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Railguns: The Kinetic Future of Warfare

The future of warfare is here. Well – on the distant horizon at least. Humans, in their never-ending quest to find newer and better ways to kill one another, are pushing the boundaries yet further. We’ve come a long way from bows and arrows, but we are now entering a world where we might soon have guns capable of firing shells at speeds of up to 10km/s (6.2 miles per second). And forget gunpowder – the future electric.     

Railguns are the latest weaponry phenomena currently lying in wait. It’s a little difficult to give a precise state of play as to when we might actually see these kinds of guns because as you can imagine with foreign militaries vying for global supremacy they don’t exactly keep blogs on their progress. 

By using an electric magnetic force, railguns will be able to finally discard of gunpowder, a mainstay in almost every kind of gun since the Chinese began experimenting with the black powder back in the 10th Century. Not only will they be significantly faster, but more accurate, potentially cheaper and because of their components, much safer to be carried on board ships. 

But this is a weapon still very much in the development phase, where it has been for decades now – don’t expect any major announcements anytime soon.  

How it Works 

Perhaps some of you are scratching your heads wondering just what a railgun is so let’s begin with how this weapon will operate. Essentially a railgun is a large electrical circuit, typically composed of three main parts; a power source, two parallel rails and a moving armature in the middle, which will launch the projectile. The power source has to be big, typically in the millions of amps for a large-scale version, while the parallel rails are usually between 4 and 9 metres (4 – 30 ft) in length and made of a conductive metal such as copper. The armature will also be made of some kind of conductive metal or possibly even plasma, in which an arc of ionised gas will push a solid payload forward – all sounds very futuristic, doesn’t it? 

A fairly simple explanation of how it all works is that an electrical current is passed from the power source into the first of the parallel rails which is positively charged. The current then moves through the armature and down the other rail which, as you might have guessed, is negatively charged, before returning to the source and so completing the circuit. 

The current that is now circulating creates an electromagnetic force from both rails, moving counterclockwise around the positive rail and clockwise around the negative rail. This energy produces what we know as Lorentz force, named after the Dutch physicist Hendrik A. Lorentz, which pushes the projectile away from the power source and towards the end of the rails. I say push, but it’s more like Thor’s hammer slamming down. At this point, in theory, at least, the projectile exits the rails at speeds of well over 3km/s (1.8 miles per second) and lands on some power unsuspecting soul up to 160 km (100 miles) away.  

There is, of course, a lot more to it, much of which we will get to later in the video, but that’s a quick and easy introduction to the world of railguns. 

History  

Railguns sound like the epitome of 21st Century warfare, but actually, their roots stretch back over one hundred years to the bloody carnage of World War I. In 1917, French inventor Andre Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplee constructed a small prototype of an electric canon using roughly the same method. This greatly impressed those who witnessed his early trials, enough for military leaders to commission him to build a 30-mm to 50-mm (1.1 inches to 1.9 inch) version in 1918. 

Sadly for Villeplee, but excellent for most of the world, the Great War came to an end later that year before his working model could be finalised and the project was cancelled. Not to be deterred, he was granted a U.S Patent in 1922 – no. 1,421,435 – An ‘Electric Apparatus for Propelling Projectiles’. 

But then things went quiet after that. While most agreed that the design was theoretically sound, there was one huge stumbling block – the power supply. To fire a weapon like this once required a hefty and steady voltage, but to fire it constantly, and no doubt as part of a larger group, would almost have required its own power station. The idea disappeared into the recesses of what might have been until once again the world found itself at war. 

If you’ve been following along with our megaprojects videos you’ll know full well that the Nazis were streaks ahead of the allies in the early years with regards to weaponry and technology. But thankfully, the Nazi version of the railgun came far too late in the day. It was in 1944 that Joachim Hänsler of Germany’s Ordnance Office, set out his design of the railgun which was quickly taken up by Luftwaffe but with very clear specifications; it needed to have a muzzle velocity of 2,000 m/s (6,561 feet per second), a projectile with 0.5 kg (1.1 lb) of explosive and ideally would be mounted on batteries of six firing twelve rounds per minute. One thing you can certainly say about the Nazis, they were certainly ambitious. 

