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In development by General Atomics and BAE Systems since 2005, the Navy’s kinetic energy weapon, or railgun, has had an up and down history. The potential of an electromagnetic weapon capable of firing ten 45-pound metal slugs/minute at speeds of 4,500 mph in melting targets up to 100 miles away has led to government funding in excess of $500 million.
However, a couple of key compatibility issues placed the weapon’s future in doubt. In order to generate its incredible range and velocity, the railgun uses an exorbitant amount of energy. This makes firing it from land difficult, but possible. Operating it from a ship, as originally schemed, has proven extremely challenging.
The Navy also faces some mounting issues. The railgun’s size, complexity, and munitions don’t play well with the ship decks for which it was intended. Coupling these issues with the half-billion dollars already spent led the Department of Defense to prioritize other weapons systems.
However, recently unveiled Navy documents point to scheduled testing of the railgun on a surface warship, firing explosive and non-explosive rounds at air- and sea-based targets. Although timing has yet to be announced, it’s the first attempt at a marine testing environment since 2016. At that time, it was rumored that the Spearhead-class USNS Trenton would be outfitted with a railgun for such tests. Unfortunately, they never took place.
In recent years, land-based testing from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia has produced some incredible footage and raised theories that the railgun could be transitioned from a ship-based weapon system supporting land troops from the water to a land-based missile defense system.
Performing the tests on a ship will not only answer key questions regarding power generation and compatibility but could define the system’s future applications. Timing, location, and the ship carrying the railgun for testing have not been confirmed.