The US Navy is planning to Run First Sea Trials of electromagnetic railgun aboard a warship, according to new documents detailing the service’s testing and training plans.
After more than a decade of research and development and upwards of $500 million in funding, the Navy finally plans on testing its much-hyped electromagnetic railgun on a surface warship in a major milestone for the beleaguered weapons system, Navy documents reveal.
The Navy’s latest Northwest Training and Testing draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment (NWTT EIS/OEIS), first detailed by the Seattle Times on Friday, reveals that ” the kinetic energy weapon will be tested aboard surface vessels, firing explosive and non-explosive projectiles at the air- or sea-based targets.”
The gun will be mounted on a surface vessel, the model of which has not been specified. This will be the first time that the US Navy’s railgun is tested – if the trials aren’t aborted.
Unlike conventional guns, a railgun uses electromagnetic energy rather than explosive charges to fire rounds farther and at six or seven times the speed of sound.
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The US is not the only country chasing this technology. Another clear competitor is China, which has already managed to arm a warship — the Type 072III Yuting-class tank-landing ship “Haiyang Shan” — with a railgun. The weapon is believed to have been put through some preliminary sea trials.
It is unclear how far along the Chinese railgun program is, but the competition is on. Chinese media proudly boasted in January that “China’s naval electromagnetic weapon and equipment have surpassed other countries and become a world leader.”
The US military had previously intended to run sea trials of the weapon in 2016, planning to use the Spearhead-class USNS Trenton for that purpose, but the tests never happened. A year later, the American media outlet Task & Purpose reported that the Pentagon was considering terminating the development programme and redistributing the funds to other projects.
At the time, the railgun was reported to have two major issues. Namely, it required massive amounts of power to fire even a single shot, with only the Zumwalt-class destroyers being capable of it. This was further exacerbated by the fact that plans to build over three dozen Zumwalts were slashed to just three.
What is more, the railgun gradually destroyed itself with every shot it made. Initially, the weapon was capable of firing several dozen times, with the number increasing to 400 by 2014. It was unclear at the time, however, whether the number could be raised further.
The US has been developing the railgun for over a decade and spent over $500 million on doing so, but Washington has not been alone in this aspiration. Currently, the US is competing with China in the field. This year, Chinese media reported that a railgun, installed on a Type 072III Yuting-class ship, had passed some preliminary sea trials.
With tensions between the United States and China at an unusual high amid increasing freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, the Navy may end up needing all the firepower it can get — or at least the perception that it’s actually holding its own in the new directed energy arms race.