Home » News & Analysis » Navy Pursuing Upgraded Railgun, Higher-Power Laser Gun By 2020

Navy Pursuing Upgraded Railgun, Higher-Power Laser Gun By 2020

One of two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Base San Diego on July 8, 2014. US Navy photo.

One of two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Base San Diego on July 8, 2014. US Navy photo.

The Navy is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to fielding energy weapons by the end of the decade, with the hopes of upgrading its 30 kilowatt laser gun to 100 kw or more, and giving its electromagnetic railgun a higher repetition rate.

Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, chief engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), said in a panel presentation at the Directed Energy Summit, hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Booz Allen Hamilton, that both follow-on technologies should be in the hands of sailors in the fleet by 2020.

The Navy sent a 30 kw Laser Weapon System (LaWS) to U.S. 5th Fleet on the interim Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce in September 2014, where it has proven it can augment ship self-defense as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for better maritime domain awareness, Fuller said. LaWS was only supposed to stay out for a year, but despite the harsh environment in the Persian Gulf, it has performed well and fleet leadership agreed it will stay operational as long as Ponce remains at sea – until Fiscal Year 2017 or longer, he said.

“Sometime in the very near future” the Navy will award a development contract for the larger follow-on system, a laser gun of 100 to 150 kw. That weapon will go out to sea for a demonstration by FY 2018, he said, keeping in line with the goal of transitioning technology from the lab to the warfighter as quickly as possible for operational testing.

The other half of the Navy’s push to deliver energy weapons to the fleet is the electromagnetic railgun. A manual-load version will go to sea on a Joint High Speed Vessel next year, but the Navy is already working on a version that would allow for 10 shots per minute. This “rep rate” version, despite challenges including thermal management in the barrel, is expected to go to sea by FY 2019.

“Get it to sea, see how it operates in a marine environment and put it through its paces,” Fuller said.

During the conference, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the Navy had been working on directed energy since the 1980s but needed to find ways to move technology along faster to keep up with global threats.

Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told USNI News at the same conference that the Navy’s multi-prong approach is the best way to ensure rapid fielding.

Despite a new emphasis on speed to market in the Pentagon’s newest Better Buying Power guidance, “there’s no magic that’s going to allow us to go much much faster; but in some areas, we’re probably going to want to take more risk and maybe use multiple approaches to try to get to the same place and try to move the technology forward as quickly as we can,” he said. He added that a roadmap of directed energy weapon efforts has several technologies reaching the demonstration phase within the next five years, which he believes is the right pace.

Once the Navy reaches the higher-powered laser gun and the more operationally useful “rep rate” railgun, the service will have to figure out how to deploy them. Fuller said the Navy just wrapped up a feasibility study on the Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyers, and leadership will be briefed on the results soon. Other studies, including one on the Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers, are ongoing. The results will help the Navy identify where to put these weapons when they first go out to sea and what challenges they may face – with power conditioning and integration being a big concern for the Navy at this time, Fuller said.

The railgun may also make an appearance in Army ground units. Army Brig. Gen. Neil Thurgood, program executive officer for missiles and space, said at the same panel presentation that his service would like the railgun to address the short-range ballistic missile threat. The Navy is taking the lead on development but the Army is already working on doctrine and tactics, techniques and procedures for using such a weapon. It will help the Army conduct missile defense with more rounds shot off faster, that can hit incoming missiles farther out from their target, and at a lower cost per engagement, Thurgood said.

The Navy, in addition to developing the railgun itself, is working on a hypervelocity projectile (HVP) that will support both the railgun and conventional 5-inch guns. The GPS-guided round will fly at hypersonic speeds, but the Navy is still working with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office to close the fire control loop between the gun and the projectile. The Army would benefit from this work even if it chooses to use a different gun design than the Navy’s ship-based weapon.

  • NavySubNuke

    But how long until we make the laser guns small enough to fit on the sharks foreheads???
    Sorry I had to go there.
    On a more serious note – this a great development. There is still a long way to go but lasers and rail guns both offer a great solution to the problem of what to do about high speed anti-ship cruise missiles that would otherwise evade existing defensive measures.

