Navy's Railgun Now Undergoing Tests In New Mexico, Could Deploy On Ship In Northwest

After some claimed it was all but abandoned, the Navy's railgun program appears to be making significant progress.

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The U.S. Navy has quietly moved its experimental electromagnetic railgun to the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and has been conducting new live-fire tests of the potentially game-changing weapon. This comes amid reports that the service could be finally getting close to mounting this railgun, or a derivative thereof, on a ship for at-sea testing in the Pacific Northwest.

On May 31, 2019, the Navy quietly revealed that it had sent from railgun from its original test site at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWC Dahlgren) in Virginia to White Sands, also known as WSMR. A detachment from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC Port Hueneme) in California is now overseeing the testing in New Mexico. 

"The installation of the railgun began earlier this year and required a large effort for the mount, gun, power controls, displays, and functional ties into the range," Site Manager John Winstead said in an official statement. "The object of the test was essentially a shakedown of the newly-installed mount with accompanying power containers, controls, and a fully functional execution team."

At least one live-fire test occurred on May 15, 2019, according to the Navy. This involved the firing four rounds for diagnostic and verification purposes.

The video below shows an earlier live-fire test of the Navy's experimental railgun at a test site in Virginia in 2016.

"Initial estimated test dates were reduced from three to two days due to the success of the firings," an official news item explained. "The tests were very successful and alleviated the need to have further installation and check-out testing required for verification," Winstead added.

There were no additional details on any other part of the upcoming test schedule at White Sands. This appears to be the first official mention of the program, outside of statements to the press, in more than two years. In 2017, by all accounts, Chief of Naval Operations U.S. Navy Admiral John Richardson instituted a gag order on virtually any public discussion of substantive details about the railgun program by Navy officials or representatives from BAE Systems, which is the prime contractor. At the Navy League's annual Sea Air Space conference in April 2019, a BAE representative told The War Zone, for the second year running, that they could not comment on the status of the program and the Office of Naval Research, which manages the program has not responded to our requests for a status update.

Since 2017, there have then been various reports that the railgun project, which the Navy has been working on since 2005 and that The War Zone has been following closely, might be in danger of cancellation, despite relatively stable funding requests in the service's annual budget proposals. In its latest budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year, the Navy re-created a budget line specifically for the electromagnetic railgun program, or EMRG, and requested another $7.6 million to continue the research and development. This was an increase over the request from the previous fiscal year.

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There are indications that the movement of the land-based experimental railgun to White Sands could be a lead up to at-sea testing, either of this particular weapon or a derivative thereof. In 2016, the Navy pushed back plans to put the railgun on a ship at least until 2019. 

In March 2019, the Navy released a draft of an updated environmental impact assessment for training and testing activities on the Pacific Northwest. The report included sections outlining potential impacts from future tests of the railgun at sea and noted that these were entirely new additions. One particularly notable portion of the review reads as follows:

The kinetic energy weapon (commonly referred to as the rail gun) will be tested aboard surface vessels, firing explosive and non-explosive projectiles at air-or sea-based targets. The system uses stored electrical energy to accelerate the projectiles, which are fired at supersonic speeds over great distances. The system charges for two minutes and fires in less than one second; therefore, the release of any electromagnetic energy would occur over a very short period. Also, the system is shielded so as not to affect shipboard controls and systems. The amount of electromagnetic energy released from this system is low and contained on the surface vessel. Therefore, this device is not expected to result in any electromagnetic impacts and will not be further analyzed for biological resources in this document.

The Navy had previously considered using the expeditionary fast transport USNS Millinocket as a test platform, but there is no information about what ship or ships the service might be considering using for at-sea railgun tests now. In May 2019, the Navy did stand up Surface Developmental Squadron One (SURFDEVRON 1), which The War Zone has covered in detail here and here, to test and evaluate new surface warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as associated technologies, such as advanced weapons. 

This unit will eventually include, among other ships, the three Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers, which the Navy has long eyed as potential platforms for the railgun. The electromagnetic weapons would offer one possible replacement for the Zumwalt's failed 155mm Advanced Gun System (AGS), which effectively became dead weight after the Navy decided not to buy any of the exorbitantly expensive Long-Range Land Attack Projectiles (LRLAP) for the guns to shoot. 

Regardless of what ship serves as the first test platform, an at-sea test would be a major step forward in the program. If the Navy can prove that the technology is practical and cost-effective, it could be a revolutionary development for naval warfare. 

The existing prototype weapon can fire solid spike-like kinetic projectiles, also known as Hyper-Velocity Projectiles (HVP), which destroy their targets by smashing into them rather than with an explosive warhead, at speeds up to Mach 6. The HVP program has now taken on a life of its own, separate from the railgun development, as a multi-purpose high-velocity ammunition type, which could include versions with high-explosive warheads, for conventional five-inch naval guns and land-based 155mm howitzers, too.

Joseph Trevithick

The HVP will use different sized sabots to keep it stable in the barrels of the railgun, five-inch guns, and 155mm howitzers, but the general dimensions of the projectile will remain the same regardless of the weapon firing it.

The Navy's has long had a stated goal of developing a final weapon design with a range of more than 100 miles. The service believes that railgun's hypervelocity projectiles and ability to hit targets, even fast moving ones, at extended ranges, could make it capable of performing air and missile defense roles, destroying ships at sea, and engaging targets on land. You can read more about the railguns potential capabilities here.

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A graphic showing a number of potential missions for the railgun.

That we are starting to hear more about the railgun again and that the program appears to be making steady progress toward an at-sea test is not necessarily surprising. In January 2018, images began to publicly emerge of an experimental Chinese naval railgun mounted on a modified amphibious landing ship. There have been reports since then that the U.S. Intelligence Community is of the view that China's rapidly growing People's Liberation Army Navy could have railgun-armed ships in its arsenal by 2025.

China's development of other advanced weapon systems, as well as similar work going on in Russia, has been a major driver of other aggressive development programs across the U.S. military, including air-, ground-, and sea-launched hypersonic missiles and new air-to-air missiles. It would make sense that Chinese advances in railgun technology would prompt the Navy to step up its own efforts. Chief of Naval Operations Richardson's decision to curtail public discussion about the railgun program was also part of a larger effort that was aimed, in particular, at making it more difficult for Chinese spies to gain any insight into Navy activities or steal sensitive information.

"We've learned a lot and the engineering of building something like that that can handle that much electromagnetic energy and not just explode is challenging," Richardson said at a gathering at the Atlantic Council think tank in February 2019, when he would have been aware of plans to move the railgun to White Sands and a possible new schedule for at-sea testing. "So we're going to continue after this, right? We're going to install this thing. We're going to continue to develop it, test it. It's too great a weapon system, so it's going somewhere, hopefully."

"We just need to get the clock sped up with respect to the railgun," he added, having noted that the program had been going on for nearly 15 years. "I would say that railgun is kind of the case study that would say 'This is how innovation maybe shouldn't happen.'"

But with the railgun now engaged in a new set of tests at White Sands and renewed talk of at-sea tests in the future, it certainly seems that the program is finally "going somewhere" after more than a decade of development.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com