Key point: Eventually, the Navy will have to test a full-up railgun.
While the U.S. Navy had announced last year that it would take a prototype railgun to sea onboard the expeditionary fast transport USNS Trenton (JHSV-5) in 2016, the service may have to scupper those plans.
If the Navy does take the railgun out to sea on a fast transport, it will be in 2017 at the earliest. In lieu of testing the prototype rail gun in an at-sea environment, the Navy might instead proceed directly to developing an operational weapon system.
“It’s not definitely off but it’s not definitely going ahead,” Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, the Navy’s director of surface warfare, told Defense News during a Dec. 30 interview.
“Primarily because it will slow the engineering work that I have to do to get that power transference that I need to get multiple repeatable shots that I can now install in a ship. And I would frankly rather have an operational unit faster than have to take the nine months to a year it will take to set up the demo and install the systems, take the one operational [railgun] unit I have, put it on a ship, take it to sea, do a dozen shots, turn around, take it off, reinstall it into a test bed.”
Fanta said that he believes that an operational railgun is feasible within the next five years. Indeed, the Navy hopes to replace one of the 155mm gun turrets onboard the third and final Zumwalt-class destroyer Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002) with a rail gun. “I don’t know if I can get there from the engineering status yet. But that’s what we continue to look at,” Fanta told Defense News.
According to Fanta, most of the key technologies behind railguns—which have until now mostly been in the realm of science fiction—have been unlocked. “It’s engineering at this point, it’s no longer science,” Fanta told Defense News. “It’s no longer the deep dark secrets of what can I do with this sort of energy. It’s engineering and how much power density can I get, how much beam quality can I get, what sort of metallurgy do I need to sustain multiple shots over multiple periods of time. The rail gun as well as the laser.”