By Tuan Nguyen
Posting in Energy
Congress cut funding for the development of a hypersonic railgun and the free electron laser (FEL), the navy's two prized weapons of the future.
You know the government is mired in a serious budget crisis when a military agency like the Navy is asked to scrap some of it's most highly prized weapon's programs.
That's exactly what happened earlier this month when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to abruptly cut funding for the development of a hypersonic railgun and the free electron laser (FEL), a pair of work-in-progress weapons projects that the Office of Naval Research was investing heavily in.
The staunchest supporter of the projects is Nevin Carr, the chief of Naval Research, who has touted them as game-changers in the making. As an alternatives to missiles, the railgun would give ships the ability to blast targets from hundreds of miles away in mere minutes while the free electron laser allows shipmen to shoot down attacking missiles coming simultaneously from several different directions. In interviews, he spoke of why he felt the continued development of these weapons were crucial in future warfare.
Here's a brief snippet from a report in Wired:
Both weapons are apples in the eye of the Office of Naval Research, the mad scientists of the Navy. “We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal,” its leader, Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, told me in February. The answer, he thinks, is hypersonics and directed energy weapons, hastening “the end of the dominance of the missile,” Adm. Gary Roughead, the top officer in the Navy, told me last month. With China developing carrier-killer missiles and smaller missiles proliferating widely, both weapons would allow the Navy to blunt the missile threat and attack adversaries from vast distances.
Whatever the reason why congress decided to eliminate the projects, it surely wasn't due to a lack of progress. In January, FEL researchers successfully tested an important component known as an injector, which is used to produce the type of electrons necessary to generate megawatt laser beams. And tests on the hypersonic railgun consistently shattered records.
The reaction from Navy officials thus far can be best described as diplomatic, although they've clearly indicated that they're not giving up on the projects without a fight.
“The programs were part of the president’s budget and we hope to see them in the final bill,” says Lt. Cmdr. Justin Cole, told Wired's Danger Room. “We will continue to work with Congress to answer any questions they may have about the programs in an effort to secure authorization and funding for their continuation.”
And after catching a glimpse of these promotional videos, you'll also see why.
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Jun 27, 2011
Except for the ability to hammer an object at the limits of line of sight in seconds, why do you need a rail gun on a navy ship? They do not have the rate of fire to make them very useful unless you can guarantee a hit on the first shot. If you cant the slow rate of fire makes you vulnerable as the object closes range. It is a shame that they canceled the long-range support gun for the Navy. The longest ranged conventional gun the navy had for decades were the 16-inch guns on the battleships. While devastating in use, the powder bags used to fire them were a major hazard as seen by the 1989 USS Iowa explosion. Until a few years ago the navy had been working on a liquid propellant weapon that would fire a round over twice the range the old 16s could. By varying the trajectory and amount of propellant it could fire multiple rounds from one gun barrel and have them land virtually simultaneously covering a large area in one big explosion. The liquid propellant was supposed to be safer to store than the powder used by any past or present large caliber weapon in the Navy. I am not sure why, but the project was cancelled.
These weapons developments have just had their funding cancelled by CONgress just when they seem to be almost ready to operational deployment. This is short-sighted at best. We live in a dangerous world, and the ability of others to kill our ships is increasing daily with the spread of Chinese-made anti-ship missiles, as well as the usual Russian-made versions. Our Navy needs to keep a technological edge precisely because we have so few ships in the fleet now, if we wish to maintain our ability to go where we please. Such places include the South China Sea/Taiwan, the middle east, etc. Plus, as FuzzyIce said so well, If we ever get out in space, such weapons could deflect/destroy meteoroids that threaten the craft.
Our Government would be very foolish indeed to not implement the deployment of these new weapons as soon as possible. The days of expensive guidance systems, casings, powder, and shot would be eliminated by the new technologies. Also, our people would be better protected by these new weapons. Also, if our government does not develop these systems, other unfriendly countries will, and we will be extremely vulnerable on the battlefield. Congress, do not be penny wise, and pound foolish!!!
