It can fire a solid metal slug at speeds of up to 4,500 mph, or Mach 6. It can hit targets up to 100 nautical miles away. It’s capable of defeating incoming ballistic missiles and liquefying even the most durable enemy armor, the equivalent of a weaponized meteor strike fired from the world’s most powerful gun. After more than a decade of research and development and more than $500 million, the Office of Naval Research’s much-hyped electromagnetic railgun prototype is finally capable of flexing its futuristic muscles — but despite the swirl of science-fiction excitement surrounding the muscular new cannon, it will likely never see combat, Task & Purpose has learned.
According to interviews with several congressional and military sources, the much-hyped supergun has come under scrutiny from lawmakers and military planners thanks to the Strategic Capabilities Office, the once-classified department created in 2012 to fast-track new tech languishing in the DoD’s sprawling bureaucracy, and develop, as then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter once put it , “game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies.” With SCO’s interest drawn to other weapons systems, ONR may end up without the necessary funding to push the exceedingly complex railgun toward a critical testing milestone — a delay that, with increasing budget pressures and the DoD’s shifting strategic priorities, could condemn the decade-long project to an inescapable limbo of research and tinkering far from any ship.
‘They’re simply not buying it’
Over the last decade, the Pentagon has funneled money into the development of several next-generation, directed-energy weapons through the Navy’s Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E) appropriations: The electromagnetic railgun, which has been in development since 2005 in conjunction with defense contractors General Atomics and BAE Systems; the hypervelocity projectile (HVP), a super dense, low-drag tungsten projectile designed as specialized ammo for the railgun; and solid-state lasers, long-time fixations of every service branch and a near-term short-range missile defense for surface vessels. As of a Nov. 30 Congressional Research Service update, electromagnetic railgun research was progressing in line with the ONR roadmap that once envisioned installing the completed weapon on a destroyer like the USS Zumwalt by the mid-2020s.
In recent years, however, SCO has turned its attention to the HVP: once developed explicitly for the railgun, the super-dense shell’s compatibility with conventional powder artillery, offering a cheaper and less technically complex alternative to the Pentagon’s incomplete supergun for not just the Navy, but the Army to rapidly equip.
“SCO shifted the project’s focus to conventional powder guns, facilitating a faster transition of HVP technology to the warfighter,” SCO spokesman Chris Sherwood told Task & Purpose. “Our priority continues to be the HVP, which is reflected in the program’s budget.”
Researchers and policymakers confident on the system’s potential now fear that the reallocation of railgun funding at SCO’s behest will end up forestalling the successful installation and demonstration of a tactical rig aboard a naval vessel. According to multiple legislative and military sources, insufficient funding for the railgun in the current defense budget will grind any meaningful progress to a halt, condemning efforts to R&D purgatory. As one defense contractor with direct knowledge of the project recently told Task & Purpose, underfunding railgun now would effectively render the decade-long supergun project “dead in the water” by 2019.
“People at SCO don’t want to fund the railgun because they’re simply not buying it,” one senior legislative official with direct knowledge of the project told Task & Purpose. “They are imparting that priority on to Big Navy, which is pulling the money away from ONR.”
One last push
In the year since publishing the jaw-dropping footage of a tactical electromagnetic railgun demonstrator at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division’s Terminal Range in Virginia in November 2016, ONR has been working diligently alongside defense contractors BAE System and General Atomics to bring the supergun closer to combat readiness. A second video released in July showed the rig firing off multi-shot salvos on Dahlgren’s 25-mile Potomac River test range. Through massive, repeated pulses of energy over a short period with minimal cooldown time, the railgun managed to fire 4.8 shells a minute, inching closer to the requirements laid out by Naval Sea Systems Command in a 2013 call for demonstrators that could fire 10 shells a minute and store up to 650 shells.
While ONR’s rep-rate demonstrations at Dahlgren represent a major leap forward for the railgun, the system still faces major technical hurdles that make the HVP a relatively inexpensive alternative. Generating the electromagnetic fields necessary to accelerate a shell to tank-liquefying velocities without chemical propellants requires an energy farm or capacitor base significantly larger than what most Navy surface vessels can generate currently. Next-generation “ electric warships ” like the Zumwalt can channel 78 megawatts from their generators through its power-distribution network, making them ideal for all manner of directed-energy weapons, but other surface vessels would require a major overhaul of their electrical infrastructure for the “pulsed-power architecture” required for multi-shot salvos.