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Navy’s Electromagnetic Railgun Demo Sets New Record

December 11, 2010

The United States Navy proved in a record-setting test on Friday in Dahlgren, Virginia that its dream weapon — the rail gun — is the real deal and unlike any other weapon ever used in warfare.

Rather than relying on an explosion to fire a projectile, the technology uses electromagnetic current to accelerate a non-explosive bullet at several times faster than the speed of sound. The conductive bullet zips along a set of electrically charged parallel rails and out of the barrel at speeds up to Mach 7.

The end result makes for a weapon that can hit a target a hundred miles away in just a few minutes.

“It’s an over-used term, but it really changes several games,” Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr, Jr., the chief of Naval Research, told FoxNews.com before starting the test.

The word “railgun” often invokes sci-fi images of destructive superweapons and monsters and aliens. But the railgun is definitely very real.

The railgun offers a velocity previously unattainable in conventional weaponry. Since the projectile doesn’t have any explosives itself, it relies on kinetic energy to do damage. And at 11 a.m. Friday morning, the Navy produced a 33-megajoule firing, more than three times the previous record set by the Navy in 2008.

“It bursts radially, but it’s hard to quantify,” Roger Ellis, electromagnetic railgun program manager with the Office of Naval Research, told FoxNews.com.

To give a sense of just how much damage the railgun can achieve, Ellis said that the big guns on the deck of a warship are measured by their muzzle energy in megajoules. A single megajoule is roughly equivalent to a one ton car traveling at 100 mph. Multiply that by 33 and you get a picture of what would happen when the weapon hits its target.

The Navy has invested more than $200 million in the program since 2005 since the railgun provides so many significant advantages over conventional weapons. A railgun offers 2 to 3 times the velocity of a conventional big gun, and can hit its target within 6 minutes. A guided cruise missile travels at subsonic speeds and a target could be gone by the time it reaches its destination.

Furthermore, current Navy guns can only reach targets about 13 miles away. The railgun currently being tested could reach an enemy more than 100 miles away with pinpoint accuracy using GPS guidance systems. The Navy hopes to eventually extend the range beyond 200 miles.

“We’re also eliminating explosives from the ship, which brings significant safety benefits and logistical benefits,” said Ellis.

Admiral Carr, who calls the railgun a “disruptive technology,” said that not only would a railgun-equipped ship have to carry few if any large explosive warheads, but it could use its enemies own warheads against them. He envisions being able to aim a railgun directly at a magazine on an enemy ship and “let his explosives be your explosives.”

There’s also a cost and logistical benefit associated with railguns. A single Tomahawk cruise missile costs nearly $600,000. A non-explosive guided railgun projectile could cost much less. And a ship could carry many more railgun projectiles than Tomahawks, reducing the problems of delivering more weapons to a ship in battle.

The Navy still has a ways to go, however, before the railgun test becomes a working weapon for the military. Technically, Ellis says they have already overcome several hurdles. The guns themselves generate a huge amount of heat — enough to melt the rails inside the barrel. It also generates a huge amount of power — enough to force the rails apart, destroying the gun and the barrel in the process.

Also, at the speeds the projectile is traveling, experts have to take aerodynamics and special materials into consideration so that it isn’t destroyed coming out of the barrel or by the intense heat.

Electrical requirements initially posed another dilemma. Up until recently, those requirements simply were not practical. However, naval researchers believe they can solve that issue using newer Navy ships and capacitors to build up the charge necessary to blast a railgun projectile at supersonic speeds.

Ellis says the Navy hopes to be able to fire 6 to 12 rounds per minute, “but we’re not there yet.”

Both Ellis and Carr expect fully functional railguns to be operational and on ship decks sometime around 2025.

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