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Integration Biggest Challenge for Railgun
The railgun is expected to increase the military’s lethality and effectiveness by firing shells at Mach 6 — six times the speed of sound — and hitting targets more than 100 nautical miles away.
The weapon’s use of electricity as opposed to chemical propellants eliminates the hazards of high explosives in the ship and unexploded ordnance on the battlefield, according to an Office of Naval Research factsheet. The Navy is testing the technology for the first time at sea late in the summer of 2016 aboard the USNS Trenton, a Spearhead-class joint high-speed vessel.
“A joint, high-speed vessel — when you don’t have Marines or people on it — has 600 tons of available margin,” said Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command. “That is a lot of space, weight and center of gravity.”
Electric generators will be added to the top of the vessel in storage containers called conex boxes along with devices installed on the ship’s deck that will pull in seawater to cool the system. The extra space and weight available on the ship will allow the service to add the technology with relative ease, he said at a conference.
Hilarides said he is positive the Navy will successfully demonstrate the weapon’s ability to fire from the Trenton, but one of the biggest challenges will be configuring the railgun so that it fits within the power structure of other existing platforms.
“Those are not 600-ton margin ships,” he said. “If they have 60 tons, if they have 16 tons, then we’ll be talking about what do we take off our existing destroyers, cruisers and other ships in order to get this incredible capability [on them].”
These types of discussions are influencing ship designs as program managers look at what systems are indispensable and what can be exchanged, Hilarides said.
The railgun offers several advantages over traditional explosive projectile weapons, including significant cost savings, said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, chief of naval research.
“We’ll be able to truly break the cost curve from an operation and cost-per-kill [standpoint],” Winter said. Freeing up these costs will allow war fighters to use those resources elsewhere, he added.
Hilarides said adapting the new technology to existing powder guns could also generate savings. They won’t work on the largest targets but could potentially destroy smaller ones, he noted.
The Navy could “turn that cost curve around from what would have been a very expensive missile to a relatively inexpensive projectile from a powder gun,” he said.
Integrating the railgun into the fleet won’t be a swift process.
It will be at least 10 years until the railgun is fielded on new ships and potentially 30 years past that before the Navy considers removing powder guns from the fleet entirely and transitioning to energy weapons alone, according to Hilarides.