The US Navy has so far disconnected a futuristic weapon that shoots projectiles at up to seven times the speed of sound using electricity.
The Navy has spent over a decade developing the electromagnetic rail gun and has already considered installing them on the new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers being built at Bath Iron Works in Maine.
But the Defense Department is turning its attention to hypersonic missiles to keep up with China and Russia, and the Navy has cut funding for gun research in its latest budget proposal.
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“The railgun is, for the moment, dead,” said Matthew Caris, defense analyst at Avascent Group, a consultancy firm.
The cut in funding suggests the Navy saw both challenges in implementing the technology as well as gaps in the range of projectiles compared to hypersonic missiles, he said.
The Navy’s decision to halt research at the end of the year frees up resources for hypersonic missiles, directed energy systems like lasers and electronic warfare systems, said Lt. Courtney Callaghan, spokesperson for Marine.
Information gleaned from testing will be kept in case the Office of Naval Research wishes to pick up where it left off in the future, she said.
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In total, the Navy spent about $ 500 million on research and development, according to Bryan Clark, an analyst at the Hudson Institute.
The technology was about to go from science fiction to reality in the 21st century with prototype testing.
The concept offered the possibility of providing an effective weapon at pennies compared to smart bombs and missiles.
This is because rail guns use electricity instead of gunpowder, or jet or rocket engines, to accelerate a projectile to six or seven times the speed of sound. This creates enough kinetic energy to destroy the targets.
But there were a number of issues, including the range of around 110 miles during testing. A Navy vessel could not fire the cannon without coming 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.
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The idea dates back to the 1940s. But there have always been major obstacles because parallel rails, or conductors, are subjected to massive electric current and magnetic forces that can cause damage after a few shots, the defense analyst Norman Friedman.
A big question was always whether the weapon could stay together during continuous fire, Friedman said.
A normal weapon can be fired about 600 times before the barrel needed to be refurbished, but the railgun prototype barrel had to be replaced after a dozen or two dozen rounds were fired, Clark said.
A few years ago, the Navy was talking about putting the gun on the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, the last of the three stealth destroyers. It is almost complete and the builders’ tests at Bath Iron Works.
The 600-foot-long warship uses marine turbines similar to those that power the Boeing 777 to help generate up to 78 megawatts of electricity for use in propulsion, weapons, and sensors.
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That’s more than enough electricity for the railgun, and the ship has space after canceling the advanced cannon system, leaving the ship without a conventional cannon-based weapon.
Instead, the Navy is pursuing an offshoot of the Rail Gun, a hypervelocity projectile, which can be fired from existing gun systems.