The Navy’s New Railgun: Fast, Cheap, and Lethal

The railgun, a weapon long relegated to science fiction novels, will finally be battlefield reality, thanks to the United States Navy. After years of extensive testing, this advanced weapon system will be deployed for sea trials, according to Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research. USNS Millinocket, set to begin trials in 2016, will be the first vessel ever fitted with this new gun, and it will be faster, cheaper, and more lethal than a conventional gun or cannon for a few key reasons worth examining.

Conventional guns use an explosive propellant to send a projectile downrange. This makes shipboard storage of ammunition very dangerous. A single hit to the magazines could easily sink even the most sophisticated warship, as witnessed at the Battle of Jutland in World War I. On the other hand, instead of detonating gunpowder, a railgun utilizes what is known as the “Lorentz Force” to accelerate an armature between to conductive rails (hence the term railgun). As a CBSNews.com article notes, “Rail guns, which have been tested on land in Virginia, fire a projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound – enough velocity to cause severe damage.” While projectile size and velocity could vary, the Millinocket will fire a 23-pound projectile at a speed of Mach 7. While primarily designed as a land attack weapon, the railgun’s high velocity also enables it to engage other targets. Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, asserts that it will assist in air, cruise missile, and ballistic missile defense.

The destructive potential for these rounds is staggering. Rather than use an explosive warhead, a railgun slug relies on its mass and velocity to do the damage. Upon impact, the projectile superheats, resulting in a hypersonic spear of slag capable of penetrating armor, melting steel, and burning flesh. Such a round could even be designed to fragment before impact, showering the target with high-velocity droplets of molten metal. All this capability will come at a fraction of the cost of current missile systems.

In a military facing severe budget cuts, ammunition costs are a very serious consideration. With rounds that cost around $25,000, railguns offer a much more economical means of engaging a target, especially when compared to missiles, which can cost $500,000 to $1.5 million apiece. It is hoped that this cost differential “will make potential enemies think twice” before attacking U.S. ships. “You could throw anything at us . . . we can now shoot a number of these rounds at a very affordable cost,” Klunder told reporters.