Army’s Pursuit of Electromagnetic Railguns Heats Up
Photo: General Atomics
General Atomics has been awarded a contract to develop electromagnetic railgun technology for the Army as the service pursues cutting-edge weapons to take on advanced adversaries.
The Army’s growing interest in this capability comes after years of research by the Navy, which has yet to field one of the weapons.
Railguns utilize magnetic fields generated by electrical currents to slide a projectile between two rails inside the barrel. The technology enables the projectiles to travel at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 (3,800 miles per hour) or faster. When the systems are mature, they are expected to have far greater range and lethality than standard artillery or naval guns.
The Defense Department has identified hypervelocity weapons as a top research-and-development priority.
“It’s an important area of … R&D that we’re pursuing very quickly,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said during a recent House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing.
The service’s No. 1 priority for modernization is long-range precision fires, he noted.
“A subset of that is the hypersonics piece,” he said. “I do believe that it’s technologically possible. And I believe we will be able to test and then acquire and procure long-range precision weapons that go significantly longer in range than any existing artillery system on the Earth today.”
The railgun concept is also promising for air and missile defense because it could dramatically change the cost equation, noted Peter W. Singer, a military technology expert at New America, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Traditional missile interceptors can cost millions of dollars each, whereas railgun projectiles are expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars per shot.
“It’s a little bit of a parallel to what the Israelis ran into using expensive missiles to shoot down cheap drones or using them to shoot down incoming rockets and mortars,” Singer said. “There’s a lot of excitement” about the cost-effectiveness of railguns, he added.
General Atomics’ electromagnetic systems division announced in March that it had been awarded a contract through the Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium to evaluate and mature railgun weapon system capabilities in support of U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Command.
During the three-year performance period, the contractor will team with ARDEC to deliver a series of prototypes, and perform system integration and testing for mission effectiveness and possible integration with Army vehicles, the company said in a press release.
General Atomics has been working on railgun technologies since the 1990s. It delivered a prototype to the Navy in 2012, but the company has significantly advanced the capabilities since then, said Nick Bucci, vice president of missile defense and space systems.
“We have been on a very progressive development campaign on our own nickel as part of our independent research and development, and over the last four to five years we have progressed the technology,” he said in an interview.
That includes the development of a third-generation electromagnetic launcher and a fifth-generation pulse power system prototype. Its newest projectiles are slated for testing later this year, he said.
The company is confident that its IRAD efforts will pay off.
“I don’t think you would get anyone to disagree with the fact that … hypersonic projectiles are the next generation of capabilities for all of the services, and so that’s why we’ve been investing in this,” Bucci said.
The company’s 10MJ multi-mission medium-range railgun weapon system is already out at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The company is upgrading subsystems and further testing is slated for this summer, he said.
“The idea of the contract is essentially take what we’ve been doing on our IRAD and working with the Army on … getting it on the right vehicles, making it the right size, providing the right kind of capabilities for the different types of missions that you would want a railgun [to perform] as part of the Army’s capability suite,” he said.
The existing prototype is geared toward defeating air and missile threats and providing indirect fires, but the technology could potentially be used for other missions such as direct fires if that’s what the Army wants, he noted.
"There are many who would prefer to have this on a tank."
Bucci declined to disclose the dollar value of the contract.
The company is taking a systems approach to its R&D efforts for the Army, he noted.
“The prototypes will be all of the different components of the system,” he said. “It’s not just about forwarding the capability of say, a launcher or a projectile or the pulse power. It’s … forwarding the technologies in all those areas.
“What we’re doing with the Army here is essentially taking the prototypes and evolving that into a real system capability for the warfighter,” he added.
Officials at ARDEC declined to discuss the railgun project.
Developing an effective railgun presents a number of technical challenges that industry and the Defense Department have been working to overcome.
“Years ago … the pulse power for this system was so large that the Army kind of lost interest because they couldn’t fit it on a typical Army vehicle, certainly not something that could maneuver with the force or be part of the mobile force,” Bucci said.
Major progress has been made since then, he noted. General Atomics subsequently built much more efficient systems that have reduced the footprint by a factor of eight, he said.
The company has been in discussions with Army officials about potentially deploying the railgun on heavy expanded mobility tactical trucks. Power would be supplied by the vehicles equipped with hybrid electric drives, Bucci explained.
However, it’s unclear if that idea will come to fruition, he noted.
