April 6, 2013
Widely held as the Holy Grail of weapons design, the Electromagnetic Rail Gun has been in development for more than a century. Now, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the U.S. Navy, it will soon be part of our arsenal.
Unconventional, Multifunctional and Motivating
The rail gun is marvel of modern warfare. Unlike conventional weapons, which are reliant upon an assortment of chemical propellants, the EMRG does not require rocket fuel, gunpowder, or gas. Instead, electromagnetic energy is used to fire shells.
To produce this surge of energy, electricity is poured though a pair of parallel rails and the current generates a series of highly charged magnetic fields. These fields act as an accelerant for a forty pound projectile which, from its position between the rails, is launched from the barrel.
In flight, the rail shell reaches seven times the speed of sound. At that rate — more than 5,600 MPH — the kinetic kill muscle alone is enough to deliver a crippling blow — and without an explosive charge or warhead. On impact, current prototypes are capable of leveling 32 times the force of a one-ton vehicle hurled at 100 MPH.
Designed to engage land batteries, enemy encampments, opposing craft, and both shipborne and ballistic missiles, the weapon’s multifarious battlefield applications highlight its operational versatility. But the Navy stands to gain a bevy of benefits that are equally impressive, if not more so. And they are motivated. The goal is to put a fully operational gun on select ships by 2020.
Atop the Waves: Safer and More Flexible
According to Scientific American, the EMRG “could eliminate the hazards of having high explosives aboard ships.” With the protection of our seafaring personnel a topmost priority, such a shift would be revolutionary. An accident or adversarial strike that ignites a ship’s munitions supply is a deadly threat. And it is that injury, operational infirmity and loss of life that first compelled the Navy to introduce “insensitive munitions” into its armory.
Without the volatility of a standard round, the rail shell offers its carrier key logistical advantages that current gen can’t match. For example, a ship’s reserve can be restocked safely at sea and loaded aboard by the hundreds. Contrast that with the Navy’s primary subsonic weapon, the “Tomahawk” missile. A warship must return to port when its supply is exhausted, and storage requirements limit its hold to seventy guided missiles.
The EMRG, then, with its deep magazine capacity, will prolong the crucial period in which a ship can take part in forward operations, providing new levels of support for our soldiers. Indeed, the rail cannon’s range, speed, and trajectory represent a deadly trifecta of military utility. Using GPS guided rounds, equipped ships will engage the enemy in less time, at a safer distance, and even employ an exoatmospheric path to reduce the possibility that projectiles will be jammed or intercepted. Just six minutes are needed to reach targets 100 miles away.
Superior Range and Speed on the Cheap?
The Navy may shorten the life cycle of key but decidely less capable weapon systems currently in use. According to Roger Ellis, head of the rail gun program at the Office of Naval Research, the standard artillery cannon may be replaced by the EMRG. It is capable of less than half of the rail shell’s speed and has a range of only 13 miles. When Marines hit the beach and require rapid fire support, a slower response time costs lives.
The replacement of the artillery cannon, though, is just a start. As Ellis revealed last year, with its ample reach, the EMRG can strike many of the same distant targets that naval missiles do. Consequently, the “Tomahawk” may play a reduced role in future engagements. Its speed is just a tenth that of the rail shell.
Still, any move to limit its use may be difficult. Shortcomings aside, the “Tomahawk” has been an integral part of naval engagements for more than 25 years. Not long ago, our forces fired more than 160 of them during the opening days of the Libyan war. What followed was the systematic elimination of any threat whatever from Qaddafi’s air defense and early warning systems.
Nevertheless, the missile’s lethality comes at a high price. A single “Tomahawk” missile costs the taxpayer over one million dollars. A single hypersonic bullet, meanwhile, may cost less than $1,000. In expending far fewer resources on conventional shells and cruise missiles, the Navy would see a sharp reduction in arming costs. And with budget cuts looming, they face increasing pressure to find less expensive ways to meet America’s maritime obligations. In this fiscal climate, the pecuniary benefits of the EMRG may prove to be the most convincing case as proponents push for its widespread application.
Pursuit of the ‘Impossible’
Since 2005, the rapid advance of the rail gun has made for electrifying copy. But without the steady determination of scientists over the last century, the project most certainly would have stalled.
