Via Spencer Ackerman at the Wired Danger Room, the United States Navy has three words for you: Working. Railgun. Prototype.
The idea behind the Electromagnetic Railgun is to fire a bullet at hypersonic speeds using dozens of megajoules of electricity. The Navy wants it to guard the surface ships of the 2020s, unsubtly boasting to adversaries that messing with the ships will lead to bullets shooting across hundreds of miles of ocean in mere minutes. The Office of Naval Research says it will give sailors “a dramatically increased multimission capability,” like fire support for land strikes over long, long distances beyond the reach of enemy defenses, and defense against “cruise and ballistic missiles” that target ships. No wonder the railgun’s official motto is “Velocitas Eradico” — “Speed Kills.”
Lab tests have pleased the Navy, if not Congress. In December 2010, the Office of Naval Research fired a shot with 33 megajoules of energy, a world record, sending a 23-pound bullet 5500 feet in a single second. The Senate Armed Services Committee still found the science too impractical, and recommended killing the railgun, until a Navy congressional counterstrike revived the program.
Now that the Navy has an actual prototype railgun to shoot, the plan is to hook it up to sensors and cameras to test its performance at 20 and 33 megajoules’ worth of energy. Its goal is produce accurate shots from 50 to 100 nautical mile distances, which the Navy wants by 2017.
Sadly, we don’t have 80-ton mechs to mount one of these on yet. There are also other umm…”technical drawbacks”:
Even railgun advocates concede there are a host of other challenges the hypersonic weapon will have to overcome. Its barrel will have to withstand repeated fires without wearing out. (The Navy wants to up firing rates to 10 per minute.) It’s got to fire smart bullets without frying the guidance systems during a blast. (The Navy says both BAE and General Dynamics are starting to design “a next-generation thermally managed launcher.”) And it’s got to be affordable. (The Navy has spent $240 million on the railgun so far, and it expects to spend about as much through 2017 on tests — before buying a single one of the things.)
And yeah, I know, a naval railgun’s gonna be a “real big help” in policing the nebulous Af-Pak border regions and all, but there is a civilian technology upside:
Another big problem: the current generation of Destroyers can’t produce the power to fire the railgun without diverting juice from the propulsion systems. One of the goals of the railguns over the next five years is to create workarounds, so the guns will be relevant to their intended ships. Those include “an intermediate energy store using energy-dense batteries, similar to [those on] hybrid cars,” Ellis told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. “That enables us to put the railgun on ships that don’t have larger power supplies.”
Advances in battery storage technology that could say, make electric cars more widespread with batteries that are cheaper and more efficient wouldn’t exactly be a bad thing.
Also, railgun. Because RAILGUN, that’s why. Velocitas Eradico, indeed.