The systems in testing are very cool, but they have no practical applications. Rail guns are sweet, but the rate of fire is terrible. Beyond that to speak of hitting targets hundreds of miles away shows some ones lack of understanding on projectile trajectories, the curve of the earth and a little thing called gravity. Even with the speed of rail guns, they would be doing some physics defying feats if they figured out how to fire a projectile from the deck of a ship 60 feet above the water and have it travel hundreds of miles to hit a target without being rocket guided or sprouting wings. Lasers against missiles have shown potential against ballistic missiles, but I have yet to see a laser take out a sea skimming cruise missile. The current CIWS throws a curtain of shots at a missile with an extremely high probability of a hit. That is the benchmark to be beat and lasers, as an anti cruise missile weapon, do not come close. Same with using lasers on small boats. Yes they can light a small boats engine on fire with a laser, but it takes over 30 seconds pointed at an anchored target. They are not exactly testing to combat conditions. Again the benchmark to beat is the performance of existing weapons. Based on that the laser does not come close to being an effective point defense weapon against small boats. The revolutionary new weapons outlined here bring nothing to the fight, but glam and glitz.
In a perfect and peaceful planet, we wouldn't need such new weaponry technology, but we do not live in such utopia and we do need to keep strategic and tactical advantages over our enemies, current and in the future. With the global economy, China is being funded to become an important military power in not so far future, look at them trying to replicate our current stealth plane's technology and this declared development of a carrier-killer missiles we can't just wait. Besides, these developments always produce side technologies with lots of civil utilization. Would we have give up the space race and not landed in the Moon, we wouldn't be probably using the electronic components we have now that makes possible cellphones and lots of other wonders. If it is not for the sake of protecting ourselves in the future, we need those technologies for when we get out and start exploring our solar system. Such class of weapons would be used as shields for deflecting high speed objects against our future ships.
...to operational deployment. Prototype weapons are still far off. Although a Chinese ballistic missile has gotten a lot of publicity lately, that's not where the real threat lies. Missiles already deployed and/or in development will take out ballistic missiles. The problem is high speed missiles flying at low altitude, known as supersonic sea-skimming cruise missiles. They're already in use by several nations. They're difficult to counter because their flight is concealed by the curvature of the earth. The Navy sees exotic new tech like electro-magnetic launchers (the rail gun is 1 sort) & lasers as it's best hope of countering these cruise missiles. Unfortunately, neither need nor funding guarantees the success of these solutions.
The big guns on an Iowa-class battleship could hurl a 2,700-pound shell 23 miles in 50 seconds with pinpoint accuracy. While not hundreds of miles and hypersonic speeds, it was over the horizon and essentially shooting blind in all kinds of weather. I don't know if the electronics could withstand the g-forces, but a smart projectile could probably do a lot better. Certainly modern computers on the ship and satellite technology could help in the aiming. The laser technology is an outgrowth of the Linac Coherent Light Source project at the re-purposed Standford Linear Accelerator. This uses the two-mile linear accelerator there to create powerful X-ray laser bursts which can illuminate chemical reactions at the 100 femtosecond time frame. The laboratory at SLAC is obviously an unique research site which takes new advantage of a research device that already existed for decades. The Navy's version makes the whole thing a lot smaller and is tunable. There are probably all kinds of R&D possibilities with commercial prospects if a lower-powered version of such a device can be made, even if it costs millions of dollars.
Those 16-inch guns and even the bigger Paris Gun of WW I that could throw a shell 80 miles using a ballistic trajectory taking the rounds nearly to the stratosphere, in the case of the Paris gun, to get around the curve of the earth. The speeds of a railgun will give its projectile a very shallow ballistic curve. The speed is so high and the ballistic path so shallow that railguns have been looked at to launch small satellites. Trying to hit a target hundreds of miles away while threading the needle between a shallow ballistic path following the curve of the earth or shooting out into space may be technically feasible, but is it worth doing from the rolling deck of a ship? One more point. The video clearly shows they do not trust the targeting capabilities to be more than a few feet from the target. For how long they have been testing this you would think they would be shooting at targets a few hundred feet away by now.