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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Did the U.S. Navy Really Kill Its Mach 7 Railgun Program?

U.S. Navy Rail Gun
080131-N-0000X-001 DAHLGREN, Va. (Jan. 31, 2008) Photograph taken from a high-speed video camera during a record-setting firing of an electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Va., on January 31, 2008, firing at 10.64MJ (megajoules) with a muzzle velocity of 2520 meters per second. The Office of Naval ResearchÕs EMRG program is part of the Department of the NavyÕs Science and Technology investments, focused on developing new technologies to support Navy and Marine Corps war fighting needs. This photograph is a frame taken from a high-speed video camera. U.S. Navy Photograph (Released)

The United States Navy’s long-running experimental railgun program looks as though it has finally been canceled or, at the very least, indefinitely put on hold.

What Happened

According to the Navy’s proposed fiscal year 2022, the service has not requested any additional funding for the program, while the proposed budget also reveals that the Navy did not ask for or receive any funding for the program through the Innovative Naval Prototypes (INP) Applied Research account for fiscal year 2021; the Navy did, however, receive roughly $9.5 million, along with an additional $20 million provided by Congress, through the INP Advanced Technology Development area of the budget for fiscal year 2021.

The Navy’s budget proposal states that “the decrease in funding from FY 2021 to FY2022 is due to the completion of Advanced Technology Development efforts under this Activity.” The objectives for the program for fiscal year 2022, moreover, are listed as “N/A.” and the document omits any mention of future funding in other areas of the budget.

Regarding the extra funds allocated to the project by Congress in fiscal year 2021, the document states that “railgun technology and knowledge attained will be documented and preserved,” and that “railgun hardware will be realigned to maximize its sustainability to facilitate potential future use.” This suggests that the railgun program may not have been completely terminated, but has instead been indefinitely shelved and could be revisited again in the future.

The Navy’s Railgun Dream, a History

The Navy began development of the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) program in 2005, originally envisioning the weapon as a means to support U.S. Marines operating ashore as a naval surface fire support (NSFS) weapon. Since its initial development, however, the Navy has subsequently determined that the weapon may also have functionality for defending against missiles, leading to greater interest in the railgun program.

The railgun operates by using high electric currents to create magnetic fields to accelerate a sliding metal conductor between two rails in order to launch projectiles at very high speeds of between Mach 5.9 and Mach 7.4. Since 2005, the Navy has spent an estimated $500 million on the railgun program.

Two industry-built prototypes, one by BAE Systems and one by General Atomics, have been developed, and the Navy began testing of the prototype railguns as early as 2012. As of 2017 the Navy was still testing the weapon system, saying that the prototypes had demonstrated the ability to accelerate projectiles to speeds as high as 4,500 mph, or roughly six times the speed of sound. According to the Navy, the service was targeting “a 100+ nautical mile initial capability,” for the weapon system.

The Navy seems to have envisioned the DDG-1000 as the optimal platform for mounting the weapon. The Navy only ever built three of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, which experienced their own share of problems that resulted in schedule delays and cost overruns. In addition, rounds for the DDG-1000’s primary armament – the Advanced Gun System (AGS) – were found to be prohibitively expensive, and in 2016 the Navy announced that it would no longer procure munitions for the AGS. The railgun may therefore have been seen as an alternative, but the DDG-1000 was also seen as an ideal platform to carry the railgun because it was seen as better able to generate the massive electrical output needed to power the weapon. The weapon’s massive electrical demands, particularly those generated by firing multiple shots with the weapon in a short period of time, may have contributed to the program’s demise.

Recent years also saw the Navy seemingly move in the direction of focusing more on spin-off research related to the railgun’s rounds at the expense of the gun itself. The Navy explored the use of high-speed rounds independent of the railgun, even going so far as to test Hyper Velocity Projectiles (HVP) with the 5-inch gun onboard and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. These munitions were again raised as a possible replacement for the axed Zumwalt-class armament.

It appears that the HVP program – since renamed the Gun-Launched Guided Projectile – itself may be at its end, however, with the fiscal year 2022 budget also indicating its cancelation along with the railgun.

U.S. Navy Railgun

DAHLGREN, Va. (Dec. 10, 2010) High-speed camera image of the Office of Naval Research Electromagnetic Railgun located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, firing a world-record setting 33 mega-joule shot, breaking the previous record established Jan. 31, 2008. The railgun is a long-range, high-energy gun launch system that uses electricity rather than gunpowder or rocket motors to launch projectiles capable of striking a target at a range of more than 200 nautical miles with Mach 7 velocity. A future tactical railgun will hit targets at ranges almost 20 times farther than conventional surface ship combat systems. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

The apparent cancelation or indefinite pausing of the Navy’s railgun program comes as China has unveiled its own railgun variant.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.