Sunday, December 12, 2010

Futuristic weapon undergoes Navy tests

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; C04

The red and yellow warning flags were out. The gun range was cleared. The klaxon sounded.

"System is enabled," the voice on the speakerphone said. There was a pause, then a distant thud that could be felt through the floor.

"Gun is fired," the voice said.

Inside a cavernous building at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., on Friday, a gigantic pulse of electricity hurled a 20-pound slug of aluminum out the barrel of an experimental gun at seven times the speed of sound.

The slug trailed a pillar of fire as it left the weapon and the building, illuminating the surrounding woods like a giant flashbulb. It streaked down range, generating a small sonic boom, and traveled about 5,500 feet before tumbling to the ground harmlessly.

In an adjacent building, there was a round of applause from observing scientists.

It was the latest test of the Navy's electromagnetic railgun - a futuristic weapon that is right out of the latest video war game and could one day change the face of Naval warfare.

Roger Ellis, the railgun program manager, said people "see these things in the video games, but this is real. This is what is very historical."

The gun is fired with a huge jolt of electricity that can propel a round more than 100 miles and at such velocity that it does not need an explosive warhead.

Two tests were conducted Friday - the first of which the Navy said generated a world record 33 megajoules of force out of the barrel. The second shot, witnessed by reporters, produced 32 megajoules.

Forty-five minutes after the second shot, a part of the battered bullet that was retrieved from the range was still warm to the touch.

The Navy hopes the railgun might bring a sci-fi level of range and firepower to its fleets of the future.

"It's exhilarating," Elizabeth D'Andrea, the railgun project's strategic director, said after the test.

The gun itself doesn't look much like a gun. It consists of two rails, along which a surge of electricity runs. They are bolted inside a long oblong box the length of a tractor trailer.

Bundles of thick black cables feed into one end of the box, where the slug is loaded between the rails. When the power is fed through the rails it creates a surge that flings the slug along and out the muzzle at tremendous speed.

Charles Garnett, the railgun project manager at Dahlgren, said it gets its power the same way a pocket camera builds up energy to operate its flash, but on a much larger scale.

The use of electricity to power such a round would change the way naval guns have been fired with explosive propellants like gunpowder for centuries, the Navy said.

The electromagnetic railgun was once a focus of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars." It was a seen as a weapon that might shoot down incoming nuclear missiles.

A quarter-century later, the Navy hopes it might soon provide a ship fast, new, long-range fire power.

"It's a very important technology," said Rear Adm. Nevin P. Carr Jr., chief of Naval Research, although "this is not a weapon that's going to be here tomorrow."

Carr, in a telephone interview Thursday, said it also makes for an excellent defensive weapon against such things as enemy cruise missiles.

Indeed, the Navy railgun project's Latin motto is "velocitas eradico," roughly "speed destroys."

Carr said the Navy had been working toward a railgun that could fire a 64-megajoule shot, with a range of 200 miles. "I am not as focused on that number today," he said. "We're more interested in getting capability to the fleet sooner."

He said he would like to see a railgun demonstrated at sea by 2018 and deployed on ships in the early 2020s. After that, further research could make the gun even more powerful. He said the project has cost about $211 million.

The first railgun test at Dahlgren took place in 2006, the Navy has said.

Carr said a ship with railguns would need no conventional propellant to fire the weapon, because the non-explosive projectile would be fired with a huge jolt of electricity. That would make the ship safer for the crew and allow the vessel to carry 10 times more ammunition, he said.

"It's more than just a better way to push a bullet out the barrel," he said. "Another point . . . is a railgun is not a gun. It's a launcher."

Carr said the "bullet" is hurled into the atmosphere in seconds and can descend on a target in minutes, at a speed of about Mach 5. "That's pretty juicy technology," he said.

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