The Navy's futuristic electromagnetic railgun is set to take a major developmental step forward this summer as developers work to increase the number of shots it can fire per minute and the power behind the system.
The railgun has been a pet project for the Navy for more than a decade since early testing of a prototype for a shipboard system began in 2006. The gun uses electromagnetic force to launch projectiles at high speeds, allowing the system to function without the powder mechanism conventional shipboard guns.
In theory, a railgun would be safer and potentially cheaper to fire than traditional weapons. Navy plans have called for installing the railgun on the Navy's three DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, but it's not clear when that will happen.
For now, officials with the Office of Naval Research are working to build the program up to its target capability envelope.
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This summer and into next year, work will focus on increasing the power with which projectiles are fired to the target of 32 megajoules, and increasing what's known as the rep rate to 10 shots per minute, or one every six seconds, said Dr. Tom Beutner, head of Naval Air Warfare and Weapons for ONR.
At 32 megajoules, the gun will have a range of about 110 nautical miles, Beutner told reporters at ONR's Science and Technology Expo in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Engineers will bring a new composite launcher designed to support the increased power and rep rate to Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, Virginia's Terminal Range, where railgun prototypes are already being fired using a demonstration barrel.
"We expect that both ... milestones will be achieved over the next year," Beutner said of the planned rep rate and power increases.
The system still has crucial issues that need to be resolved. The system sustains significant wear-and-tear when it's fired because of the power behind the projectile, leading to worries that the gun will break down too fast. Beutner said that parts of the system are being developed for longevity.
"They've extended the launcher core life from tens of shots' core life when program started to something that's now been fired over 400 times and ... we anticipate barrels will be able to do over 1,000 shots," he said.
Another key issue is power.
The system requires massive amounts of it -- so much that only the massive Zumwalt-class ships can independently sustain the demand. Beutner noted that the challenge applied to other weapons as well: when the Navy tested its new Laser Weapons System aboard the amphibious transport ship Ponce this month, testers took their own power sources with them to simplify the challenge.
"ONR is starting to look at that ... what that future ship power system needs to be in order to power, not just railgun, but a variety of electromagnetic weapons," he said. " ... Power generation and storage approaches are all part of what we're researching as well."