With the help of the United States, Japan might take a step further in the development phase of the railgun technology, which has been a challenge for leading military forces since the concept of the complex system first emerged in the early 20th century.

A senior Japanese official told National Defense earlier in April how collaboration with Washington could ramp up its railgun project, a military technology that Tokyo has regarded as a top research priority for the last decade. Moreover, reaching out to American defense contractors with years of experience in the technology could bring Japan’s efforts to new heights.

“We could use help with the guidance system and power storage,” said Shigenori Mishima, the vice-commissioner and chief technology officer at the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency.

Those are your (US) strengths. We (Japan) strengths, for example, constructing the rails — in material sciences,” he added, denoting what each country could bring to the table to make the complex project more feasible.

Mishima said he urged Japan Steel Works, the leading Japanese contractor for the country’s railgun program, to collaborate with US defense contractors BAE Systems and General Atomics.

A Brief History of Railgun Technology

While its concept sounds very 21st century-esque, railguns have existed for over a century—nevertheless, they have a complicated developmental history, with the first recorded concept introduction mentioned in 1918.

Accordingly, it is a weapon that uses electromagnetic forces or kinetic energy to launch a non-explosive projectile at incredibly high speeds over long distances. It works by sending a strong electrical current through two parallel metal rails, which creates a powerful magnetic field that pushes the projectile forward, resulting in a high-velocity shot that can cause significant damage to its target.

US Navy conducting a test-fire of its Electromagnetic Railgun in 2008 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

French inventor Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplee pioneered the technology and made the first functional, battlefield-ready railgun, an electromagnetic cannon, in the late 1910s. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the kinetic energy weapon started to become a serious area of research for military and scientific purposes.

Around the 1980s, the US Navy began developing railguns to arm its warships, and by the early 2000s, they had made significant progress. With this, the service became one of the primary drivers of research and development (R&D), allocating a considerable budget until 2021, when it finally announced to pull the plug on its 15-year program.

Apart from shifting its R&D efforts to developing hypersonic missiles and other directed energy weapons, the Navy has also met a roadblock in making its railgun prototypes throughout the years. Firing a single shot alone costs a massive amount of energy from its mounted platform, requiring an equally huge or more storage capacity. Poor reliability is another issue that hampers progress caused of the sheer amount of force each shot generates. The gun’s effectiveness and accuracy decrease over time and has to be maintained more often, including replacing its parts. There’s also the possibility for the weapon itself to self-destruct due to the immense pressure.

Other countries, including China and Russia, have also been investing in railgun technology, but progress like the US has enjoyed has been incredibly slow and challenging, not to mention extremely expensive.

Open to Collaboration

Later, both BAE Systems and General Atomics announced that they had responded to Japan’s invitation to collaborate on the railgun technology.

Before its cancelation, BAE Systems was the primary contractor on the railgun program tasked to materialize the US Navy’s attempt to field the futuristic weapon. The program kickstarted in 2005 as a naval surface fire support weapon seeking to support US Marines operating ashore. The Navy later realize the weapon’s further potential, expanding the program’s scope to include intercepting missile capabilities. By 2010, General Atomics joined the bandwagon and created their prototype for the Navy and a land-based variant for the Army to be mounted on tanks or employed as long-range artillery. But like its sea-based counterpart, the land-based railgun project never came to fruition.

In an emailed statement to National Defense, BAE Systems spokesperson Tim Paynter confirmed that the company had contacted the Japanese government regarding the matter. He added, “We work closely with the US Department of Defense to support international allies and partners and provide innovative solutions to deter current and future threats.”

BAE Systems
BAE Systems’ Electromagnetic Railgun Prototype (Image source: DVIDS)

On the other hand, General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Group (GAESG) has also responded via an emailed statement that the company has expressed eagerness to work with Japan on the railgun project.

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Over the last year, [GAESG] has met with both [Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency] and Japan Steel Works a number of times to discuss Japan’s railgun program,” said Meghan Ehlke, a GAESG representative.

Not only would we welcome the opportunity, [GAESG] looks forward to working with the US and Japanese governments in helping Japan increase their defense capabilities,” she said.

Japan’s call for partnership on the technology makes sense considering the US experience despite failing to progress further.

If we can demonstrate the railgun, the United States might change its mind on the technology,” Mishima said, adding that if successful, it would be a win-win for everybody.

Japan’s Railgun Program

Having to sit in an increasingly volatile region, with threats from North Korea and China, Japan has shed its previously pacifist approach and gradually ramped up its military strength and capabilities. Its efforts include doubling its self-defense budget and allocation to pursue R&D efforts on advanced technologies such as the railgun.

According to reports, the Japanese government set aside 6.5 billion yen ($56 million) last year for a railgun-based counter-hypersonic weapon system and expects to field it by 2030.

But then again, considering the long, complicated development history of the electromagnetic weapon and its demanding requirements, would this goal be feasible even with the help of American defense contractors?

Peter W. Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank, has pointed out the railgun’s significant application “in areas ranging from anti-missile to strike, you name it,” if both developers can address its existing technical issues—with emphasis on the if. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that the fielding of railgun will one day come.

“A key is not just the potential speed and range, but the relative cost per shot versus a missile,” he added.

The railgun may have been a concept since the early 20th century, but technological development has been slow and fraught with challenges. Despite this, Japan remains committed to pursuing it as a top research priority. By collaborating with US defense contractors with expertise in railgun technology, the country hopes to take a step further in the development phase. If successful, the railgun could increase Japan’s defense capabilities and serve as a deterrent against potential threats, at the same time, a valuable asset and a dream come true to the US.

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