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article imageOp-Ed: US Navy super rail gun — Redefining future fire power

By Paul Wallis     May 29, 2016 in Technology
Washington - There’s been a lot of hype behind the public unveiling of the U.S. Navy’s rail gun, which has ironically missed a lot of major subjects and strong positives. This is a fundamentally flexible system with multiple ramifications for future wars.
A rail gun is an electromagnetically powered weapon, using electric charges to propel projectiles rather than fuels or explosives like bullets or missiles. The first rail gun power system was developed in Australia in 1962, and later used for “Star Wars” rail gun development.
The U.S. Navy rail gun story is pretty good media fodder — high power, 125-mile range, 4500mph velocity, 32-foot (10 metre) barrel, lightweight aluminum projectile with tungsten pellets, anti-ship, anti-missile, anti-aircraft capabilities and a 30 second fire rate in combat.
Just check out that velocity/range equation. That’s 75 miles a minute. The rail gun is also said to have more hitting power than battleship guns of WW2, which could flip over a 60-ton Tiger tank just with their blast. In combat, these guns are likely to be devastating.
Meanwhile, Raytheon have developed rail gun power packs, charges for rail guns. The power packs free up the systems from one of their major criticisms, the demand for massive power from electrical power generators. The power packs also mean that the guns are far more deployable, and less “big system dependent” than other systems like airborne lasers and other high-maintenance systems. (Don’t be too surprised if the Raytheon power packs are soon being used for these systems, too.)
The overall verdict is:
1. The rail guns do work and can deliver on their promises.
2. The guns are immediately deployable in the new Zumwalt-class destroyers and more advanced USN platforms like carriers. Other platforms may require extensive modifications.
3. They can be used against major potential enemy systems like Russian cruise missiles and Chinese ballistic missiles.
4. The projectiles can rip through steel and just about any other target. (Tungsten balls are harder and heavier than most other projectiles, and their nearest competitors are depleted uranium rounds. At that velocity, not much would be able to stop them.)
5. The economics of these systems include 1000 rounds of rail gun projectiles vs about 90 conventional naval rounds.
6. Better fuel/propellant costs – The bottom line here is that the cost of EM power is likely to be notably less, and carry less logistic baggage than conventional weapons.
The criticisms, in theory
So far so good. The real issue, however, in terms of combat deployment, is a rather un-evolved looking vision of the uses of this system and its future developments.
The current thinking is that this system is a tactical/semi-strategic system, able to deal with combat problems against enemy weapons systems in zones like Western Europe and Asia. That’s a little bit wide of the mark.
These rail guns can definitely give a major edge for the USN in combat. Counter measures are likely to need to be developed, if possible, rather than try to adapt those currently present in the navies of other nations. A single hit from a single rail gun projectile could easily destroy or incapacitate an enemy warship. That’s real “cheap kill,” best practice in military theory and economics.
That said — can a modern military force be dependent on a single system, even a very good one? Not really. One of the reasons the US Army, for example, puts a strong emphasis on organic firepower is that relying on air power, even the extremely strong USAF, isn’t necessarily the best option in real combat. Adding more work to air support doesn’t always stack up against the USAF maintaining the critical air superiority role, either. The Marines, as an independent force, typically prefer to have their own options, as well as naval support.
The likely reality for deployment of these rail guns at the moment is as part of a massive, overpowering strike. In combination with air, missiles, drones, and other systems, they’d be a very powerful, and very effective, addition. 1,000 rounds at even a 50 percent hit rate means a single ship can do incredible damage to large numbers of targets and major opposing systems.
Criticisms of rail guns are more based on combat issues these days, rather than arguing about the technology:
1. On their own, however, or scattered around the world in various deployments, the rail guns’ functionality is likely to be limited at least at first. Most military people are very conscious of dependency on a limited combat capacity. You can’t fight cockroaches with a cannon. You need more options than one system, even a good one. Can you depend on rail guns as a fix-all/do-all in real combat? Have the rail guns developed a fix for the high heat signatures that EM systems can generate so that they don’t stand out for enemy targeting systems?
2. All military historians are also very much inclined to point out that a typical problem with new systems is the bad habit of deploying them at first in the wrong places, and in the wrong tactical context. The first tanks, for example, were sprinkled and deployed in small numbers over muddy WW1 battlefields in 1916, in one of the worst defeats in military history. Most broke down; people didn’t know how to cooperate with them, and while a few were very successful in local combat, overall, they didn’t achieve what they were supposed to achieve. Other systems, notably the V1 and V2 rockets, involved massive expenditure on systems which were deployed ineffectively and didn’t really influence the course of the war.
The future
The current generation of rail guns, in fact, are the first real operational systems designed for real combat. They’ve got a long way to go. They are, however, clearly overcoming a lot of the serious logistic and practical obstacles to their deployment.
The future might look like this:
1. Multi round sawn-off rail guns on mobile platforms on the ground and in the air using power packs. This would add a lot of mobile firepower, and with existing multiple targeting systems and platforms, it’s not at all out of the question that these systems could be developed quickly.
2. Minigun versions — high rate of fire, small projectiles with high grunt velocity. Think “rail gun machine gun”. Small, tactically effective systems could deliver excellent combat results.
3. Hardening targets as defensive weapons — the range of these weapons means that they could make weapon delivery extremely difficult for any opponent. (This is an upgrade to the current argument — adding more operational flexibility and smaller, easily deployed systems could make that option very much more effective at a relatively low cost.)
4. Different projectiles — the rail guns, in theory, can fire anything they can fit in to the projectile. High shock weapons, concussion, high blast, flechettes, you name it; anything might work. The real issue is what’s combat-effective and what isn’t. These weapons could credibly be used in modern “complex warfare” against hard targets and save a lot of time, lives and money.
As usual, the future is writing itself while the technology is in development. A thought, though — the more options which are explored, the better the likely logic for further development. The new “Arsenal of Democracy” might just do the job.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Us navy, Rail gun, Zumwalt class destroyers, tactical rail guns, strategic rail guns
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