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A First Look at America’s Supergun

The Navy’s experimental railgun fires a hardened projectile at staggering velocity—a battlefield meteorite with the power to blow holes in enemy ships and level terrorist camps.

DAHLGREN, Va.— Julian E. Barnes reports: A warning siren bellowed through the concrete bunker of a top-secret Naval facility where U.S. military engineers prepared to demonstrate a weapon for which there is little defense.

Officials huddled at a video screen for a first look at a deadly new supergun that can fire a 25-pound projectile through seven steel plates and leave a 5-inch hole.

“I can’t conceive of a future where we would replicate Cold War forces in Europe. But I could conceive of a set of railguns that would be inexpensive but would have enormous deterrent value. They would have value against airplanes, missiles, tanks, almost anything.”

— Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work

The weapon is called a railgun and requires neither gunpowder nor explosive. It is powered by electromagnetic rails that accelerate a hardened projectile to staggering velocity—a battlefield meteorite with the power to one day transform military strategy, say supporters, and keep the U.S. ahead of advancing Russian and Chinese weaponry.

In conventional guns, a bullet begins losing acceleration moments after the gunpowder ignites. The railgun projectile gains more speed as it travels the length of a 32-foot barrel, exiting the muzzle at 4,500 miles an hour, or more than a mile a second.

“This is going to change the way we fight,” said U.S. Navy Adm. Mat Winter, the head of the Office of Naval Research.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, right, views the hole made in a steel plate by a railgun projectile during testing last year at a top-secret Naval facility in Dahlgren, Va.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, right, views the hole made in a steel plate by a railgun projectile during testing last year at a top-secret Naval facility in Dahlgren, Va. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The Navy developed the railgun as a potent offensive weapon to blow holes in enemy ships, destroy tanks and level terrorist camps. The weapon system has the attention of top Pentagon officials also interested in its potential to knock enemy missiles out of the sky more inexpensively and in greater numbers than current missile-defense systems—perhaps within a decade.

The future challenge for the U.S. military, in broad terms, is maintaining a global reach with declining numbers of Navy ships and land forces. Growing expenses and fixed budgets make it more difficult to maintain large forces in the right places to deter aggression.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 photo, a crew member of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy monitors on the deck of the China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing on the East China Sea for sea trials. The Liaoning departed for its first-ever sea trials in the South China Sea, a mission likely to draw scrutiny amid Beijing's drive to assert its claims to those waters and their island groups. (AP Photo) CHINA OUT

“Chinese hackers in particular have tried to penetrate the computer systems of the Pentagon and its defense contractors to probe railgun secrets, U.S. defense officials said. Pentagon officials declined to discuss the matter further.”

“I can’t conceive of a future where we would replicate Cold War forces in Europe,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, one of the weapon’s chief boosters. “But I could conceive of a set of railguns that would be inexpensive but would have enormous deterrent value. They would have value against airplanes, missiles, tanks, almost anything.”

[Read the full story here, at WSJ]

Inside the test bunker at Dahlgren, military officials turned to the video monitor showing the rectangular railgun barrel. Engineer Tom Boucher, program manager for the railgun in the Office of Naval Research, explained: “We are watching the system charge. We are taking power from the grid.”

Wires splay out the back of the railgun, which requires a power plant that generates 25 megawatts—enough electricity to power 18,750 homes.

The siren blared again, and the weapon fired. The video replay was slowed so officials could see aluminum shavings ignite in a fireball and the projectile emerge from its protective shell.

“This,” Mr. Boucher said, “is a thing of beauty going off.”

The railgun faces many technical barriers before it is battle ready. Policy makers also must weigh geopolitical questions. China and Russia see the railgun and other advances in U.S. missile defense as upending the world’s balance of power because it negates their own missile arsenals. Read the rest of this entry »

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