The US Navy is shelving its dream of a powerful electromagnetic railgun to develop hypersonic missiles and other weapons

hypersonic projectile railgun
  • The US Navy is putting its dreams of an electromagnetic railgun on hold to pursue other weapons.
  • A Navy spokesperson told the AP that pausing railgun research frees up funds for hypersonic weapons.
  • The Navy has been working on a railgun since 2005, but now the Navy appears to be calling it quits.
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The US Navy has decided to shelve the research and development of an electromagnetic railgun to build other weapons, such as hypersonic missiles and lasers, the Associated Press reported, citing a Navy spokesperson.

The Navy has been working on a railgun, a cannon that uses electricity rather than gunpowder to fire high-speed rounds out to distances beyond current naval guns, since 2005 and has invested over $500 million in the project, but the service’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget cut all funding for the railgun, The Drive first reported in June.

The Navy move “to pause the [electromagnetic railgun] program is consistent with department-wide reform initiatives to free up resources in support of other Navy priorities, to include improving offensive and defensive capabilities such as directed energy, hypersonic missiles, and electronic warfare systems,” Lt. Courtney Callaghan said in a statement, adding that research would be preserved should the Navy decide to restart the program.

Her comment is in line with the Navy’s latest budget request, which notes that “railgun technology and knowledge attained will be documented and preserved” and “railgun hardware will be realigned to maximize its sustainability to facilitate potential future use.”

Avascent Group defense analyst Matthew Caris told the AP that “the railgun is, for the moment, dead.”

Unlike traditional guns, the railgun propels projectiles forward using an armature between two rails that can be accelerated forward using a magnetic field generated by strong electrical currents pulled from a surface ship’s electrical supply.

A high-velocity projectile leaves the gun at speeds up to seven times the speed of sound. The kinetic energy is theoretically enough to inflict serious damage on a surface ship without the explosives.

Defense companies BAE Systems and General Atomics both built electromagnetic railgun prototypes for the Navy, and the service has conducted live-fire testing during the development process.

As the US worked to develop a railgun, China also expressed interest in this advanced combat technology. In 2018, images appeared online of what appeared to be a Chinese tank landing ship equipped with a railgun. The next year, Chinese state media reported that Chinese warships would “soon” have railguns.

Not much has come out on the project since then, and it is unclear if this is still an area of interest for China.

For the US Navy, there has long been some expectation that if the service developed a working railgun, it would use it to arm its Zumwalt-class destroyers, which have been in need of new weaponry.

Instead, the US Navy intends to arm these warships with hypersonic missiles, specifically the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon currently in development.

Commenting on US Navy investments in the development of railgun technology, former Navy officer and defense expert Bryan Clark previously told Insider that “you are better off spending that money on missiles and vertical launch system cells than you are on a railgun.”

The railgun, even with its range of more than 100 miles, lacks that many missiles. The rounds are more powerful than those of standard deck guns, but they are less powerful than a missile. And the gun has usage limitations, is high maintenance, and would likely put a strain on the ship.

“It’s not useful military technology,” Clark told Insider.

US Navy leadership has said that the service plans to field hypersonic missiles aboard a Zumwalt-class destroyer by 2025, at which point it will move to arm its Virginia-class submarines. The Navy expects each Zumwalt destroyer to carry up to 12 hypersonic missiles.

Hypersonic weapons can fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, but it is their maneuverability, unpredictability, and unusual flight path that makes them particularly dangerous. Existing air- and missile-defense systems are not well suited to countering this type of threat.

Because these weapons are difficult to defeat, hypersonic missiles have become a key area of strategic competition between the US and its rivals China and Russia.

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Stealth Zumwalt destroyers will be first US Navy warships armed with hypersonic missiles, top admiral says

Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) participates in U.S. Pacific Fleet's Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21, April 21
Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Monsoor during US Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem 21, April 21

  • The first Navy warships to carry hypersonic missiles will be the Zumwalt destroyers.
  • Initial expectations were the weapon’s deployment would start with Virginia-class submarines.
  • The Navy is expected to start fielding it aboard its vessels in 2025, the Navy’s top officer says.
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The first US Navy warfighting vessels to be armed with hypersonic missiles will be the stealth Zumwalt-class destroyers, the service’s top admiral said, according to USNI News.

