The Complex

Watch the Navy’s Futuristic ‘Star Wars’ Railgun Blow Things Up

Picture this: The Pentagon is preparing for an assault on a coastal country in the Pacific that already has attacked U.S. embassies abroad and is clearly spoiling for a fight. The enemy nation maintains a fearsome air force that isn't as good as Washington's, but is nevertheless capable of inflicting significant casualties on the U.S. military. Before that can happen, however, the Navy fires dozens of supersonic rounds from high-tech cannons mounted on U.S. ships safely offshore. One after another, the 23-pound projectiles pound enemy airfields nearly 100 miles away - and the threat disappears in flashes of fire and smoke.

The Navy hopes that will be the future of warfare. It has spent ten years and at least $240 million developing a so-called "electromagnetic railgun" capable of launching projectiles that reach speeds of up to Mach 7 - seven times the speed of sound - and can travel more than 100 miles before smashing into their targets.

That, at least, is what the gun is supposed to do. It's not yet clear that it will work as advertised in combat. The service has fired the railgun successfully hundreds of times over the past few years, but only while the cannons were mounted on land, mostly at a secretive Navy base in Dahlgren, Va. Next year, the railgun will be fired from a new high-speed ship, the USNS Millinocket, for the first time. That's a major step for a program that has never been operated at sea.

To demonstrate its lethality, the Navy just released a new video demonstrating railgun projectiles slicing through a variety of targets, including vehicles. The service has released other videos of the railgun firing in the past, but this marks the first time civilians can see it not only firing, but destroying the targets at which it is aimed:

Office of Naval Research's Electromagnetic Railgun from Foreign Policy on Vimeo.

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, is fond of comparing the railgun to weaponry seen in the Star Wars movies. 

"I'm not going to tell you how this is designed... because frankly, it's very, very secret," Klunder told reporters at the Pentagon, sitting next to an inert 23-pound model of a railgun round. "I'm not going to tell you what's inside of it. But the point is, we've done a number of models with the guns we've fired hundreds of times.... It gives us the ability to knock anything out of the air."

Navy officials have tested the railguns to see how it would perform in a variety of missions, including defending against cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and targeting vehicles, Klunder said. The system had performed well in every test scenarios, he added, although in some cases it requires two or three projectiles take out a target. After making sure the gun works well while installed on a ship, the next big project is to make sure it can fire multiple times in a minute without overheating, which could be key in the middle of a massive air-sea battle.

"Right now, we're doing single shots at a time," Klunder told reporters at the a press conference rolling out the new video last week. "We're going to try to get up to 10 rounds per minute. The technology is there, we just have to work on some of the mechanics, the handling and the cooling systems."

That's no small feat. Many things remain secret about the program, but it has faced scrutiny on Capitol Hill because of trouble it has run into in the past. The massive amount of energy needed to fire the weapon wore out components of the gun quickly, leading to skepticism it would ever be practical. The Senate Armed Services Committee even moved to kill the program in 2011, feeling that "the technical challenges to developing and fielding the weapon would be daunting, particularly [related to] the power required and the barrel of the gun having limited life," a committee staff member told Wired magazine at the time.

Proponents in Washington moved to keep the railgun program, however, and it survived. Last year, the Navy selected a version of the weapon made by BAE Systems as its primary option. It uses electromagnetic energy instead of gunpowder or other explosive propellants to launch the projectile, the company says. The weapon would draw the power primarily from battery-like components, eliminating the safety concerns that go with using gunpowder or other old-school explosive propellants.

As the service moves toward firing the gun multiple times in a matter of minutes, it will test whether undisclosed changes it has made in the composition of the gun have increased its durability, Klunder said. He wouldn't disclose what has been changed, but said the Navy will be closely monitoring its "thermal management" - military-speak for its ability to not melt under immense pressure.

"I can tell you that we absolutely have a pathway for that. It is not a problem," the admiral said. "As a matter fact, a lot of the secret sauce in the materials that we put... in those rails and that gun will allow us to do exactly that."

Image from Navy video

The Complex

Five Years After First Fort Hood Shooting, Army Faces Questions About Why It Couldn't Prevent A Second

The Pentagon insists the changes put in place after the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood prevented this week's mass shooting there from being much worse. But its not yet clear that's true, and senior Army generals will face intensive scrutiny in the days and weeks ahead about whether they could have done more to keep Spec. Ivan Lopez from killing three fellow soldiers and wounding 16 more.

