The Office of Naval Research, ONR, began testing the latest prototype of the US Navy railgun last week. Developed by BAE Systems and General Atomics, the Electromagnetic, or EM railgun propels a projectile weighing some 40-50 pounds between two rails at speeds between 4,500 to 5,600 MPH. Program Manager Roger Ellis said ″This is the next step toward a future tactical system that will be placed on board a ship some day”, according to Grace Jean from the Office of Naval Research Public Affairs. Unlike current artillery guns, which have a range of about 25-30 miles, unless assisted by a rocket stage, the railgun can fire shells between 50 to 100 miles, and the Navy intends to develop a ship-mounted system with a range of 220 miles by the year 2020. Aside from the extended range, the railgun also has an advantage over conventional artillery in that the new weapon will have a longer barrel life.
In December 2010, test firings of a 33-megajoule railgun took place at the Navy Research Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia. The latest version is also being tested there now. According to Ellis, one megajoule is the equivalent energy of a one-ton automobile traveling at a speed of 100 MPH. A new contract for $10 Million dollars has been awarded to Raytheon, BAE Systems and General Atomics to develop a high-speed pulse generator which will give the new EM railgun a rate of fire of between 6 to 10 rounds per minute.
The new US Navy railgun that began testing last week is the biggest major leap forward in surface warfare since the introduction of guided missiles. A typical rifled artillery gun fires its projectiles at speeds of about Mach 2.5, or about 1,900 MPH. At these speeds, the barrel life can be short, requiring considerable maintenance. But the EM railgun is more robust with less wear due to the projectile being surrounded by a powerful electromagnetic field, never actually touching the two rails which guide the shell. So Program Manager Roger Ellis of the Office of Naval Research is a happy man given the success in these tests. As are BAE Systems and General Atomics, whom designed and built the railgun.