Although the Navy was expected to field hypersonic weaponry on its cruise-missile submarines first, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said at a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments event Tuesday that the service intends to start with the Zumwalts.

“Our biggest [research and development] effort is in hypersonics – to deliver that capability in 2025 on a surface ship and then on Block V [Virginia-class] submarines,” Gilday said, adding that fielding hypersonic weaponry aboard the Zumwalt-class destroyers will be an “important move” toward turning these ships into strike platforms.

The Zumwalt-class destroyers were designed to fight in littoral waters, carrying out land-attack and naval-fire support missions. Their primary weapon was to be the Advanced Gun System, consisting of a pair of 155 mm guns.

But a reduction in the size of the class from a few dozen ships to just three caused the cost of the Long-Range Land Attack Projectile to jump to almost $1 million a round, forcing the Navy to reevaluate its armaments and missions.

The Navy’s three Zumwalt-class destroyers – the USS Zumwalt, USS Michael Monsoor, and the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson – are expected to be blue-water surface-warfare and naval-strike platforms instead.

The hypersonic missile that the Navy is currently developing is the Conventional Prompt Strike weapon, which uses the Common Hypersonic Glide Body that the Army and Navy are working together to develop.

The military successfully flight tested the glide body in March 2020.

A common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, at approximately 10:30 p.m. local time, March 19, 2020, during a Department of Defense flight experiment.
A common hypersonic glide body launches during a Department of Defense flight experiment at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii March 19, 2020.

A hypersonic glide body is the part of a hypersonic weapon that carries the warhead. Launched using a conventional rocket booster, the glide body will eventually separate from the rocket and continues on to the target.

After separation, the glide body is no longer able to accelerate, but it retains the ability to maneuver.

While hypersonic weapons have the ability to fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, it is their maneuverability that makes them particularly dangerous. Modern air- and missile-defense systems are not designed to counter this type of threat.

Because these weapons are difficult to defeat, hypersonic missiles have become a key area of strategic competition between the US and rivals China and Russia.

Before the Navy can arm its Zumwalt-class destroyers with these weapons, it needs to not only finish developing the weapon but also figure out how to integrate them onto the destroyers, which don’t currently vertical-launch-system cells large enough for them.

The Navy sent out a solicitation in mid-March asking industry partners for solutions on how the Zumwalts could be reconfigured to carry the larger hypersonic missiles. The sources-sought notice is looking at an advanced payload module capable of carrying hypersonic missiles in a “three-pack configuration.”

Speaking Tuesday, Gilday also expressed interest in using the substantial power-generation capabilities of the Zumwalt-class destroyers to support directed-energy weaponry for defense against emerging threats.

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Biden is trying to derail China’s effort to build the world’s fastest supercomputer needed for unstoppable missiles

China hypersonic missiles
Military vehicles carry DF-17 missiles, a weapon armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle, during an October 1, 2019 military parade in Beijing.

  • The US added seven China supercomputer entities to its economic blacklist.
  • China is using supercomputers to speed up the development of hypersonic (unstoppable) missiles.
  • The US is in a global arms race with China and Russia to build the most advanced hypersonic missile.
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The Biden administration is taking steps to undermine China’s effort to build the world’s fastest supercomputer necessary for the development of advanced weapons – including nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles.

Seven Chinese firms and government labs were placed under export controls by the Biden administration on Thursday due to their ties to China’s supercomputer development in relation to national security concerns. This means they will not be able to use technology that originated in the US without a Commerce Department license.

“These are parties that are acting in ways that are contrary to our national security interests,” a senior Commerce Department official told the Washington Post. “This is really about not having US items contribute to China’s advancement of its military capabilities.”

The firms and labs impacted include: Tianjin Phytium Information Technology (also known as Phytium), Shanghai High-Performance Integrated Circuit Design Center, Sunway Microelectronics, the National Supercomputing Center Jinan, the National Supercomputing Center Shenzhen, the National Supercomputing Center Wuxi, and the National Supercomputing Center Zhengzhou.

The supercomputer at China’s largest aerodynamics research complex, where hypersonics weapons research is underway, has used Phytium microprocessors, according to the Post. Phytium works with American software design companies, the Post said, and it will now have to get a license that’s difficult to obtain in order to keep doing business with the Chinese firm.

