullify this disadvantage by the time the tech hits the high seas.


I would also guess that, by the time they're ready to deploy these in the fleet, we'll not only see much smaller versions (so it doesn't look like the giant guns of old, with long barrels like this one has), but we'll probably also see "smart" projectiles, that can be steered, somewhat, by computer-assisted operators.

At the speeds the projectiles will be moving, you wouldn't have much time for corrections, but it could definitely help hit an enemy ship that's wildly maneuvering to avoid being hit.


RE: Sweet technology
By blue_urban_sky on 4/10/2014 11:24:14 AM , Rating: 2
At 380km edge of range it will take 64s to hit target. I don't know about the maneuverability of large ships. but incase it helps anyone else wondering the time taken.


RE: Sweet technology
By Rukkian on 4/10/2014 11:32:22 AM , Rating: 2
A big point of these is that the projectile can be just a hunk of metal, hence being very cheap. If they are adding in maneuverability, and electronics, it gets much more costly, and complex. At that point, some sort of missile might be better.


RE: Sweet technology
By ironargonaut on 4/14/2014 9:33:19 PM , Rating: 2
Line of sight on the ocean at normal ship height is what something like 20 miles? We been shooting stuff beyond the horizon for years how is this different.


RE: Sweet technology
By syslog2000 on 4/10/2014 2:45:13 PM , Rating: 2
The navy guy in charge of the project said that cost, along with safety, is a major factor. Apparently a railgun projectile will cost in the neighborhood of $25K each, while a conventional projectile costs along the lines of $500K each.

So yes, cost savings. Although it blows my mind that this means that instead of firing an expensive home the navy will now be firing moderately priced mid-sized sedans...

Put another way, a single broadside from a battleship probably costs as much as a small neighborhood.


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