    • Secundius

      @ NavySubNuke.

      Can’t answer that question, simply because I don’t know! But a Three Man Portable 100kW Unit with a 22-kilometer range. Is being Field Tested as we speak. Total package weight, is reported to be ~650-kilo’s…

      • NavySubNuke

        650 kilograms is ~1400 pounds. I don’t know anything about the system you are referring to but it seems like you will need a lot more than 3 people to make a system that heavy “portable”. Or does “portable” include the vehicle it is mounted on?

        • Secundius

          @ NavySubNuke.

          Revision’s in the writing. Article is by Motley Fool of Alexandria, VA. No set designation on the Laser itself, but it’s a Boeing Compact Laser Weapons System @ 650-pounds (not kilo’s). Four separate Units, Battery, Water-Cooled Chiller, Fiber Laser and Beam Director. Can be set up in about 15-minutes on the Squad Level (8 to 12 Men). And on the 10-kilowatt range…

          • NavySubNuke

            That makes a bit more sense. Thanks for the update!

          • Secundius

            @ NavySubNuke.

            First Source was from TFB (The Firearms Blog) and there Information Varies “Scant” to “Sketchy” at Best…

          • Secundius

            @ NavySubNuke.

            I guess the Term “Death By A Thousand Cut’s”, apply Applies.

            A “Pulse Laser” first Developed in 1974. A “Fiber Laser”, is a Laser in which the active gain medium is an optical “fiber” doped with rare-earth elements such as Erbium, Ytterbium, Neodymium, Dysproium, Praseoymium and Thulium. They are related to doped “fiber” amplifiers, which provide light amplification without lasing…

      • old guy

        As I have said before directed energy, SI, railgun, NO.

        • Secundius

          @ old guy.

          Looks like the XM2001/2000 Crusader might be Zombie’d back to life as the New US Army’s Rail-Gun System. Check “Downstairs” by “Sandy’s” Place. Sec…

          • old guy

            The old saying goes,”Congress never met a campaign fund source it didn’t like,”

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            My favorite is: “America has the Best Politicians Money can Buy. The Democrats and the Republicans are Equally Corrupt Where Money is Concerned, It’s Only in the Amount Where the Republicans Excel.” by Will Rogers, Cowboy/Humorist/Actor, 29 March 1930…

          • old guy

            I have 33 ⅓ LP of Will Rogers’ routines. It’s hilarious.
            My favorite, “I never met a man I didn’t like, but you’re finding the limit.”

          • Secundius

            @ old guy.

            On NPR on Sunday Night’s 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm (EST), they have the Best of Radio Comedy from the 30’s to the 60’s. And sometimes they have Will Rogers on. Personally, I like Lum and Abner (Abner, cracks me up)…

  • Sandy

    While these kinetic non-explosive projectiles are great for point targets, especially far inland,what about area suppression weapons, or is there a plan for a warhead on these that would contain a Controlled Variable Time fuse? NGFS must take this into account, or are we going to waste an expensive non-explosive kinetic weapon on, say, a T-72 tank “in the open”? Do you all have any updates on that? GOD Bless.

    • Secundius

      @ Sandy.

      Hey Sandy, I know that BAe and the US Army is experimenting with a Smart Rail-Gun System. Current System involves 3 Flat-Bed Semi’s. But I suspect the production system will look something (same general configuration) like XM2000/2001 Crusader, which was cancelled in 2002. How far along in the development they are is hard to say, because their keeping even general consumption information “Close To the Vest”. What I know so far is, its GPS-guided. I don’t know weather or not a Triple Redundancy System is even in the Thinking at this point. Sec…

  • J_kies

    Re Railguns … going fast with dumb projectiles isn’t useful.
    Re Lasers … without adaptive optics and atmospheric probing the maximum useful range will be somewhere between 2 and 4 km under ideal conditions. We should prefer something useful in all weather instead like a 30 mm cannon.

    • Rob C.

