A high-speed camera captures the first full-energy shots from the Office of Naval Research-funded electromagnetic railgun prototype launcher that was recently installed at a test facility in Dahlgren, Va. (U.S. Navy)
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The first of two new prototype railguns is now firing bullets, moving the Navy's long-held dream of fielding an electromagnetic weapon a step closer to reality.
A 32-megajoule "prototype demonstrator" made by BAE has already been fired six times in a week, officials told reporters during a Feb. 28 teleconference.
The rounds fired by the gun are only test shots, "non-aerodynamic slugs intended to slow down quickly," said Tom Boucher, the Navy's railgun test director at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, Va. "But eventually the program intends to fire a very low-drag, high-speed projectile."
The Navy wants the railgun to be able to fire that projectile at ranges of 50 to 100 nautical miles, with an eventual range up to 220 nautical miles.
The new gun, delivered to Dahlgren on Feb. 6, will be followed in April by another prototype from General Atomics.
Unlike an earlier version of the railgun assembled and fired at Dahlgren, the new prototypes "look like a real gun," according to Roger Ellis, railgun program manager at the Office of Naval Research.
"The new guns are a significant step beyond the laboratory-style launchers, which are big, bulky, not anything you would put on a Navy ship," Ellis said.
"The new industry prototypes are a step beyond and much closer to the fit and form that we might want to put on a ship some day — lighter weight, able to train and elevate."
BAE and General Atomics are engaged in a competition to develop guns able to operate from Navy warships.
Asked about differences between the two companies' approaches to the weapon, Ellis demurred. "That's something we're not able to talk about in a public forum," he said.
General Atomics already has invested about $20 million in internal funding to build a sub-scale prototype, said Tom Hurn, the company's railgun programs director.
The Navy has long discussed putting the railgun on DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers, 15,000-ton ships now under construction at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works. Those ships — which do not now have the weapon — are designed with an integrated power system able to funnel much of their electrical power to a specific need, such as a railgun.
But the Navy and its developers also are looking at the viability of putting the weapon on other classes of ship.
"We have looked at a range of options," Hurn said. "The technology is scaleable. There are viable opportunities at multiple levels.
"From a technology standpoint we do not see problems with platforms even smaller than" existing destroyers, he added.
The railgun program continues as a research and development effort, and eventually should transition into an acquisition program to develop and field real weapons.
"Generally we talk about an [operational] capability in the 2020 to 2025 time frame," Ellis said. "However, Navy planners are looking for ways to make that happen sooner."