After more than 15 years of R&D, and half a billion dollars of funding, the United States Navy has decided to give up on the prospect of mounting enormous railguns on its ships. For the moment, at least.
The project was intended to produce a mighty weapon which could fire projectiles at Mach 7 at targets over 100 miles (161km) away, using electromagnets rather than chemical reactions to propel them. But fresh from deliberately creating a 3.9-magnitude earthquake 100 miles (161km) off the coast of Florida to rattle the windows on its latest aircraft carrier, the Navy has decided it can no longer spare the money for continued research.
"Given fiscal constraints, combat system integration challenges and the prospective technology maturation of other weapon concepts, the Navy decided to pause research and development of the Electromagnetic Railgun [EMRG] at the end of 2021," it said.
Despite producing a weapon that undoubtedly worked to some extent, the programme had been plagued with technological and practical difficulties (see video below).
While formidable, the weapon never managed to reach its promised range and its prodigious power requirements meant that at the time the programme was suspended, of its current fleet only the US Navy's three weird-looking Zumwelt-class stealthy destroyers generated enough electricity to power the EMRG.
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The project had also faced declining funding and cancellation of the Gun-Launched Guided Projectile steerable ammunition which was being specially built for it. Its capabilities also unhelpfully fell somewhere between advanced ammunition for conventional weapons and those of a number of new, longer-ranged hypersonic missiles currently in development.
A report from Popular Science also noted that "developmental challenges included the stalled development of a universal common mount," meaning that despite its lengthy and expensive gestation, the Navy had not even got so far as creating a way of fitting the weapon to a ship yet.
Ultimately, despite its promise, the US Navy has seemingly lost patience and dumped the EMRG into the "valley of death", the gap between development and actual use that can befall promising technology which faces major practical challenges, funding problems or research issues. Or, as in this case, all three.
The cancellation of the EMRG does not mean that naval railguns are impossible, however. China has already conducted sea trials with a shipboard railgun mounted on a Type 072III-class landing ship as far back as 2018, a fact which had been spurring US railgun development along. Now it seems the US Navy, at least, is content to counter the prospect of a Chinese naval supergun with other projects and capabilities currently in development.
For those who continue to yearn for huge seaborne electromagnetically propelled projectiles – and let's face it, who doesn't? – there is still the prospect of the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System fitted to the USN's new Gerald R Ford-class aircraft carriers. These use linear motors for cheerfully slinging both naval aircraft into the air and unsuspecting trucks into the water at high velocity. ®