The US Navy is planning to finally test the electromagnetic railgun it has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing aboard a warship, according to new documents detailing the service's testing and training plans.
Unlike conventional guns, a railgun uses electromagnetic energy rather than explosive charges to fire rounds farther and at six or seven times the speed of sound.
"The kinetic energy weapon (commonly referred to as the rail gun) will be tested aboard surface vessels, firing explosive and non-explosive projectiles at air- or sea-based targets," the Navy's 1,800-page Northwest Training and Testing Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment revealed.
Electromagnetic Railgun located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)
The Navy, which has spent more than a decade and at least 0 million trying to build a working railgun, was initially expected to conduct a sea test of this new weapon aboard the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessel USNS Trenton at Eglin Air Force Base's maritime test range in the summer of 2016.
That test never took place. Instead, the Navy chose to continue testing the weapon on land. If the Navy's new testing and training plans are approved, sea trials for the railgun could take place as early as next year. It's unclear what type of test platform might be involved.
Should the Navy test its railgun at sea, it will be a major achievement for a program that has struggled for quite some time now. When asked about the program earlier this year, the best answer Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson could offer was: "It's going somewhere, hopefully."
The US is not the only country chasing this technology. Another clear competitor is China, which has already managed to arm a warship — the Type 072III Yuting-class tank-landing ship "Haiyang Shan" — with a railgun. The weapon is believed to have been put through some preliminary sea trials.
Photograph taken from a high-speed video camera during a record-setting firing of an electromagnetic railgun at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Va., on Jan. 31, 2008.
It is unclear how far along the Chinese railgun program is, but the competition is on. Chinese media proudly boasted in January that "China's naval electromagnetic weapon and equipment have surpassed other countries and become a world leader."
The railgun is a curious weapon, one that some naval affairs experts feel offers prestige to the innovator but little military advantage to the warfighter, no matter who gets their first.
"It's not useful military technology," Bryan Clark, an expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former US Navy officer, previously told Business Insider, arguing that it is a poor replacement for a missile. "You are better off spending that money on missiles and vertical launch system cells than you are on a railgun."
So far, the most impressive thing to come out of the US Navy's railgun research is the hypervelocity projectile, which the Navy has tested using the Mk 45 five-inch deck guns that come standard on cruisers and destroyers.
The Army is also looking at the HVP for its 155 mm howitzers.
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