“The work we’re going to be doing with the Army at this point is [deciding] what is the right vehicle or vehicles to put the system on,” he said. “There are many who would prefer to have this on a tank or a tank-like vehicle, and that introduces a lot of other things into the picture. So it just depends on who you talk to and what they want the mission of this thing to be.”
Precision-guided projectiles is another critical technology area where a number of capabilities have to come together for the weapons to function effectively. The projectiles need components that enable the required amount of computing, sensing and maneuverability, Bucci noted. They must also be able to withstand the launch loads and the electromagnetic fields inside the launcher. Over the last three years, the company has demonstrated through testing that the technology is viable, he said.
Durability is another critical factor that has bedeviled railgun development.
“You could get a few shots out of it, and in between the wear on the rails and the stresses on the barrels you were pretty much done after handfuls of shots,” Bucci said of older systems. But today’s prototypes could probably fire 1,000-plus rounds before wearing out, he said.
The medium-range prototype that the company has built has a range of more than 60 miles and is expected to fire about 20 rounds per minute. But as technology and materials improve that capability could be increased, he said.
However, efforts to enhance railgun capabilities have implications for size, weight and power, an engineering challenge known as SWAP, he noted.
“Say I want either more velocity or I want more muzzle energy, which then means I need to grow the components of the system like the pulse power and power generation and things like that,” he explained. “The challenge … is how do I get more capability and still keep it in the box from a SWAP perspective for Army vehicles.”
Meanwhile, the Navy’s work on railguns continues despite suggestions by some observers that the service’s interest in the technology has diminished.
At a recent House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson pushed back on that notion.
The Navy is “fully invested in railgun,” he told lawmakers. “We continue to test it. We’ve demonstrated it at lower firing rates and smaller ranges, shorter ranges. And now we have to do the engineering to sort of crank it up and get it at the designated firing rates” with a range of 80 to 100 miles.
An electromagnetic railgun prototype aboard joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (Navy)
The Office of Naval Research said it is in the final stages of its current science and technology effort, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
Much progress has been made, Tom Boucher, ONR program officer for the electromagnetic railgun, noted in a written response to questions submitted by National Defense. The launchers have achieved energy objectives, and the barrels have adequate bore life. The size and weight of the system have also been reduced, and the energy density and packaging of the pulse power modules have been improved to enable the weapon to fit on a destroyer-sized hull, he said.
“We will be ramping up in power and firing rate” this year, Boucher said. “We have not encountered any technical showstoppers.”
The only significant issue remaining is engineering development of a railgun mount to enable installation on a ship, he said.
Follow-on development work and additional land-based testing will better define the timeline for a deployable system, he added.
The Office of Naval Research is closely monitoring the ARDEC railgun project for advances that could contribute to its effort. The teams have done technical exchanges and are sharing lessons learned, Boucher noted. “We are confident we are on the right track to make railgun a reality,” he said.
Meanwhile, the national security community is keeping an eye on China’s railgun efforts. Photos recently surfaced of a Chinese ship that appeared to be outfitted with that type of weapon. Singer said it’s hard to know what to make of it.
“They have a ship that shows what looks like a railgun for a test, but we cannot say anything about whether this is truly operative, whether it’s effective, how the tests went, [or] if they conducted a test,” he said.
“Maybe it’s just … a big trick and they’re putting a mockup out there to make us think that they’ve gone further in their program than they have,” he added.
Singer is co-author of Ghost Fleet, a science-based novel that depicts a high-tech war between the United States and China in the not-too-distant future. In it, U.S. Navy destroyers use railguns to turn the tide against the enemy fleet. The book has been widely read in Pentagon circles and is sometimes referenced at conferences by service officials.
China’s long-range missiles have put it in an advantageous position. But the railgun could be a game-changer for both sides, Singer said.
“In a shootout and a naval fistfight, they can punch farther than we can. That’s the current situation,” he said. “The railgun maybe flips that script” if the United States deploys it first, he noted.
However, “if China gains an operative system like that, not only does it mean that we’re not able to flip the script, it gives them an incredibly useful technology,” he said. “It makes life a lot more difficult for U.S. military planners.”
Despite the enthusiasm for the technology among some in the defense community, it’s too early to tell if the railgun will ever cross the Valley of Death in the Pentagon’s acquisition system and be fielded in large numbers, Singer said.
“It’s mostly been experimentation and testing, and it’s not yet locked in in either the Navy or the Army … in a program of record,” he noted. “That puts a lot of uncertainty on it.”