A potentially revolutionary high speed weapons system
The US Navy recently conducted successful tests of its experimental rail gun. The electromagnetic rail gun is a long-range kinetic weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. Magnetic fields created by high electrical currents accelerate a sliding metal conductor (or armature) between two parallel rails to launch the projectile at speeds of from 4,500 to 5,600 miles per hour with a potential range well in excess of 100 miles. In operation, electricity is generated by special motors and capacitors on the warship for use by a pulsed power system. An electric pulse is transmitted to the rail gun, creating an electromagnetic force accelerating the projectile to Mach 7.5. Using its extreme speed on impact, the kinetic energy warhead eliminates the hazards of high explosives on the ship and unexploded ordnance on the battlefield. Using its increased velocity and extended range, the rail gun will give sailors a multi-mission capability, allowing them to conduct naval surface fire support or land strikes, ship defense, and surface warfare to deter enemy vessels. To date, tests have been conducted at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Plans call for a rail gun and associated equipment to be installed on the Joint High Speed Vessel USNS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in 2016 for further testing. If those tests are successful, the weapons system may be installed on the Zumwalt-class destroyers (DDG 1000), which can produce sufficient electrical power to get the desired performance without major alteration. Other existing warships would require electrical upgrades to support the rail gun. The projectiles weigh 23 pounds and cost about $25,000 each. Plans call for them to be self-guided with the ability to hit a 16-foot target 200 nautical miles away while firing ten rounds per minute. The projectile has approximately the same destructive capacity as a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile, while costing much less. Various engineering challenges must be met before the rail gun becomes fully operational.