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.