The US Navy’s efforts to develop a powerful electromagnetic railgun are a lesson in what not to do, a top US admiral said Feb. 6, 2019.
The US has “a number of great ideas that are on the cusp,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said at the Atlantic Council, adding that “some of these technologies are going to be absolutely decisive in terms of defining who wins and who does not in these conflicts and in this new era” of great power competition.
But the US needs to accelerate the process because its adversaries are moving faster, he said. The admiral called attention to the railgun, a $500 million next-generation weapon concept that uses electromagnetic energy to hurl a projectile at an enemy at hypersonic speeds.
The US Navy has been researching this technology for years, but the US has not armed a warship with the gun. China, a rival power, appears to have mounted a railgun on a naval vessel, suggesting it may be beating the US in the race to field a working railgun with many times the range of existing naval guns.
Electromagnetic Railgun located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)
“I would say that railgun is kind of the case study that would say ‘This is how innovation maybe shouldn’t happen,'” Richardson said. “It’s been around, I think, for about 15 years, maybe 20. So ‘rapid’ doesn’t come to mind when you’re talking about timeframes like that.”
He said that the US had learned a lot from the project and that “the engineering of building something like that, that can handle that much electromagnetic energy and not just explode, is challenging.”
“So we’re going to continue after this, right? We’re going to install this thing. We’re going to continue to develop it, test it,” he said. “It’s too great a weapon system, so it’s going somewhere, hopefully.”
The admiral compared the railgun to a sticky note, which was invented for an entirely different purpose, to illustrate that the US had learned other things from its railgun research.
The hypervelocity projectile developed for the railgun, for instance, “is actually a pretty neat thing in and of itself,” he said, and “is also usable in just about every gun we have.”
“It can be out into the fleet very, very quickly, independent of the railgun,” he said. “So this effort is sort of breeding all sorts of advances. We just need to get the clock sped up with respect to the railgun.”
During 2018’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, the US Navy fired hypervelocity projectiles developed for railguns from the standard 5-inch deck gun on the destroyer USS Dewey, USNI News reported in January 2019.
Guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105) transits the Pacific Ocean while underway in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations.
(U.S. Navy Photo)
And it’s apparently a concept the Navy is considering for the Zumwalt-class destroyers, the guns for which do not work and do not have suitable ammunition.
These hypervelocity projectiles are fired through the barrel via sabots that hold the round in place and harmlessly fall out the end of the barrel after firing. The sheer power of the electromagnetic pulse and the round’s aerodynamic profile allow it to fly much faster than normal rounds to devastating effect — the US Navy has said its experimental railgun could fire these bullets at seven times the speed of sound.
But experts argue that the railgun is inherently problematic technology, saying that regardless of who gets there first, the guns are likely to be militarily useless.
Railguns are “not a good replacement for a missile,” Bryan Clark, a naval-affairs expert, previously told Business Insider. “They’re not a good replacement for an artillery shell.”
He added: “It’s not useful military technology.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.