While the United States spent years dithering over the future of its much-hyped electromagnetic railgun project, China appears to be moving closer to hitting its operational target, sources say.
The Chinese navy plans to field its own secretive version of the electromagnetic railgun on naval vessels as early as 2025, possibly sooner, according to a US intelligence assessment first reported by CNBC.
China’s interpretation of the long-theoretical supergun, which utilizes a massive amount of power to create electromagnetic fields to accelerate projectiles to hypersonic velocities, is reportedly capable of “striking a target 124 miles away at speeds of up to 1.6 miles per second,” according to CNBC — fast enough to strike Philadelphia from New York in just under a minute.
If the US intelligence assessment is accurate, this is a major strategic coup for the Chinese, The National Interest reported.
Back in February 2018, photos circulating on social media appeared to show a railgun-esque deck gun mounted on the bow of the Type 072III-class landing ship Haiyang Shan. The next month, a People’s Liberation Army-run news outlet confirmed that the Chinese navy had achieved a “breakthrough” during sea trials for the new railgun.
The Chinese railgun was first developed in 2011 and then tested in 2014. Over the next three years, the supergun was calibrated for extended operational ranges.
Indeed, the US intelligence assessment confirms that the Chinese supergun was first mounted on a naval vessel for at-sea trials even earlier than the PLA said.
Those sea trials resulted in some serious egg on the face of the Pentagon. As Task & Purpose reported at the time, the ONR electromagnetic railgun has been stuck in a research and development “valley of death” after more than a decade of development that cost US$500 million.
The reason? Shifting priorities within the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office towards other directed energy projects — namely the hypervelocity projectile and solid-state lasers that offer more cost-effective alternatives to the pricey supergun.
Meanwhile, plans to perform at-sea weapon testing appear to have been delayed in favor of further research. So, while development will probably continue, there are still two major problems holding the railgun back. The first is meeting the weapon’s massive power requirements at sea. The second is demonstrating that it’ll be “better” than existing weapons.
The railgun launches rounds using electromagnetic force rather than explosive propellant. The USN prototype has 100MJ of pulse-power capacitors and a 25MW powerplant for recharging. The capacitors release their stored charge into the railgun barrel in a hundredth of a second, accelerating the projectile to about Mach 6. The USN’s goal is to fire ten rounds per minute, so the capacitors need to be recharged to fire every 6 seconds.
Few warships have the spare electrical capacity the weapon requires. The strongest candidate is the USN’s Zumwalt-class destroyer, whose 78MW integrated power system can dynamically distribute power between propulsion and on-board systems. It should have about 58MW of reserve power while steaming at 20 knots. By comparison, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has only 7.5MW for on-board systems.
But before the USN commits the kind of money required, it has to prove that the weapon is worth the investment. Some experts believe the railgun’s prohibitive power requirements and stiff capability competition from missiles (The USN has surface-to-air missiles capable of intercepting both anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles) make it difficult to justify integrating it onto existing warships.
Meanwhile, according to Military Watch Magazine, Indian defense scientists successfully developed electromagnetic railguns able to fire projectiles at 4,600 miles per hour.
The country’s Defense Research and Development Organization reported that a 12 mm square bore EMRG was successfully tested in November, 2017, and preparations are underway for testing of a more powerful 30mm type.
The military aims to accelerate a one kilogram projectile to a velocity of more than 2,000 metres/second. Such a weapon would give the country’s naval forces a significant advantage — allowing it to launch devastating strikes on both land targets and surface naval vessels.
With India’s Mach 3 Brahmos cruise missile already capable of cutting a warship in half upon impact due to its sheer speed, the impact of a Mach 6 railgun will be truly formidable. One shot kills against enemy surface vessels at extreme ranges will become the norm.
While both China and India make apparent headway in developing the supergun, its very existence is a shot across the bow to the United States when it comes to engineering next-generation weapons.
The War Zone’s Joseph Trevithick sums it up perfectly in his analysis of the US intel assessment.
“If the PLAN’s fleets actually include any significant number of railgun-equipped ships by 2025,” he writes. “It is even more likely that the era of near total United States naval supremacy in any prospective conflict, especially in Pacific Region, will have come to a close.”
With files from The National Interest, Task & Purpose, Military Watch Magazine and The War Zone