The Navy's Railgun Is Finally Dead

  • The U.S. Navy is finally canceling its electromagnetic railgun development program.

  • The railgun appears to be the victim of the service’s new emphasis on great power competition.

  • Although impressive, the railgun has been overshadowed by other weapons, particularly hypersonics.

The U.S. Navy’s push to create a $500 million electromagnetic railgun weapon—capable of slinging projectiles at hypersonic speeds—appears to have come to an end. The service is ending funding for the railgun without having sent a single weapon to sea, while pushing technology derived from the program into existing weapons.

The weapon is a victim of a change in the Navy’s direction toward faster, longer-range weapons that are capable of striking ships and land targets in a major war.

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The Navy’s budget request includes no funding for the railgun in 2022, The Drive reports.

Electromagnetic railguns are decidedly different from conventional guns, cannons, and howitzers. Regular guns use the pressure from an ignited gunpowder charge to expel a projectile from the barrel, sending it flying on a ballistic trajectory. Railguns, meanwhile, using electricity and magnetism instead of gunpowder and chemical energy to accelerate a projectile down a pair of rails.

Railguns are theoretically safer than conventional guns, since they reduce the amount of volatile powder a ship stores deep within its bowels in the ammunition magazine. The projectiles are also faster.

But despite those advantages, there are reasons why the Navy is canning the railgun, which has been in development since 2005. For one, there are currently only three ships the Navy could conceivably fit the railgun to: the three Zumwalt-class destroyers. The next opportunity for fitting warships with railguns won’t happen until the late 2020s, when the Navy begins construction on its next-generation DDG(X) destroyers.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo illustration
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo illustration

The railgun concept itself is also out of step with the Navy’s reorientation toward great power conflict, particularly a possible war with China or Russia. As an offensive weapon, the railgun’s range of 50 to 100 miles is relatively short, placing a railgun-equipped ship within range of longer-range weapons, including China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

And while the railgun also has defensive potential since it can shoot down incoming aircraft, missiles, and drones, the Navy already has plenty of existing missiles and guns to deal with those threats.

Railguns appear to have fallen victim to the new trend: hypersonic weapons. The Navy’s new Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB), developed in conjunction with the U.S. Army, has a top speed of Mach 17 and a range of more than 1,700 miles. That’s fast enough to engage time-sensitive targets from a safe distance.

The Navy announced in May it plans to add its C-HGB to its Zumwalt-class destroyers. The service has repeatedly floated replacing the two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) on the Zumwalts with railguns, since the cost of the precision-guided round developed for the guns has become unaffordable. Now, hypersonics will fill the void left by the AGS guns.

The Navy seems to have decided, quite logically, that it’s better to outfit the ships with a weapon with a 1,700-mile range instead of a 100-mile range (at best).

While the American railgun system appears shuttered, the fate of China’s railgun program is still unknown. Observers first spotted China’s railgun fitted to a landing ship on the Yangtze River in 2018. It remains to be seen if Beijing follows Washington’s lead in canning electromagnetic-based projectile guns, or if the People’s Liberation Army decides the weapon still has some value.

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