Photos have been circulating on social media that show a Chinese ship with what could be a prototype railgun on its bow.
The photos, taken at the Wuchang Shipyard in China’s Hubei Province, show a Type 072III-class landing ship identified as the Haiyang Shan with a much larger gun on its mount than its usual twin 37mm cannon.
The size and shape of the weapon are roughly the same as the U.S. Navy’s own prototype railgun, and the shipping containers on the deck could be used as control rooms or to house the power supply. Moreover, the location of the photographs may hint as to the gun’s true nature — the Wuchang Shipyard has been the sight of previous tests for the Chinese Navy.
Is the #Chinese #Navy about to test a #railgun at sea? New views of 22-yo Type 072 III landing ship HAIYANGSHAN 936 with what might be a railgun forward. Power modules seem to be placed on deck just aft of the gun. Props to @xinfengcao et al for these. pic.twitter.com/unTUGZTCgP
— Chris Cavas (@CavasShips) January 31, 2018
It also comes at a time when the U.S. has been scaling back their efforts on developing railguns and other electromagnetic technologies. The Navy has spent more than $500 million on the project, which will likely never see combat.
Officials at the Department of Defense “don’t want to fund the railgun because they’re simply not buying it,” a senior legislative official with direct knowledge of the U.S.’ railgun project recently told Task Purpose.
“Promising technologies fall into the ‘valley of death’ all the time,” another legislative source told Task Purpose. “Testing is great, but unless you want to put money into transitioning that tech into an actual weapons system then what the hell are you doing? We’re afraid to take a risk and try to get things moving.”
Railguns are cannons that can shoot inert projectiles without gunpowder. They achieve this by using magnetic energy sent through rails on the projectiles as they make their way down the barrel, allowing the projectile to reach hypersonic speeds.
The technology would allow for faster target acquisition, increased range, and could free up space for more projectiles because propelling charges would not be needed — something that may also make the railgun cheaper than its current counterparts.
The photos suggest that the set up is still in a testing phase. A Type 072III-class landing ship would be a good candidate; the ship can hold 500 tons of cargo, and has enough open space to fit large components.
China’s military has a well known history of being interested in electromagnetic technologies. The country has been researching how to build and deploy a Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for its aircraft carriers.
So far, the clearest photo of the railgun. pic.twitter.com/owrdV0JpCt
— dafeng cao (@xinfengcao) February 1, 2018
EMALS would require less maintenance that current systems, which rely on compressed steam to launch aircraft, and could allow Chinese aircraft carriers to carry and launch larger aircraft, increasing the range and strike power of a Chinese carrier force.
Railguns are something that China has been pursuing for decades. While the research has been going on since the 1980’s, China has recently claimed to have made massive progress on the program, with Rear Admiral Ma Weiming boasting of China’s breakthroughs in October 2017.
Though there has been no official confirmation that the pictures show a railgun, China would be the first nation to successfully install a railgun prototype onto a sea-worthy vessel if the reports are true.