      Their just stating with this technology. We don’t know where it’s going since we are civilians and their behind the scientists scenes working on what it really can do. It’s easy to tear it apart when there not a lot information on them.

      Give them time to do their job, see if this thing can handle being at sea first.

      • J_kies

        I am talking about the physics issues and the innate lack of military value of projectiles that do not hit their target. No ‘science behind the scenes’ fixes those issues. Putting a laser at sea without addressing the green water over the bow issue or contamination protection against salt fog/spray just makes this wasteful.

        • USNVO

          Tanks are a waste of time, horses will never be replaced…. aircraft at sea can’t carry enough payload to be useful…. You will never be able to hit a missile with a missile in space…. You can’t destroy a mortar round with a laser…. I could go on all day, but it is rather pointless. As history shows, the critics who claim “physics” or other unconquerable issues are usually wrong. I’ll bet this one is one of those, but at least you didn’t say something really stupid like you can just easily cover everything with a mirror surface or ablative material.

          • J_kies

            If you want to call me a Luddite for asking the senior leaders to prioritize scarce R&D dollars to address the principle issues we have with existing weapons – please do.

            The physics issues are propagation; the engineering issues are contamination management (maintaining a clean room environment for the laser optics in sea states over 1?) and the threat issues are the first order laser countermeasures that arise in cooking and automotive technologies that make threat systems a lot harder to kill before they kill you. I like direct deposit of kinetic and chemical energy in things that threaten me as an assured way to kill them.

          • Michael Rich

            Here we go again.

          • Secundius

            @ USNVO.

            Outside of Science Fiction, “Ablative” Armor doesn’t exist. And a “Plasma Window”, or Energy Shielding doesn’t exists either outside the Laboratory Stages of Development…

    • Beomoose

      What makes you thin all we have is “dumb” projectiles? We’re already testing guided railgun rounds. A railgun sniping surface/land targets of opportunity 100nm away is useful. As is a railgun capable of engaging ballistic threats.

      • Secundius

        @ Beomoose.

        The last I heard the US Army is trying to Solve that Problem Now. But with a diameter of less than 39mm to “play with”. Think of the Smart 50-caliber on Steroids, but moving through the “Air” at Three times the Speed…

      • J_kies

        Moose – I would be happy to be wrong; is anything published in public (or accessible via requests to the SPO/PM) about any terminally guided projectile fired from a railgun actually achieving CEP values like Excalibur or other ‘useful guided rounds’ prior to the at sea demos? Any land based non-ballistic flight deliberately guiding to targets? I haven’t seen any and I have looked a lot.

    • Secundius

      @ J_kies.

      Ohhh, I don’t know. Nothing say’s Warm and Cozy, like Bofors 40x364mmR in 70-caliber at a rate of 300rpm. With No Place To Hide Behind Than a Sapling…

  • Rob C.

    I’m glad this is moving along. Now we get see if the Rail Gun can handle being at sea. Personally, i had hoped they build a purpose built turret to protect the gear from the elements. Graphic of the USNS Trenton mounting it on it’s flight deck show it as such. Manual loaded, make it sound like it’s going be like late 19th century cannon on deck of a ship.

    The real problem is should this be successful is what platform. US Navy barely can convince congress to commit to build anything without tearing apart with legal wranglings. Costs going up because the entire class was cut down from 30 to 3 for instance. Stupid. DDG-1000 has enough power to be able fire the new rail gun, but the Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers don’t. Not in their current form anyways, not the current generations. I don’t think it was resolved with Flight III of the ship.

  • James Bowen

    This new is both interesting and welcome.

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  • old guy

    Some sense here, but a bunch of nonsequitter rhetoric too. in other posts, I have presented a panoply of plusses and minuses for all energy sources, based on reality. For example SOLAR, Free source, Intermittant operation, expensive converters, large capture areas, limited, expensive collector materials. Research may conquer the shortcomings, but what is needed is a balanced, methodical approach.

    • Dude

      Solar is only part of the equation. But, it has some distinct advantages. Solar panels can be scaled down, allowing a single home to generate its own power, but require minimal maintenance.

