The millennium-long reign of gunpowder and other chemical propellants is over—projectiles can now be launched using the power of electricity.
Although it was once an object of imagination, theory, and science fiction, the electromagnetic railgun has finally made the leap from laboratory concept to weapon-grade technology.
Using a massive electrical pulse rather than a chemical propellant, the railgun can launch projectiles much farther than the 13-nautical-mile range of the U.S. Navy’s standard 5-inch naval gun. Previous incarnations of the railgun suffered from limited muzzle energy and could only fire a few shots before the launcher needed to be replaced. These days, however, the railgun has increased its muzzle energy substantially and can shoot hundreds of projectiles before requiring refurbishment.
A high-speed camera captures the first full-energy shots from the Office of Naval Research-funded electromagnetic railgun prototype launcher at a test facility in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 2012.
(U.S. Navy photo)
But the railgun’s story also is one of collaboration. Enlisting America’s best and brightest, ONR established a national team comprising naval warfare centers, national laboratories, academia, and contractors with expertise in material science, modeling and simulation, and experimental design. In the process, ONR raised a new generation of world-class railgun researchers and a core government team to guide this transformational technology forward.
The railgun was initially envisioned for land attack until its potential warfighting advantages sparked examination of other vital missions. Modeling and analysis established a real potential for it to enhance integrated air and missile defense and anti-surface warfare. The railgun, with a hypervelocity projectile, is expected to be very cost-effective while adding offensive and defensive depth. It can inexpensively address many lethal threats while conserving much more costly missiles for the most challenging targets.
ONR currently is developing and testing railgun barrels capable of firing many rounds per minute—as well as the associated power and auxiliary systems needed to make that possible. These products will enable the Navy’s efforts to develop and integrate railgun weapon systems into much more capable warships.