Engineers have been trying to create a functional railgun for militaries globally for over a century.
In this blog post, we will take a look at the current state of railgun technology and explore the possibilities of its future in 2023.
Just over a decade ago, the U.S. Navy began an ambitious project to revolutionize warfare with railguns – powerful weapons capable of lobbing heavy projectiles farther and faster than ever before.
However, after investing $500 million in research and development costs over 15 years, they have announced that they are shifting their focus toward other emerging weapon technology such as hypersonic missiles and directed energy weapons which already see limited deployment around the world today.
Despite this setback for what could have been a game-changing advancement in military weaponry capabilities, there remains hope for future breakthroughs through further investment ahead.
What is a Railgun?
A railgun is a type of electrical weapon that uses electromagnetic force to propel a projectile at high speeds. It is an interesting area of engineering because it combines elements of electrical, mechanical, and materials engineering.
Unlike traditional firearms that use chemical combustion to generate force, a railgun relies on the principles of magnetism to generate an extremely high-velocity launch. This makes railguns an attractive option as they can launch projectiles over long distances with incredible accuracy and speed.
In the most simple terms, a railgun is a futuristic weapon that uses electromagnetism to launch projectiles at incredible speeds.
The problems with building a railgun
The idea of a railgun, a weapon that uses electromagnetic force to propel a projectile over long distances, has been a topic of interest for militaries around the world for over a century. However, there are major difficulties that must be overcome before railguns can be deployed on the battlefield.
Durability: One of the biggest challenges of designing a railgun is ensuring its durability. To date, public demonstrations have not shown the ability to fire multiple full-power shots from the same set of rails.
While the U.S. Navy has claimed hundreds of shots from the same set of rails, there is nothing published to confirm that these are full-power shots and that the railgun is capable of firing accurately and safely. In order to be feasible for deployment, a railgun should be able to fire 6 rounds per minute with a rail life of about 3000 rounds, tolerating launch accelerations of tens of thousands of g’s and extreme pressures and megaampere currents.
Projectile Guidance: A critical aspect of fielding a real railgun weapon is developing a robust guidance package for the projectile.
This involves designing a package that fits within the mass, diameter, and volume constraints of the projectile and can survive high electromagnetic fields, surface temperatures of over 800 degrees Celsius, and plasma formation in the bore or at the muzzle exit. The package must also be radiation-hardened and consume less than 8 watts of power with a battery life of at least 5 minutes. The goal is to have a production cost of less than $1,000 per unit.
Recent advancements have been made in this area, with General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Systems announcing in June 2015 that projectiles with on-board electronics survived the railgun launch environment and performed their intended functions during tests at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The onboard electronics were able to measure in-bore accelerations and projectile dynamics, with the integral data link continuing to operate after the projectiles impacted the desert floor, which is essential for precision guidance.”
What breakthroughs might we see for Railgun technology in 2023?
With the US abandoning its major Railgun research it looks like China is now taking up the mantle.
In their quest to build a more practical and efficient design, Chinese researchers have been experimenting with various methods to improve the durability and performance of the railgun.
One of the major challenges faced by the US Navy failed to solve in their railgun development was barrel wear. To tackle this issue, Chinese researchers have tested the use of liquid metal as a cooling material for the rails. This highly conductive material has proven effective in reducing wear and tear on the rails.
According to recent reports, the Chinese railgun prototype has been a success, with the ability to launch projectiles at a higher velocity and longer range than the US Navy’s version.
In one test, the prototype was able to launch a projectile past Mach 7, reaching a target located 155.3 miles away though it is still to be determined if they have been able to overcome the other drawbacks of the technology.
Of course, verified news on the Chinese railgun is extremely limited, and like the USA they are also switching their high-tech military research to focus on hypersonic missiles. The ‘problem’ as militaries see it is while there is the potential of railguns as a potent weapon, the focus is always going to be on seeking alternative and more reliable means of long-range destruction.
It remains to be seen if railguns will be a technological dead-end or if they will eventually be deployed as part of standard military equipment.
For now, it seems that railguns are not quite ready for prime time, and we will have to wait to see how the Chinese efforts progress in the coming years.
- For over a century, engineers have been trying to develop functional railguns for militaries worldwide.
- The U.S Navy invested $500 million into researching and developing the technology but recently announced they are shifting their focus towards other emerging weapon technologies such as hypersonic missiles and directed energy weapons.
- A railgun is an electrical weapon that uses electromagnetic force to propel projectiles at high speeds, combining elements of electrical, mechanical, and materials engineering.
- Major challenges with building a successful railgun include durability issues such as being able to fire multiple full-power shots from the same set of rails; projectile guidance which involves designing packages that fit within mass constraints while surviving extreme conditions; radiation hardening; power consumption; production cost etc..
- China has taken up the mantle in Railgun research by experimenting with liquid metal cooling material on rails in order to reduce wear & tear on them resulting in higher velocity launches than those achieved by US prototypes so far though there still remain drawbacks which need solving before it can be deployed effectively on battlefields around the world.