If you want to fire a weapon with enough force to destroy a warship and enough accuracy to shoot down an orbiting satellite, then rail gun technology is the way to go. And if you are the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), you’ll field and test a ship-mounted rail gun to advance your goals of a blue water naval force.
Last week, Chinese military websites began posting photographs of the alleged electromagnetic weapon mounted on a warship docked in Wuhan, Hubei province– showing the PLAN has been successful in making the technology more compact. The Chinese aren’t the first to test the technology — but they are the first known to have mounted it on a ship. That is, if the photos posted are indeed of a rail gun.
But is it a REAL rail gun? And what IS a rail gun?
Rather than traditional explosive propulsion systems, rail guns fire shells using electromagnetic force and are designed to fire projectiles with more accuracy and power and over a longer range. The downside? Rail guns are monumentally expensive.
The U.S. military has researched and tested rail guns for several years. Prototypes have been successful firing projectiles at up to 7,800km/hour over a 150km range. The cost? Reportedly US$1 million per round. That is expensive ammo no matter how you look at it.
Chinese state media confirmed last year its first home-grown aircraft carrier would be powered by electromagnetic technology known as Integrated Electrical Propulsion Systems (IEPS). The same type of system would power the rail gun, developed by a team headed by PLAN Rear Admiral Ma Weiming. Ma told CCTV last summer that his ultimate goal was to install weapons such as rail guns on the new carriers– for now it appears that destroyers might do.
Science and Technology Daily–a PRC state run media outlet-– reported on Monday that the cutting-edge rail gun technology would be deployed on the Type-055, the PLAN’s largest guided-missile destroyer designed as part of future aircraft carrier battle groups.
But what of the rail gun in the pictures from last week? They were not mounted on the Type-055 but rather the Type-072 landing ship refitted to house the weapon’s bulky electrical equipment. Military insiders say that the propulsion systems on the PLAN’s currently commissioned destroyers is not suited to the rail gun but could be refitted in the future.
A former member of the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps- speaking to the South China Morning Post–said “China has spared no effort to catch up to the U.S. in electromagnetic technology… The leaked photos show China is now not only catching up to the US in ship-borne rail gun technology, but may surpass the U.S. in next five to 10 years. This is because the U.S. needs more time to approve budgets while China’s political system allows it to put more funding into special projects.”
He might be over inflating the PLA’s technical capabilities but the assessment of the American Department of Defense budget process is spot on– and the development cost remains prohibitive. Since the U.S. Air Force is capable of striking long-range targets by dropping cruise missiles from stealth bombers or fighters, rail gun technology did not offer enough return on investment to the Pentagon.
The US Naval Institute reported in January that the US Navy scrapped plans in 2016 to buy 2,000 rail gun projectiles but would continue to monitor new technologies that could be incorporated into its existing systems.
Featured image courtesy of Twitter