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Futuristic railguns are out, hypersonic missiles are out


The US Navy has halted research on a future weapon that uses electricity to fire projectiles at up to seven times the speed of sound

BATH, Maine — The US Navy has, for now, pulled the plug on a futuristic weapon that uses electricity to fire projectiles at up to seven times the speed of sound.

The Navy spent more than a decade developing electromagnetic railguns and once considered putting them on stealth new Zumwalt-class destroyers built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine.

But the Defense Department is turning its attention to hypersonic missiles to keep pace with China and Russia, and the Navy has cut funding for railgun research from its latest budget proposal.

“At the moment, the railgun is dead,” said Matthew Caris, a defense analyst at the consulting firm, Avacent Group.

He said the withdrawal of funding showed that the Navy saw challenges in implementing the technology as well as shortcomings in projectile range compared to hypersonic missiles.

Navy spokesman Lieutenant Courtney Callaghan said the Navy’s decision to halt research at the end of the year frees up resources for hypersonic missiles, guided energy systems such as lasers and electronic warfare systems.

He said the information collected during the test would be retained in case the Office of Naval Research intends to leave it where it was left in future.

All told, the Navy spent nearly $500 million on research and development, according to Brian Clark, an analyst at the Hudson Institute.

The technology was close to making the leap from science fiction to reality in the 21st century with the testing of prototypes.

The concept had the potential to provide an effective weapon at pennies on the dollar compared to smart bombs and missiles.

This is because railguns use electricity instead of gunpowder, or jet or rocket engines, to propel the projectile at six or seven times the speed of sound. This creates enough kinetic energy to destroy targets.

But there were many problems. These included a range of about 110 miles in testing. A naval ship could not use a gun without placing itself within range of a barrage of enemy missiles. And its usefulness for missile defense was also limited by range and rate of fire, Clark said.

This idea dates back to the 1940s. But there have always been major obstacles because parallel rails, or conductors, are subject to massive electric current and magnetic forces that can cause damage after a few shots, defense analyst Norman Friedman said.

Friedman said a big question was always whether the gun could hold together during continuous firing.

Clark stated that a typical gun could be fired about 600 times before the barrel was refurbished, but on the railgun prototype the barrel had to be replaced after about a dozen or two dozen shots were fired.

A few years ago, the Navy was talking about gunning the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, three stealthy destroyers. It is nearing completion and builder testing at the Bath Iron Works.

The 600-foot-long (180-metre-long) battleship uses the marine turbines that propelled the Boeing 777 to help produce 78 megawatts of power for use in propulsion, weapons and sensors.

This is more than enough power for the railgun, and the ship has it in place after the cancellation of the advanced gun system, leaving the ship with no conventional cannon-based weapons.

Instead, the Navy is pursuing an arm of the railgun, a hypervelocity projectile that can be fired from existing gun systems.

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