Images have recently surfaced on social media suggesting that China may be preparing to test a ship-mounted electromagnetic rail gun. The weapon system was first tested some three years ago, and reports of it being mounted on the deck of a People’s Liberation Army-Navy warship first surfaced late last year.
Electromagnetic rail guns can fire projectiles at astonishing speeds without the use of any explosive fuels. In fact, rail gun projectiles travel so quickly that the kinetic energy transfer of the projectile impacting its target is often far more than the energy released by explosive munitions. A rail gun could be particularly valuable aboard a naval vessel, where it could prove devastating for enemy ships and even targets far ashore.
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
What appears to be China’s rail gun weapon system was spotted mounted on the deck of the Type 072II Yuting-class tank landing ship “Haiyang Shan.” Ships of that sort are powered by diesel-electric engines capable of producing up to 7,080 kW of power, begging some questions about how effective this rail gun may actually be. It stands to reason that the Chinese Navy likely did not originally outfit their Type 072II Yuting-class tank landing ships with a sufficient electrical surplus to actual fire a rail gun.
With that in mind, the rail gun may either be drawing its power from an additional power source installed within the vessel, or it may lack the power needed to be a truly formidable weapon. If the intent of the weapon’s deployment is simply testing, either could be feasible. However, shipping containers and equipment previously seen on the deck of the Haiyang Shan suggest that an additional power source may well be present on the large vessel.
What the hell is this? pic.twitter.com/sQDAsHd7A3
— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) January 31, 2018
U.S. intelligence reports released in June of last year suggest that China’s rail gun design likely boasts a range of approximately 124 miles and can deliver projectiles at an astonishing 1.6 miles per second, or 5,760 miles per hour—significantly faster than Mach 7. Latest estimates place the weapon entering into active service sometime in 2025, which would make ship testing at this point in keeping with anticipated timetables.
Projectiles for China’s rail gun have been estimated to cost between $25,000 and $50,000 each, significantly less expensive than the U.S. Navy’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missiles, which cost more than a million dollars each. The United States has more than one rail gun program in development, but to date, none are mature enough for testing aboard even America’s nuclear-powered vessels that boast the energy surplus needed to power them.