By Roger Ellis
ONR Research Program Officer, Electromagnetic Railgun, Air Warfare and Naval Weapons Application
How does groundbreaking technology go from a mere idea to a significant development effort? How do you create something revolutionary and successfully transition it into the hands of Sailors and Marines?
The Electromagnetic Railgun is a high-risk, high-payoff technology that is meeting all of the objectives above. But ideas alone rarely make it to prime time without additional enabling factors and activities.
The railgun program is a visionary, long-range high-energy gun system that uses electricity rather than gunpowder or rock motors to launch hypersonic projectiles. In doing so, the railgun promises to provide a potent new punch to future surface ships.
When fully operational, railgun projectiles will bolt at speeds greater than Mach 6 and strike greater than 100 nautical miles down-range in about six minutes. That velocity allows the weapon’s projectiles to rely on kinetic energy for maximum effect, and reduces the amount of high explosives needed to be carried on ships. It also minimizes the dangers of unexploded ordnance remaining on the battlefield.
The current Navy railgun effort began in 2001 when Rear Adm. Charlie Hamilton, program executive officer, Ships (PEO Ships), asked for ideas using the massive electric-generating capacity of the newest class of destroyers for a generation of new electric weapons.
Late that year, ONR, PEO Ships and Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren co-sponsored an electromagnetic railgun workshop to gather the nation’s subject matter experts, stakeholders and skeptics to determine if the development of an operational railgun system was indeed technically feasible.
In 2002, Adm. Robert Natter, Commander, Fleet Forces Command, agreed to fund a series of demonstrations at the railgun facility in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Excited about the demonstration, Thomas Pendergraft, NSWC Dahlgren technical director, prompted NSWC to fight for and to internally fund the initial test facility building in 2004.
The Naval Warfare Development Command completed an analysis of railgun employment and, in 2006, published the Railgun Operating Concept, which included war games, exercises and detailed lethality analysis.
The Department of the Navy’s science and technology corporate board chartered the Innovative Naval Prototype construct to foster game-changing and disruptive technologies ahead of the normal requirements process. Its progress – including successes, failures and surprises – are monitored by the EMRG Executive Steering Committee and numerous other stakeholders.
The Electromagnetic Railgun INP was initiated in 2005 for around $250 million. The goal during Phase I, a proof-of-concept demonstration at 32 mega-joule muzzle energy, has been achieved. The most daunting and challenging tasks were cranking up the launch energy while extending barrel life. State of the art launch energy has quadrupled during the past years to greater than 32 megajoules while barrel life has advanced from tens of shots to hundreds of shots. A future weapon system at this energy level would be capable of launching a 100+ nautical mile projectile. This launch energy has the advantage of being able to stress many components to evaluate full-scale mechanical and electromagnetic forces.
Phase I was focused on the development of launcher technology with adequate service life, development of reliable pulsed power technology and component risk reduction for the projectile.
Phase II, which started in 2012, will advance the technology for transition to an acquisition program. Phase II technology efforts will concentrate on demonstrating a rep-rate fire capability. Thermal management techniques required for sustained firing rates will be developed for both the launcher system and the pulsed power system.
The railgun is a true warfighter game changer.
With its increased velocity and extended range, the railgun will give Sailors a multi-mission capability, allowing them to conduct precise naval surface fire support or land strikes; ship defense; and surface warfare to deter enemy vessels. As the system moves forward along its planned schedule from the laboratory launcher, we’ve achieved breakthroughs in compact power and gun design, and will test the next phase of prototype at both sea- and land-based sites in 2016 and 2017.
To become a game-changing technology, the Electromagnetic Railgun needs to be further developed and transitioned onto the ship of the future and into the hands of our Sailors and Marines, ultimately changing the way we fight and win wars. A variety of new and existing naval platforms are being studied for integration of a future tactical railgun system.