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:
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