A U.S. Navy superweapon could rapidly fire hundreds of projectiles to shoot down missile swarms, deliver devastating broadsides to far-off enemy warships, or bombard coastal defenses from hundreds of miles offshore. But first, the Navy must create a system capable of delivering pulsed power to its futuristic railgun weapon.
The Navy wants to transform its single-shot experimental railgun into a full-fledged military weapon capable of firing six to 10 rounds per minute in "bursts of 100s of shots," according to a new request for information to the defense industry. Such a weapon uses the power of electromagnetism rather than chemical propellants to launch projectiles at 4,500 mph to 5,600 mph across hundreds of miles.
Railguns are being researched as weapons with projectiles that do not contain explosives, but are given extremely high velocities: 3,500 m/s (11,500 ft/s, approximately Mach 10 at sea level) or more (for comparison, the M16 rifle has a muzzle speed of 930 m/s, or 3,050 ft/s), which would make their kinetic energy equal or superior to the energy yield of an explosive-filled shell of greater mass. This would allow more ammunition to be carried and eliminate the hazards of carrying explosives in a tank or naval weapons platform. Also, by firing at greater velocities railguns have greater range, less bullet drop and less wind drift, bypassing the inherent cost and physical limitations of conventional firearms.
If it were possible to apply the technology as a rapid-fire automatic weapon, a railgun would have further advantages of increased rate of fire. The feed mechanisms of a conventional firearm must move to accommodate the propellant charge as well as the ammunition round, while a railgun would only need to accommodate the projectile. Furthermore, a railgun would not have to extract a spent cartridge case from the breech, meaning that a fresh round could be cycled almost immediately after the previous round has been shot.
"The next phase of the development effort is to demonstrate the ability to operate at a firing rate of significant military utility," said Roger Ellis, program manager of Electromagnetic Railgun at the Office of Naval Research.