The rail gun technology, while yet to be fielded despite decades of research and work, offers a tantalizing prospect — cheap, hypersonic projectiles that travel farther and faster than existing artillery and missile systems.
General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems announced in March that it had been awarded a contract from the Army to evaluate and mature the rail gun tech to support the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Command, according to a company release.
The company has been at work on a Navy rail gun for ships for decades.
The potential Army system would give commanders a cost-effective way to knock down “aircraft, rocket and cruise missile raids as well as other threats,” according to the release.
“Using hypersonic projectiles, a rail gun provides the soldier with shorter time to target, achieves effectiveness at longer range, and provides a lower cost per engagement than conventional interceptors,” said Mike Rucker, director of Programs for Missile Defense Systems.
The Army has put increased fires lethality among its top priorities for modernizing the force.
A 2017 Pentagon report documented heavy investment by Iran, Russia, North Korea, China and others in ballistic and cruise missile programs with long range capabilities.
That’s hit everything from better mortars, light and heavy artillery to missile defense systems, and a push into hypersonic projectile research.
Hypersonic is defined as traveling at Mach 5, which is 3,800 miles per hour.
Rail gun systems can achieve hypersonic speeds by using electromagnetic energy to create a field between two rails that then fires the projectile between the rails.
According to an Army release:
“Rail guns use two parallel metallic rails with a sliding armature between them that holds the projectile. When a large electromagnetic pulse is introduced to the rails, a powerful magnetic field is created that propels the armature and projectile along the rails at hypervelocity. Velocity depends upon the power of the pulse.
Railgun projectiles are non-explosive and safer to manufacture, transport and store. Velocity is adjustable shot to shot, conserving power. Projectiles are guided to the target after leaving the launcher, and reach a target faster. At 100 yards, rail guns sound no louder than a .30-06 rifle firing. What little ‘smoke’ they create is actually plasma particulates or dust.“
Recent testing showed speeds of up to two kilometers per second, or nearly twice the speed of current conventional artillery, according to the release.
Army facilities such as Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, have been used to test the Navy rail gun since as early as 2008, according to an Army release.
And the United States is not alone in its research and identified needs for this type of weapon.
Online images that surfaced in February show what appears to be a Chinese ship-mounted rail gun, according to Army Times’ sister publication Defense News.
If accurate, that would be the first known instance of a nation mounting a rail gun to a ship and taking it to sea, Defense News reported.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.