Needless to say, this monster was never built but did catch the attention of allied engineers after the war, who, like those during the 1920s, felt the idea was sound, but the amount of energy needed, bordered on the preposterous. According to a report in 1947, each of the guns would have needed enough power to light up half of the city of Chicago. 

The second half of the 20th Century was a little stop-start on the railgun front. The 50s and 60s saw nominal progress, but in 1980 the Ballistic Research Laboratory in the United States began a dedicated program of research into railguns, however, once the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization aka Stars Wars began in 1984, focus and budgets were redirected and while research into railguns didn’t cease, it was no longer the primary focus. 

However, one of the first working railguns came not from the mighty U.S of A, but Yugoslavia. Under a project named EDO-0, the Yugoslavian Military Technology Institute developed a small scale railgun in 1985 which was later improved upon with EDO-1 in 1987, a railgun that came with rails 0.7 metres (2.3 ft) long and was capable of firing an object weighing 0.7 kg (1.5 lb) at speeds of 3,000 m/s (9,800 ft/s), or projectiles weighing 1.1 kg (2.4 lb) at 2,400 m/s (7,900 ft/s). Unfortunately, details of this gun are very hazy and we don’t know how far these objects were shot, or indeed what happened to the entire project. But we can probably say that Yugoslavia never managed to develop a large-scale version. 

The next major step came in 1993 when the U.S and British governments began collaborating on a railgun project at the Dundrennan Weapons Testing Centre and 17 years later, in 2010, BAE Systems and the U.S Government both successfully tested railguns and we’ll take a look at them shortly.

Potential Problems

Now, at this point, some of you might be wondering why this technology has taken over one hundred years to develop, and yet we’re still not there. The answer is that, while railguns are very much theoretically plausible, they come with a host of problems. 

Power Supply – As I’ve already said a couple of times, the power needed for this kind of weapon is absolutely enormous. Over the years, the U.S Navy has taken a keen interest in railgun technology, no doubt with the hope of one day including them on their ships, but it’s unclear whether a single ship would have enough power to sustain such a weapon for long periods. 

Durability – Another huge problem is durability. The stress placed on this gun and its various components during a launch is massive, with the rails taking a particular beating. Not so long ago, rail lives were measured in the tens of launches, though the U.S claims it has now used the same set of rails over 400 times. In reality, they’d probably want to be able to use them at least 3,000 times for it to make much sense in combat.

Easier said than done, the fierce heat generated and the high velocity of the armature as it thunders downs the rails, means they tend to melt very quickly. Then you need to take into consideration the repulsion of the two rails. Remember, they are charged with opposite currents which creates a strong repulsive force which attempts to push the two rails apart. Any piece of machinery consistently subjected to this kind of force is eventually going to come apart. It could well be that our technology has not yet progressed to the point that this is viable in the long run. 

Accuracy 

Ideally, a gun should be able to hit a designated target, if not it’s just an expensive, destructive firework, and this is another area where railgun pioneers have been struggling. The U.S Navy has been developing a small guidance package that could be included in the projectile, but the complexities are fairly mind-boggling. 

It needs to be less than 2 kg (4.4lbs) with an outer diameter of less than 40 mm (1.5 in). The device would need to be able to withstand accelerations of at least 20,000 gs – to put that number in perspective, a manned shuttle launch experiences no more than 3 gs. It would also need to cope with incredibly high electromagnetic fields and temperatures of over 800C (1,472F). It also needs to run on a pitiful amount of power – just 8 watts – that can operate for at least 5 minutes. And to be cost-effective, it has to cost less than $1,000 per unit. This is another area where it’s not exactly clear whether human technology is there yet – or even remotely close.   

