Navy Will Install ‘Star Wars' Rail Gun Aboard Ship for Testing

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The Navy will install a version of its electrical cannon on a ship this summer, though the weapon will not be fired at sea for another two years.

Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matt Klunder said the electromagnetic rail gun will provide a relatively inexpensive, yet powerful, deterrent to enemies that will complement, rather than replace, a ship's traditional ballistic missile and gunpowder weapons.

“This is an extremely affordable system that can go on a naval vessel that has tremendous deterrent investment,” Klunder said during an April 4 press conference. “If we can do deterrence for our country and not have to go into conflict, I’ll take that every day.”

The rail gun uses an electromagnetic force to rapidly accelerate and launch a projectile between two conductive rails. The cost per shot is “orders of magnitude less expensive than comparable missile engagements,” Klunder said.

A prototype rail gun will be installed on a joint high-speed vessel this summer in San Diego, Calif. Test firing at sea is scheduled for 2016.

“This really is a Star Wars-like system,” Klunder said.

The system is capable of firing 23-pound projectiles at over Mach 7 at a range of 100 miles. At $25,000 per round, the system costs a small fraction of the price of a ballistic missile and uses no gunpowder, Klunder said.

Because the system uses electricity as a propellant instead of gunpowder, it eliminates the need for storing volatile explosive shells and missiles aboard ships. It also increases the overall offensive capability of ships because it takes up far less space than missiles.

“I really think it will give our adversaries a huge moment of pause,” Klunder said. “Your magazine never runs out, you just keep shooting.”

The electrical components of a rail gun eventually could be directly integrated into the ship’s own computer systems, said Rear Adm. Bryan Fuller, the Navy’s chief engineer.

Aside from the science behind the firing mechanism, the rail gun is identical in operation to a traditional cannon, Fuller said.

“It will operate pretty much like a normal gun system,” he said. “The big difference is the way we’re propelling the projectile. It’s not an exotic operating system.”

The model that will be displayed on the JHSV is capable of generating 32 megajoules of energy. Even without an explosive warhead, the projectile creates such a physical force upon impact that it is capable of destroying missiles in mid-air as well as vehicle and hardened targets ashore, Klunder said.

“At 32 megajoules, it would be like a freight train coming through this wall at 100 miles per hour,” he said. “We can achieve all the missions we have planned with that level of energy.”

Klunder said the Navy has created “lethality models” for every mission the Navy and Marine Corps will likely be called upon to perform at sea, including covering forced landings, air defense, missile defense and deterrence.

“This can be lethal on every occasion, though to destroy more hardened targets, we may have to shoot three,” he said.

Klunder showed one of the metal projectiles at the press conference, but would not explain its contents or construction because those details are considered highly sensitive. The model he held was inert.

Fuller explained that given the physics behind the weapon’s design, no explosives were needed to create devastating effects.

“If you have 23 pounds going Mach 7 you don’t necessarily need an explosive round, he said.

A prototype system, currently in development at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., has fired hundreds of rounds with success, said Fuller.

The JHSV, primarily a speedy troops transport, was chosen because of its availability in port and for its large aft deck and hangar where the gun will be installed. The modular system consists of the gun, a large power-storage unit and a swiveling base on which the cannon is mounted. Because JHSV is a non-combatant vessel, it will be used only for the demonstration and subsequent testing and will not be equipped permanently with the weapon, Fuller said.

Results of the JHSV demonstration will be used to inform requirements for a future deployable system, including a timeline to deliver it.

Development of the rail gun is set to move into its second phase. Two prototypes exist, made by BAE Systems and General Atomics. Both have been test fired on land several times and likely will both be installed on the JHSV, Klunder said. Neither has been tested in rapid-fire mode, but the Navy plans to achieve a rate of 10 rounds per minute.

Rapid-fire testing is scheduled to begin in 2018, but control and cooling systems must be improved first, Fuller said.

A phase-two contract was awarded to BAE, though General Atomics and dozens of subcontractors will be involved with further development efforts, he said. GA is working on improving the electrical pulse performance, he said.

Topics: Armaments, Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology, Shipbuilding

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