U.S. Navy Test Fires a New Mach 7 Cannon

In just a few short months, science fiction will morph into reality, as the U.S. Navy test fires a new electromagnetic "railgun" from one of its warships.

Ready to aim and fire -- behind the scenes at the Navy's new electromagnetic railgun. Source: U.S. Navy.

Last week, the Navy announced plans to test a prototype electromagnetic, or EM, railgun, a weapon that Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, the Navy's chief engineer calls "an incredible new offensive capability for the U.S. Navy." According to a press release, plans are being worked up to send the railgun to sea aboard a Joint High Speed Vehicle sometime in the next two years. There, the Navy will confirm whether the weapon proves as "lethal and effective" for use against hostile warships, boats, aircraft, and missiles as it's already proven in land-based tests.

What it does
The Navy describes its railgun as "a long-range weapon that launches projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants." It works by utilizing an electromagnetic energy known as the "Lorenz Force" to rapidly accelerate and launch a projectile between two conductive rails, firing the projectile incredible distances, at incredible speeds.

The EM weapon can hit targets as far as 110 miles away, and, with shells traveling at speeds in excess of Mach 7 -- 5,000 mph -- the time between firing and "target destroyed" should be as little as 79 seconds.

Speaking of the shells, railgun-launched projectiles are only about 18 inches long. And because the projectiles themselves are so simple in design -- no explosive charge required, and no explosive warhead either -- they're cheap to get out, costing just $25,000 each. Relative to the price of a cruise missile with similar destructive power, which can cost in excess of $1 million, that's a bargain.

Who makes it
Currently, two defense contractors have designed prototype EM railguns for the Navy: General Atomics (better known for its "drone" aircraft than for its cannon), and BAE Systems (NASDAQOTH: BAESY  ) (LSE: BA  ) , the big British defense contractor. Publicly traded U.S. defense contractor, General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) , will also play a role in the planned fiscal-year 2016 railgun test -- but only as one of the companies building the JHSV from which the railgun will be test fired.

America's third of 10 planned "Joint High-Speed Vehicle" troop transports, the USNS Millinocket (JHSV-3), will play host to its EM railgun. Photo: U.S. Navy.

What it means to investors
To date, the Navy has sunk at least $250 million into the EM railgun program. Plans are for a further $250 million to be invested in the weapon's development by 2017. At present, BAE and General Atomics have to be considered the leading contenders to win these funds, along with further funding to manufacture production copies of the weapon if tests prove successful.

The bigger impact, of course, may be on the defense contractors not chosen by the Navy to build its railguns. If a $25,000 railgun projectile can do the same job, the case for buying $1 million-plus Tomahawk cruise missiles from Raytheon (NYSE: RTN  ) , not to mention shorter-range Harpoons from Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , will become much harder to make.

That will be good news for taxpayers, certainly. But it could be bad news for Raytheon and Boeing. Raytheon's biggest revenue driver (albeit not its most profitable) is the company's Missile Systems division, which generated $6.6 billion in revenues, and $830 million in operating profits, for the company last year. Boeing, meanwhile, is seeing its defense business depend more on the production of missiles and other weapons systems, as the company's historic dominance in military fighter aircraft wanes.

The key to preserving revenues for both companies may come down to a little-known Office of Naval Research program dubbed the "Hyper Velocity Projectile." Railgun projectiles may be faster and cheaper than a missile, but for now, missiles still retain one key advantage over cannon-shells -- whether rail-launched or otherwise -- in that missiles are guidable to their targets. This improves their accuracy, meaning fewer munitions need to be fired to ensure a target's destruction -- and carries less risk of collateral damage besides. What the HVP program aims to do is design a projectile that can hold up against the stresses of a Mach-speed railgun launch, and also carry the delicate, and miniaturized, instrumentation that enables the munition to be guided to its target with precision accuracy. The company that designs this projectile may well become the real winner of the race to railguns.

America's secret weapon
"Made in China" -- an all too familiar phrase. But not for much longer: There's a radical new technology out there, one that's already being employed by the U.S. Air Force, BMW and even Nike. Respected publications like The Economist have compared this disruptive invention to the steam engine and the printing press; Business Insider calls it "the next trillion dollar industry." Watch The Motley Fool's shocking video presentation to learn about the next great wave of technological innovation, one that will bring an end to "Made In China" for good. Click here!

See the Navy's new EM railgun in action in this YouTube video:

Read/Post Comments (29) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 11:16 AM, MPA2000 wrote:

    Science Fiction? I don't remember any movies about an electromagnet rail gun?

    The Sci Fi movies that I know of have either phasers or laser cannons.

    Wake me when my tax money has those in development.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 11:16 AM, jebdereb14 wrote:

    * "Lorentz Force"

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 11:44 AM, speculawyer wrote:

    Due to chaos theory, these will never be extremely accurate.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 11:45 AM, newuser8675309 wrote:

    MPA2000, I believe the Sci Fi movie "Eraser" featured an electromagnetic rail gun. The only problem was that the movie also featured Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 11:52 AM, goldfish246 wrote:

    This is Sergeant Huggs, the great thing about the military is that they're always looking for ways to save taxpayer money.

    That's why we're $17 trillion in debt.

    Now, back to the mission.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:02 PM, zylex wrote:

    At 180 km range a 1mr aiming error would give a miss distance of 180 m. Without guidance this thing wouldn't hit the broad side of a barn at 110 mi. And if the bullet is just a piece of metal, why does it cost $25 K per bullet?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:02 PM, Newsworthy wrote:

    Okay, I love technology for war fare but do we really need to tell everything? I find most people who blab about Military secrets are reporters who have never served.