In the early 1900’s, most experts believed that the ‘electromagnetic gun’ was a sirenic fantasy and “impossible” to produce. This view, held in the shadow of very real technical limitations, spread among many influential publications of the period. The Electrical World, for example, called it “commercially impracticable” and argued that traditional weaponry was “decidedly cheaper, more convenient and much more deadly.” Likewise, The Literary Digest, swayed by the academic consensus in 1908, criticized those in popular press who spoke of the weapon’s “wonders.” But such corrective measures did not deter scientific investigation. Nor would it hinder public interest, either.
Indeed, for nearly a century now, the creative energies of science fiction enthusiasts and writers have been focused on anincreasinly demanding and savvy audience. Their work can be found in bestsellers, Saturday morning serials, movies, and even video games.
A Multi-Generational and Global Push
In contrast to its most recent depictions in Halo and Hollywood, the early designs of Andre Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplee of France might seem crude by comparison. But the French inventor’s undertaking marked a crucial step forward. His plans, for whcih he received patents in 1921 and 1922, provided prescient insights into the gun’s diverse utility and function.
By 1944, enough careful study and testing allowed Dr. Joachim Hänsler of Germany to fashion the first working rail gun. On account of its flaws and low velocity, it would not move far beyond the lab, but the U.S. government was eager to examine his blueprints after the war anyway.
In the 1960s, renewed interest in the rail gun brought new hope for its development. NASA, whose interest in electromagnetic energy extended beyond that of the EMRG, funded the private research of MB Associates, while Australia’s National University conducted its own experiments using a massive, multi-purpose generator. Unfortunately, neither effort, however impressive, suggested that a war-ready weapon was near.
The Other ‘Star Wars’
As part of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an accelerated, highly coordinated, and well financed period of hypervelocity testing began. Built by Maxwell Laboratories, the first Rail Gun prototype available in the U.S. was the size of a merry-go-round and fired a projectile not much bigger than a nail.With enough force to cut through several inches of steel, successful demonstrations took industry analysts by surprise. And in 1986, New York Times science reporter Malcolm W. Browne wrote that the Navy “achieved in the last two years… what Defense Department planners had once predicted would take a decade.” He gave SDI full credit for those gains.
Technological hurdles and pessimistic pronouncements would frustrate the pace of development once more, but the momentum generated by “Star Wars” helped facilitate further progress. Indeed, as new milestones are reached and performance records broken, dramatic improvements in range, power and portability push the rail gun closer to military trials, now scheduled for 2017. But before then, key impediments to shipboard integration must be resolved.
The Last Mile
The Navy wants a rail gun that can automatically expel between six and ten rounds per minute. To achieve that rate, a highly developed thermal management system is needed. The weapon generates an enormous amount of heat that limits barrel life, and without proper cooling the Navy risks equipment failure, enemy detection, and even worse, the safety of its personnel.
Remarkably, the possibility that the firing mechanism might melt, or the barrel fail under extreme stress did not occur to ballistic experts initially. In 1932, Popular Mechanics and Inventions wrote: “Owing to the entire absence of internal pressures these guns may be made of ordinary iron or even of purely non-magnetic materials.”
Posing another challenge, a fully advanced ‘pulse power system’ that stores and directs electricity must also be built. More than one million amps are needed to repeatedly reach targets 100 miles away, and, as the Navy aims for a range of 250 miles, more than five million amps may eventually be required. Last year Raytheon Corporation was awarded an eight-figure contract to construct the pulse network and similar contracts were given to both British and American defense contractors to improve its rate of fire.
Beyond technical infirmities, the most pressing concern is funding. The Navy has already spent 240 million dollars and is likely to expend at least 250 million more over the next five years. Our defense industry has also invested tens of millions, while the British Ministry of Defence has actively contributed to the project’s research and development. But the rail gun still faces stubborn resistance in Washington, much as it did during the Reagan Era.
In 2011, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee voted to cut EMRG funding. Though this did not end the program, had proponents failed to mount an effective Congressional case for its continuation it probably would have been eliminated. That key lawmakers see the rail gun as a “waste of time, money and electricity” no doubt troubles developers, but such skepticism may not last. Construction is underway on the Navy’s next generation destroyer in Maine. The all-electric ship is capable of generating ten times the power of any current class in service, making it the perfect platform for rail gun technology.
With vigorous protection of trade routes, vital arteries and allies, the U.S. continues to promote stability and the steady flow of goods while deterring hostile behavior. This is a colossal undertaking, and one made more difficult by a shrinking naval force and budget cuts. But active measures to develop hi-tech weaponry signals that our Navy is determined to keep its fighting edge.
Brendon S. Peck is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This article is dedicated to Lt. Lisa Reles of the U.S. Navy. Lisa is currently serving in Afghanistan.