In the aftermath of the Fort Hood shooting five years ago, a commission established by then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates created a laundry list of recommendations designed to better identify troubled soldiers, create systems to more quickly alert the soldiers and family members living at a base about an ongoing attack, and accelerate the speech at which medical care is provided to the wounded.

Pentagon officials say that most of those changes that had been put in place at Fort Hood before Lopez, a 34-year-old Iraq veteran with a history of depression, allegedly walked into two different locations on the sprawling Texas base and opened fire. Authorities believe that Lopez might have had an argument with one of his victims before shooting him.

"His underlying medical conditions are not a direct precipitating factor," Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of Fort Hood, said Friday. "We believe that the immediate precipitating factor was more likely an escalating argument in his unit area."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, speaking on Capitol Hill Thursday, said the changes put in place since 2009 prevented Lopez from killing or wounding more soldiers.

"I believe that some of the procedures that have been put in place following the incident four and a half years ago did help us yesterday," Odierno insisted during testimony before a Senate panel.

Lawmakers are just beginning to investigate the shooting, but they are sure to focus much of their attention on figuring out whether Odierno's statement was true and why the Army had failed to prevent a new Fort Hood shooting from taking place just five years after Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people in the worst incidence of soldier-on-soldier violence in American history.

The Pentagon report on the 2009 massacre recommended a number of far-reaching shifts in how the Army identifies threats and responds to attacks once they begin. Top military officials will doubtlessly be hauled to Capitol Hill to detail which were implemented, which were not, and what new steps should be put in place going forward.

Many of the reforms the report called for pertained to identifying radicalized individuals within the force, as Hasan held some extremist views inspired by jihadists overseas. There is no indication that the shooting this week at Fort Hood was motivated by terrorism.

But several of the other changes from the 2010 report were more practical, geared toward protecting the force from any threat on a U.S. military installation. They included developing a "force protection threat reporting system" for suspicious incidents and creating a system in which "near real-time unclassified force protection information" could be shared among military installations.

There were other practical recommendations implemented from that report, including showing troops how to respond to an "active shooter threat" and giving all troops across the Defense Department basic training in how to respond to workplace violence.

The commission also concluded that the Defense Department lacked a policy governing privately-owned weapons. That issue figures prominently in the case of Lopez, who bought a Smith and Wesson semi-automatic pistol at a store off-base, brought it past a security gate and then used it to gun down fellow soldiers.

While there are various regulations governing private arms for troops living off-base, including a rule barring soldiers from carrying those weapons onto a facility, there's nothing to compel troops to register their guns or force them to leave them at home. Lopez, authorities say, didn't register his weapon after purchasing it. Even if he had, there would have been no way of searching all the cars entering Fort Hood the day of the shooting to prevent the troubled soldier from bringing the gun onto the base.

Visiting wounded soldiers Friday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz declined to answer questions about whether more should be done to prevent soldiers from carrying concealed weapons onto the base, according to a report on CNN.

Pentagon officials, for their part, said the bulk of the recommendation from the report commissioned after the 2009 shooting had resulted in "directives" requiring bases and stations to put in place better measures for protecting their troops. They declined to go into more specifics, though they will certainly have to on Capitol Hill.

Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military had "made progress," but acknowledged that it was struggling to make it easier for commanders to access military health records to "better understand individual behavior that could potentially harm others, while ensuring appropriate protection of privacy and civil liberties."

The U.S. military force protection programs are still not as focused on internal threats as well as they could be. The 2010 report directed the military to find a better way to integrate "disparate efforts" to identify such threats. To do that, the Pentagon agreed to use practices based on individual programs that were seen as a success, such as the ones used by the Navy's Threat Management Unit, the Postal Service's "Going Postal Program," and Stanford University's workplace violence program that is focused on predicting and preventing insider attacks.

But perhaps the most effective measure taken since 2009 is the simplest. After that shooting, the military commission called for implementing a more robust "giant voice" that could be used to alert everyone at a military installation that an attack was imminent or underway. Anyone who was watching network news this week is familiar with repetitive footage, apparently shot by an amateur, of people running into their homes while a woman's voice booming across the base, directing residents to get inside.

"The alert procedures that were in place, the response, the training that has gone into the response, forces that responded I think contributed to making this something that could have been much, much worse," Odierno told the Senate panel.

Drew Anthony Smith/Stringer/Getty