The US Navy Just Canceled the Railgun. But Hypersonic Missiles Are Still On

They had a limited range of 110 miles.
Brad Bergan
High-speed camera photo of an electronic railgun.U.S. Navy / Wikimedia

For now, the railgun party is over.

Futuristic weapons that fire projectiles at a velocity approaching seven times the speed of sound with electricity are just not in the cards for the U.S. Navy, which canceled its development program of the sci-fi weapon, according to an initial report from AP News. "The railgun is, for the moment, dead," said Defense Analyst Matthew Caris of the consulting firm Avascent Group, in the report.

However, the Navy isn't giving up on next-gen weapons for the 21st century: its interest in hypersonic missiles remains very much alive.

US Navy spent $500 million in railgun research and development

After more than a decade of development on the electromagnetic railgun, which officials considered installing on the stealthy new Zumwalt-class destroyers, the Navy has pulled the plug on the weapon that excited many. In its place, the Defense Department is pivoting its efforts to hypersonic missiles, with aims to catch both Russia and China up. Cutting funding to railguns implies that the Navy experienced flaws in the novel weapon, not just in implementing it on battlefields, but also due to its relatively short range, compared to hypersonic missiles.

On the other hand, this makes additional funding available for hypersonic missiles, in addition to electronic warfare systems and lasers, said Lt. Courtney Callaghan of the Navy, to AP News. All data gathered from railgun testing and research thus far will be retained, just in case the Office of Naval Research decides to resume development at a future time. The military branch spent roughly $500 million on research and development of the technology, said a Hudson Institute Analyst named Bryan Clark, in the report.

Great weapons often don't come to immediate fruition

If the railgun had come to fruition, it could have become a potent weapon only a small percentage of the cost of more conventional weapons, like bombs and normal missiles. Since railguns use electricity, instead of rocket or jet engines, or even gunpowder, they accelerate a projectile with electricity to six or seven times the speed of sound. At those kinds of velocities, objects are imbued with enough kinetic energy to annihilate targets.

However, this idea faced several shortcomings from early on. Projectiles had a limited range of roughly 110 miles (177 km), which means a Navy vessel would have to move deep into dangerous zones of engagement to fire on targets. At this range, enemy missiles could easily destroy the ship before it could retreat, or even fire again — since the railgun also had a limited rate of fire, added Clark in the report.

While the railgun sounds like a concept from a high-octane 1980s sci-fi action flick, it actually comes from the 1940s. But, understandably, its necessary components, like conductors, or parallel rails, have to withstand unconscionable levels of electric current and magnetic forces, which can incur irreparable damage to the device after a handful of shots, according to Norman Friedman, who also spoke to AP News. Conventional guns can fire roughly 600 rounds before the barrel needs some refurbishing, but the railgun prototype's barrel needs replacement after just one or two dozen fires.

However, some of the first-ever cannons (which were gigantic) used when Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman empire besieged the walls of Constantinople in the year 1453 also fell apart after only a handful of shots. It wasn't until many centuries later that modern cannons came into common use in militaries worldwide. And this required, among other things, the enlightenment and implementation of modern calculus, and with it, empirical science. All to say that while the U.S. Navy may not have the time, money, or tools to make a railgun work today, it could make a comeback, perhaps even this century.

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