For centuries, naval warfare has been fought with munitions powered by chemical propellants. Although certainly effective, solid chemical propellants are limited in terms of their power and safety when stored. The United States Navy is hoping to overcome these shortcomings with a new weapon referred to as a railgun.
Although the term “railgun” might bring images of science fiction to mind, the technology is actually quite straightforward. Traditionally, naval artillery consists of a powder charge and a shell; the shell is propelled when the powder is ignited under pressure inside the barrel. In the railgun, a projectile is accelerated by a series of electromagnets running along the length barrel. The use of this technology allows for the projectile to reach speeds of over 4500 miles per hour, or 6600 feet per second (1). To put this in perspective, the massive 16-inch guns aboard the Iowa Class Battleships could only reach a muzzle velocity of 1830 miles per hour, or 2700 feet per second (2).
The destructive power of the projectile is based almost entirely off of its sheer kinetic energy instead of the energy generated from explosives. Due to the elimination of explosives, the rounds fired by the railgun are relatively small, meaning that an average ship could carry nearly ten times the ammunition compared to current missiles. In addition to the size, another benefit lies in the safety of storage of the munitions. With the lack of explosives, the rounds offer nearly zero chance of detonating when stored inside the ship.
Currently, the U.S. Navy is planning on equipping the Zumwalt-Class destroyers with the new weapon; however, plans have been pushed back to 2017 (3).
Over the next few decades, this technology will likely see usage not only from the United States, but from other major powers as well. Due to the fact that railguns are relatively inexpensive, and can deal with a diverse array of targets, they may prove an effective alternative to conventional forces by virtue of the decrease in military budgets worldwide.
(1) Morris, D. Z. (2016, May 30). Navy's Railgun Push May Reshape Global Military Power. Retrieved June 03, 2016, from http://fortune.com/2016/05/31/navy-new-railgun-military/
(2) DiGiulian, Tony (November 2006). "United States of America 16"/50 (40.6 cm) Mark 7". navweaps.com. Archived from the original on 5 February 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-25.
(3) Cavas, C. P. (2016, January 10). Navy's Rail Gun Still Headed to Sea, but on Which Ship Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/naval/ships/2016/01/10/railgun-navy-fanta-naval-zumwalt-ddg1000/78443016/
Image: © Zhukovsky | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-machine-gun-us-navy-destroyer-fleet-week-staten-island-new-york-may-may-staten-island-new-york-image30398896#res14972580">Machine gun on US Navy destroyer during Fleet Week 2012</a>