      Intermittent operation – The new large scale installations in Spain and California use collected heat to melt salt. The molten salt is stored and used to generate power. They can run 24/7. Even if there are a few overcast days.

      Expensive converters – Yes and no. A lot of energy used today is DC. In general, if it doesn’t spin, it is probably DC. The infrastructure does not exist, there is a huge installed base of equipment set up for AC and DC loses more power if transmitted long distances. But, for energy used at the point of generation, installing DC equipment is a growing option. There are already DC to DC power supplies for computer, especially in enterprise settings.

      large capture areas – I have not seen this out there yet, but as the large solar thermal plants take off, they can integrate the mirror systems into industrial parks, shopping centers and even residential areas. In deserts with high solar intensity, where there would work best, having 75% of the sunlight blocked would be a great selling point.

      Expensive collector materials – For solar voltaics that is certainly true. There are some nano-tech solutions that may pan out, but not yet. Solar thermal uses flat mirrors. Glass or polished metal.

      Bio fuel is technically solar. There is an algae based bio fuel that can be grown in poor quality water. Even partially salty, allowing for some use of seawater. It is a proven technology, it only needs to be scaled up. It can compete with fossil fuel prices for diesel. But, fossil fuel prices are artificially high, bio costs more to make. So oil producers can cut prices until the bio fuel installations go bankrupt, then raise prices again. Government guaranteed contracts to buy at a prearranged price, even if fossil fuels drop, could get the ball rolling. Once production is underway, begin requiring that all transportation diesel contain X% bio. And keep raising the percentage. Taxes based on CO2 release would also favor bio without running afoul of import tariff treaties.

      Then there is bio methane, already done on a fair scale are old land fills. It could be done with many waste products.

      Industrial hemp can grow 20+ feet tall with an 18″ diameter stalk. Run it through a wood chipper and burn it in place of coal.

      “what is needed is a balanced, methodical approach.”

      Very true. Different sources are better in different applications.

      I think nuclear was a big mistake. But, we did it and now we have hundreds of tons of high level waste. Nuclear fuel is spent when ~5% of the energy has been extracted. Then it needs to be buried for 250,000 years. There is one other way to dispose of the waste. Re-enrich it, put it back into the reactor and get another 5% out of it. rinse and repeat. If we stop mining and start reprocessing, we will be generating power for decades and the stock pile of waste will go down.

      Then there’s fusion. I think we are finally getting close. Skunkworks is building a prototype called the “High Beta Reactor”. If it works, and Skunkworks has an amazing track record, they can build a 100 megawatt reactor small enough to (just barely) fit on a tractor trailer (wide load, lots of axles). They would be able to build them in a controlled factory and ship them complete to the power plants.

      In 2013 35% of new power added to the US grid was wind.

      Coal + solar +water -> methane. The methane can then be stored and shipped. So, if the solar power is not available for a few days, there are plenty of other methane sources. Still releases CO2, but far less per kilowatt generated. Germany was doing this in WWII, but not with solar as the power source.

      Smart grid and smart appliances. When power demand peaks, the grid signals appliances and electrical equipment using power to go into power saving mode. Reducing variation in demand can keep power plants running in their most efficient range. Constantly changing demand hurts generator efficiency.

      And so on. . .

  • Secundius

    @ Dude.

    The US Military uses 60-watt Man-Portable (by one man) Stirling Power Generation Units called the Radiance, that can run 24-hours on 1-Tablespoon of JP-8 Jet Fuel. If there’s a More Efficient Power System out there, I don’t known what it is or what its called…

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  • Secundius

    I suspect our Esteemed Colleague “DUDE” has Died at his Keyboard. His Comment awaiting Moderation has been waiting MODERATION for more than Two Days NOW…

  • dan

    In order to up grade, don’t they need an existing to improve on, in my opinion, up dating a current prototype is not saying to much.

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  • Need to show those Chinese that they cannot steal everything.

    After all, in the real world, deterrent is the only defence.