    " Loose Lips sink ships"

    How about reporting on why The little Boy in North Korea with all of those dangerous toys has not been snatched by a team yet?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:03 PM, cmoreride wrote:




    Buy stock in Raytheon and Boeing to move dollars for US deficit spending into your Stock Portfolio

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:07 PM, klattu wrote:

    like to see how combat ready that monster is in a battle!

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:07 PM, Saquist wrote:

    Stargate made heavy use of Rail Guns on the X303 and X304 and in the defense of Atlantis.

    -Earth Star Voyager

    -Eraser (with Arnold Schwarzenegger)

    -Demolition Man


    -Babylon 5 (The Centaur Warship bombardment of Narn)

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:10 PM, TrevorCuthbert52 wrote:

    I expect a LOT more for a $25,000 projectile. It didn't do much damage to the truck. Passing through thin walls wasn't terribly impressive either.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:14 PM, trebzak wrote:

    Back in 1990 as a student in Texas I worked on a DARPA-funded EM railgun. Firing it was awesome to behold, but we had two technological difficulties to overcome. First, the armature is in tight contact with the rails so the rails tended to get damaged every time we fired it. You can't take the time to hone the bore every time you fire the thing. Second, the highest efficiency is achieved if all of the electrical power goes into the projectile without returning back to the electric generators. There are no COTS relays that can handle 60 MegaJoules without melting every time you throw the switch. We had to line the return path with det cord and blow up the return path every time we fired it. Again, you can't take the time to replace the blown up parts every time you fire. I wonder how they overcame these hurdles?

    Also, not all rail guns fire large projectiles. We had a small EM rail gun with a rifle-bullet-sized projectile that we could fire at speeds exceeding the gravitational escape velocity of the earth. If we had fire the thing vetically, the projectile would have left the earth and kept on going. Very cool!

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:17 PM, Chevynuts33 wrote:

    I guess, if the projectile is 18 inches, and previous article stated 25 kilos in weight, then the construct is a depleted uranium and sabot'ed in a metal with magnetic capacity? Or is the total weight, sabot and all 25 Kilios.

    The 18 inches in the movies projectile looks like less than 25 Ks of uranium.

    Hmmm... I questioned the material a projectile would be made of to keep from melting at 5000 mph, lots of questions to be answered... any Raytheon employees out there reading today,? lol!

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:20 PM, cri33 wrote:

    TrevorCuthbert52 ..the last time I heard, a cruise missile costed around $1000000 each. That is one million each. Everyone is an expert here. Let the guys do the job..they are only working on it.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:21 PM, trebzak wrote:

    "Passing through thin walls wasn't terribly impressive either."

    The EM railgun I worked on back in 1990 fired a 4-lb aluminum projectile with sufficient kinetic energy to melt holes in armor plate steel several inches thick. The projectiles can punch clean holes through thin metal, but when encountering something more substantial all that kinetic energy is converted to heat and the results are impressive.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:29 PM, VegasSmitty wrote:

    A blast from the past, these were being tested back in the 70's.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:34 PM, trebzak wrote:

    " I questioned the material a projectile would be made of to keep from melting at 5000 mph"

    Increasing the temperature of the projectile from frictional heating by the air doesn't occur instanteously. It takes time. The projectile arrives at the target in far less time than it takes to heat it up.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:36 PM, poppie wrote:

    What's the difference, China will be fielding it as soon as we can give them the plans

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:41 PM, DayTra wrote:

    China: I buy from you, ok?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:44 PM, Mickey11776 wrote:

    The Transformers movie also had a Railgun.

    "Upon receiving targeting coordinates from Simmons, the Kidd fired its railgun and destroyed Devastator.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:50 PM, DocClitterhouse wrote:

    That's a great idea for a cannon. Obama's Defense Team came up with a winner.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:51 PM, BeeboBlackerby wrote:

    Again, with no chemical propellent, what is that muzzle flash?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:54 PM, BeeboBlackerby wrote:

    I like the electricusion toilet offered by comedy actor Chevy Chase's character in Deal of the Century, better.

    Hey, US Navy, what happens when your big electric stun gun gets wet with sea water?

    Serial rapist cover up coordinator Chuck Hagel, aka United States Secretary of Defense, going to publicly scold the Adrmiral Moron, Secretary of the US Navy, saying, "washing it was sheer stupidity?"

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:56 PM, BeeboBlackerby wrote:

    I noticed even the janitors at General Dynamics have illegal housekeeping staff.

    Reagan is jealous, rolling over in his grave, upset he had to sell Star Wars to the people when he could have had this.

    I say it's rigged, like the Star Wars missile hitting missile tests proving the feasibility of Star Wars was.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 12:59 PM, u4iadestiny wrote:

    I wish they put as much time and money into developing peace. Whoooops, no profit in peace...never mind.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 1:01 PM, btc909 wrote:

    I'm smelling BS here. 25K a bullet, looked like a casing to protect the projectile and a non-explosive round. I'm aware of the air resistance heating up the projectile which could be solved with a fancy ceramic coating. The lame spinning motion to help the projectile stay on target is really pretty weak. For 25K you should be able to upload a destination GPS target, shut a shielded access door, the computer can make minor corrections if need be.

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 1:07 PM, brendo wrote:

    $25,000 per projectile? What are they shoving in that thing, all the re-called Chevy Malibu's?

  • Report this Comment On April 22, 2014, at 1:19 PM, phillipzx3 wrote:

    "I wish they put as much time and money into developing peace. Whoooops, no profit in peace...never mind."

    Quoted for truth.

  • Report this Comment On June 15, 2014, at 5:24 PM, palerider wrote:

    I hope it turns out better than the Sergeant York invention that didn't work. The actual Sergeant York was about as good a rifleman as the TV Clampetts, but the machine was an expensive disappointment.

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