Modern Rail Guns  

We know that rail guns come with a catalogue of potential problems, but it hasn’t stopped several from appearing. Now, just to clarify a point before we move on. Many small scale railguns have already been developed with numerous universities, particularly in the United States, building and testing their own models. However, the leap from these devices to a potential weapon is absolutely staggering. These small versions demonstrate that the theory behind it is sound, but we’re still a long way from seeing a large-scale, successful railgun that can be used regularly.    

In 2010, two tests were carried out using technology that had been developed by BAE Systems. The first of which, by BAE itself, fired a 3.2 kg (7 lbs) projectile at a speed 3.3 km/s (2 miles per second) – which is Mach 10 – roughly 5 times the speed at which Concorde travelled. The same year, the U.S Navy used its own BAE provided railgun and pretty much replicated the experiment. 

And this is where things begin to get a little confusing. There’s no doubt that in the last couple of decades the Americans have led the way with this technology, but things are not quite so clear anymore. A few years ago it seemed that the U.S was on the verge of real-life sea trials using the brand new Joint High-Speed Vessel USNS Trenton and photos even emerged of a railgun aboard the USS Millinocket. 

Whether this happened or not we’re not sure, but the United States seems to now be prioritizing the development of hypervelocity projectile (HVP) technology, which essentially uses the same kind of projectile used on a railgun but with conventional weapons. Perhaps the test didn’t go so well – who knows.  

There are a few reasons for this; the HVPs can be used with what is already installed on a ship, it’s a vastly cheaper alternative and doesn’t require the same kind of monstrous electrical supply as railguns. That being said, they are less than half the speed of projectiles fired from a rail gun, but at speeds of Mach 3 (3,704 km/h 2,301 mph), they aren’t exactly slow.     

In 2018 a rail gun was spotted aboard a Chinese landing craft and later that year the Chinese government themselves confirmed it, with Zhang Xiao, an associate research fellow at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval University of Engineering, saying

 “After hundreds of failures and more than 50,000 tests, we have successfully developed the largest repeating power supply system in the world”. 

He went on to clarify that this repeating power supply system he was referring to was, in fact, a railgun project. But again, the information on this is scant. We don’t know whether the railgun spotted on the landing craft was simply a working prototype or if the PLA has already managed to install a working railgun on a vessel – but it certainly seems unlikely. Some have even suggested it might even be a complete fabrication and the whole thing is aimed at simply boosting Chinese military prestige.    

The Future of Warfare? 

At the moment it seems a little unclear where we go with this technology. It would appear that the United States is now moving in a different direction and as for the Chinese railgun, it remains to be seen whether this is more of a statement piece of technology or a serious long term aspiration. 

Rail gun technology often comes back to the same issues. The absurd amount of energy needed along with the massive pressure put on the gun over and over again makes it far from economically sound at the moment. This is perhaps a piece of technology that we will have to wait for a few decades to see its full potential. 

And who knows, perhaps when it does finally arrive, it won’t even be used to kill. The idea of adapting railgun technology for space travel is now gathering pace. Over a decade ago, a design was proposed for a 3.2 km (2 miles) long railgun that would be able to launch space vehicles into orbit. In theory, the jet used would accelerate from 0 to 1,770 km/h (0- 1,100 mph) (Mach 1.5) in under 60 seconds, before eventually reaching Mach 10 as it leaves the stratosphere. 

This would be of course a hugely complex system, but once up and running it would slash launch costs to a fraction of what they are now. It would be so low we could start launching spacecraft daily – if we wanted to that is. It might sound far fetched, and yes we’re still some way off developing those kinds of spacecraft, but I don’t know about you, it sounds much better than blowing each up apart using railguns.

The Navy’s Railgun Is About to Get Faster and More Powerful (popularmechanics.com)

Four Things to Know about Railguns (electropages.com)

Railgun – Wikipedia

Rail Gun Basics – How Rail Guns Work | HowStuffWorks

U.S. Navy’s Railgun Is Nearly Dead in the Water | Navy Railgun (popularmechanics.com)

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