China claims it's winning the race to bring long-range superguns to its growing fleet, but experts say that even if these weapons work, they won't make a difference in high-end conflict.
China announced it will "soon" be arming its warships with railguns, a technology which uses electromagnetic energy rather than explosive charges to fire rounds farther than conventional guns and at seven or eight times the speed of sound. The US Navy has spent more than a decade pursuing this technology, but naval affairs experts contend that even the best railguns have huge problems that make them a poor substitute for existing capabilities.
"You are better off spending that money on missiles and vertical launch system cells than you are on a railgun," Bryan Clark, a defense expert and former US Navy officer, told Business Insider.
The Chinese navy made headlines when images of a Chinese ship equipped with a suspected railgun first surfaced in January 2018. Photos showed the vessel, initially nicknamed the "Yangtze River Monster," docked on the Yangtze River at a shipyard in Wuhan. That same ship — the Type 072III Yuting-class tank-landing ship "Haiyang Shan" — reappeared in late December 2018, having possibly set sail for sea trials.
"This is one of a number of interesting developments that indicates that the [People's Liberation Army] is quite enthusiastic about emerging capabilities," Elsa Kania, an expert on the Chinese armed forces at the Center for a New American Security, told Business Insider.
The Chinese PLA is actively looking at the military applications of cutting-edge technology, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing. China actually launched the first quantum communication satellite, which is said to be unhackable. For the Chinese navy, this means research into electromagnetic railguns, among other capabilities.
China says it has made major 'breakthroughs' with railguns
"Chinese warships will 'soon' be equipped with world-leading electromagnetic railguns, as breakthroughs have been made ... in multiple sectors," China's Global Times reported recently, citing state broadcaster CCTV. The notoriously nationalist tabloid proudly asserted that "China's naval electromagnetic weapon and equipment have surpassed other countries and become a world leader."
China is expected to begin fielding warship-mounted electromagnetic railguns with the ability to fire high-speed projectiles as early as 2025, CNBC reported in summer 2018, citing US defense sources with direct knowledge of the latest intelligence reports on China's railgun development.
Chinese military experts expect the new Type 055 stealth destroyers to eventually be armed with electromagnetic railguns.
'It's not useful military technology'
While conventional guns rely on gunpowder to propel projectiles forward, railguns use electromagnetic force to hurl projectiles at targets downrange at incredible speeds.
China is not the first country to take an interest in railgun technology. The US Navy took a serious look at the possibility of arming warships with the gun, which promised the ability to strike targets as far as 200 miles away with relatively inexpensive rounds traveling at hypersonic speeds.
During the development process, the US military discovered problems that make the gun more of a hassle than an asset.
"The engineering challenges that the US is seeing with railguns are fundamental to the technology," Clark, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), told BI. "Any railgun is going to have these problems."
While still cheaper than a missile, the rounds are more expensive than previously expected, as they require more advanced guidance systems to ensure that a simple GPS jammer doesn't render them inoperable.
The rounds are more powerful than standard 5" gun projectiles, but still lack the destructive power of missiles, making them less effective in strike missions. Missiles are also able to can chase down targets.
Even if each railgun shot packs a punch, its limited rate of fire — maybe eight rounds per minute — means it has little use for air and missile defense against fast-moving targets.
Maintenance and electricity generation are also huge problems. The gun requires an enormous amount of power to fire and the shear force of firing hypervelocity projectiles tends to wear out the barrel quickly. The barrel would likely need to be replaced after every few dozen shots, a problem that likely limits the gun to one short battle.
"They're not a good replacement for a missile," Clark said. "They're not a good replacement for an artillery shell."
"It's not useful military technology," he added.
Facing a handful of difficult-to-overcome challenges inextricably linked to railgun technology, the US Navy has slow-rolled its railgun development.
But, work continues.
Railguns could be useful someday
The US Navy has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and more than a decade researching railgun technology, and research continues despite development setbacks.
"They are thinking that down the road they will eventually get some technological breakthroughs that would enable it to be more militarily useful," Clark explained. "That is why they are continuing to invest in it rather than dropping it entirely."
During 2018's Rim of the Pacific exercises, the Navy successfully test-fired hypervelocity projectiles meant for electromagnetic railguns out of the Mk 45 five-inch deck guns that come standard on cruisers and destroyers. The Army is looking at using the same high-speed rounds for its 155 mm howitzers.
So far, it appears the most beneficial thing to come out of US railgun research is the round.
For China, it's a PR victory
China, which will likely encounter issues similar to those the US Navy has run into, is potentially continuing its railgun development for another purpose entirely.
"This is a part of China's strategic communication plan to show that it is a rising power with next-generation military capabilities," Clark told BI. "It is always in the details that they sometimes fall a little bit short."
"It's a useful prestige thing for them, which is similar to other military systems they've fielded recently where it looks cool but it maybe isn't all that militarily useful," he further remarked, comparing China's railgun pursuits to the J-20 stealth fighter, which lacks some of the features required to make it a true fifth-generation aircraft.
"The US has found that a working railgun, even if it met all the promise of a railgun system, is going to have very limited utility in strike or air defense," Clark concluded, explaining that this technology is a tool which advances the narrative that China is a formidable force.
The Chinese military wants to demonstrate that it is on the forefront of next-level technology.
The Chinese military, like the US, may also derive new capabilities from its railgun research
One other program the Chinese are very interested in are building modern aircraft carriers. The Chinese navy has one carrier in service, another undergoing sea trials, and a third mystery carrier in development.
While the first and second rely on ski jump-assisted short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) launch systems, their is speculation that the third aircraft carrier could employ the much more effective electromagnetic catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch system.
"The same program that's working on railguns at the naval engineering university has also been involved in their development of electromagnetic catapult system for their next-generation aircraft carrier," Kania told Business Insider.
"The Chinese military has often intended to explore advanced technologies, including those that the US has deemed less relevant operationally because there is enthusiasm about next-generation capabilities and it wants to understand the art of the possible," she added.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.