China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun soliciting pitches from military vendors to build a test bed for a “magnetized plasma artillery” system, said to be capable of firing projectiles in excess of Mach 6. The weapon system, which was first patented in 2015, wouldn’t fire plasma, but would rather leverage it to enable the high launch velocity of artillery projectiles.
Although the name alone suggests China may be reaching into the realm of science fiction with this proposal, the science behind it may be leaning more toward fact. According to the patent filed with the National Intellectual Property Administration (as related by the PLA itself), the system would use magnetized material throughout the gun barrel and a magnetic field generator to produce a field inside the barrel.
The immense pressure within the barrel upon firing would cause some of the gas to ionize into plasma as the projectile is pushed forward. The magnetic field would reduce the level of radiant force absorbed by the barrel and even the amount of friction experienced by the projectile, allowing the platform to fire artillery projectiles at hypersonic speeds in excess of Mach 6 (at least, according to the patent). In theory, the electromagnetic “sheath” inside the barrel could even reduce heat transfer into the barrel, allowing for more consistent, continued, or even faster firing of the weapon than can be accomplished with conventional artillery.
This system may not fire projectiles at velocities that would match the railgun China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy recently began testing, but its advantages may more than make up for the reduced velocity. An electromagnetic railgun would likely require far more energy to operate than the magnetized plasma artillery system, which would require an electronic field but would rely on more traditional methods of propulsion. While the railgun could really only be supported on things like large navy ships, a magnetized plasma artillery system could potentially be housed in much smaller vehicles.
Long time no see, the railgun test ship is spotted undergoing sea trials these days. pic.twitter.com/WdxXkyYWrF
— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) December 29, 2018
The result would be a Mach 6-capable artillery shell with an estimated range of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles. Although the Army is working on a high-powered artillery system with the stated goal of a 1,000-mile range, even America’s most advanced M777ER artillery platforms were only recently able to muster around 43 miles in range–a match for Russia’s most capable platforms.
Of course, soliciting a test bed for a new platform is not the same as proving new weapons technology is feasible. A number of hurdles and likely years worth of continued research and development remain before China could actually field any such weapon. If it does prove feasible, it could result in a shift in the way more large weapons systems are developed for the PLA.