"Does the number of warships we have, and are building, really put America at risk, when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined — 11 of which are our partners and allies?
Is it a dire threat that by 2020, the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?
These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today."
ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
SUPERGUNS AND THINGS. Back in the Nineties, when I had an involvement with a Livermore team (we are talking nuclear scientists here) who wanted to shoot stuff into space with a hydrogen powered supergun, our main competitor—apart from traditional rockets (which have a tendency to blow up when you least want them to—along with that satellite that took five years and $700 million to build)—was seen as being an electromagnetic railgun. However, somehow the railgun seemed to be more promise than product—and it had more than its fair share of teething problems. We said rude things about it because it was the competition. Scientists are supposed to be fact driven—and they are in many ways—but they can be as partisan on as the next person when it comes to their pet projects. That said, I was pretty sure that its day would come. It was already clear that the principles worked—so it was just a matter of working out the details. You do that by throwing money at the problem—and taking a long, long time to come up with answers. They call that development—and the golden rule is: never use your own money. After all, what else is the U.S. taxpayer for. Played right, on the back of such a development, you can put not just your children—but your grandchildren through college—and retire in comfort. Scientific development in this Great Nation—if the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex thinks there is a buck or two in it for them—is a wonderful thing.
THE RAILGUN’S DAY SEEM TO BE COMING. Well, a quarter of a century or so later, the railgun looks like appearing—courtesy of the U.S. Navy. In fact, they plan to test one on a Speahead class joint high speed vessel (JHSV) 1n 2016 for a sea trial. Military stuff only seems to become real to such types after it is given an acronym. JHSV sounds so much cooler than ‘ship,’ for instance.
KINETIC KILLING POWER. A railgun works by accelerating the projectile by way of electromagnetic force—take my word for it—and can fire shells at speeds of Mach 7.5 (5,700 mph/9,200km/h) and it has a range of 126 miles or 203 km. That means it can destroy an enemy ship way before it can get close enough to fire conventional guns at you—not that it would in this missile age—and it also means you can offer fire support to ground troops at much longer range than is possible with traditional canon. The projectile doesn’t have to contain explosives. Its kinetic energy, at such speeds, is sufficient to destroy virtually any target.
The prototype develops 32 megajoules—which I know you understand—of muzzle energy, and fires at the rate of 10 rounds per minute. Downstream, I expect they will increase that rate of fire—but 10 is a good round number to start with, and easy to remember.
SHIP-KILLING MISSILES. Could such a weapons be used against the hypersonic antiship missiles the Chinese are developing—arguably the greatest threat the U.S. Navy faces today—nuclear weapons apart? Well, the Navy haven’t whispered in my ear, but it seems likely. After all, if something is coming at you at hypersonic speed, it would seem a good idea to have something equally fast (or faster) to shoot it down with. Lasers? Possibly—but a laser has to burn through to get a kill (which takes a little time—albeit only a microsecond) whereas a kinetic kill is instant. Both it and the target just get vaporized. No wounded or corpses to bury. Environmentally friendly, you might say.
Apart from range, what makes the electromagnetic railgun particularly attractive to the Navy is that it is cheap by the standards of such a world. Rockets are wonderful things; but hideously complex and moody—and they can cost millions of dollars each, whereas a railgun—per shot—is only a few thousand. As for the cost of a railgun to buy outright—well, it’s a little pricey—but think how much money you’ll save when you start breaking things and killing people.
But what about the development cost?
We call that ‘the sunk cost’—our little joke in the Navy—and it’s bad form to talk about it.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE. Is this progress I hear you ask? Well, I guess it depends on whether you are the shooter—or the target.