The US is in a global arms race with China and Russia to build hypersonic missiles, which are capable of traveling at least five times the speed of sound and designed to be virtually unstoppable. Hypersonic missiles are made to be both extraodinarily fast and maneuverable in order to evade all existing missile defense systems. Supercomputers able of rapidly performing complex calculations aid in the development of such advanced weapons.

China wants to build the first exascale computer, capable of a million trillion calculations per second, which would give it a major advantage in the race to build the most advanced hypersonic missile.

“Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many – perhaps almost all – modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement regarding the Biden administration’s economic blacklisting of the seven Chinese supercomputer entitites.

“The Department of Commerce will use the full extent of its authorities to prevent China from leveraging US technologies to support these destabilizing military modernization efforts,” Raimondo added.

President Joe Biden has made competing with China a top foreign policy priority, which has included an emphasis on investing in research and development to counter the China’s advancements in technology and infrastructure. During a speech on his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal on Thusday, Biden warned that China is “racing ahead” of the US.

“Do you think China is waiting around to invest in its digital infrastructure or research and development? I promise you, they are not waiting,” Biden said. “But they are counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited, and too divided to keep up the pace.”

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Russia is planning to test-fire a salvo of new hypersonic missiles from a warship for the first time this year, state media says

Putin Missile
Russian President Vladimir Putin

  • Russia is planning to test-fire a salvo of new Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic cruise missiles from a warship before the end of the year, Russian state-run RIA Novosti reported Monday.
  • Russia conducted the first test-fire of a Zircon missile aboard a warship in October. That test was followed by two more tests in November and December.
  • The missile, which was first announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019, has hit speeds of Mach 8 and struck targets as far away as 280 miles in testing, according to Russian media reports citing the defense ministry.
  • In each of the previous three test, only one missile was fired. A salvo launch would simulate a large-scale missile strike more like what might be seen in real-world combat.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Russia plans to test-fire a salvo of new hypersonic cruise missiles from a warship before the end of the year, Russian state media reports.

The Admiral Gorshkov, the lead ship of the newer Project 22350 frigates, is expected to fire off multiple Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic cruise missiles in rapid succession in a salvo test by the end of 2021, a source in the military-industrial complex told state-run RIA Novosti.

The test is reportedly intended to simulate a real-world large missile strike against sea- and ground-based targets, so the ship and its weapons will face various countermeasures during testing.

A Russian navy warship test-fired the Zircon hypersonic missile for the first time on Oct. 7. The new weapon was launched from aboard the Admiral Gorshkov. Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported that the missile flew at speeds of Mach 8 before successfully striking a target 280 miles away.

The Russian Ministry of Defense released the following video of that first test:

Two more tests, both involving the Northern Fleet’s Admiral Gorshkov, were conducted in late November and early December. During the former test, a Zircon missile was fired at a naval target 280 miles away, and during the latter, the missile struck a land-based target roughly 215 miles away.

In each of the three tests, only one missile was fired, RIA Novosti reported Monday.

“The work on the Tsirkon system and the stage of carrying out a successful test of this missile is a major event not only for the Armed Forces but for entire Russia,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said after the test in October.

Putin added that “equipping our Armed Forces – the army and the fleet – with advanced weapons systems, which indeed have no rivals in the world, certainly ensure our state’s defense capacity for many years to come.”

Putin first unveiled the Tsirkon missile during a threatening state-of-the-nation address in February 2019, when he claimed the weapon could reach speeds of Mach 9 and strike targets 620 miles away.

The missile is expected to be adopted by both surface ships and submarines once testing is completed. RIA Novosti reports that serial deliveries to the Russian navy could begin next year.

The development of hypersonic weaponry is a key area of competition for Russia, the US, and China because there is currently no adequate defense against these weapons.

Despite what the name implies, hypersonic missiles are not a serious threat solely because of their speed. They are dangerous because they can maneuver and fly along unpredictable flight paths, giving them the ability to skirt traditional missile defenses not designed to counter this type of threat.

The US Navy, working in collaboration with other service branches, is developing its own hypersonic missile for surface ships and submarines that is expected to come online in the next few years.

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