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.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

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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