Secret out — China's Rail Gun Ready to Fire

In recent months China has been making the world aware of its breakthrough in defence technology. After making the world known about EMALs, this time it is rail gun for its Navy.

Issue: 1 / 2018By Rohit SrivastavaPhoto(s): By US Navy
The Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored BAE Systems developed Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG) is a long-range weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants

Delive ring another surprise to the military planners in the Indo-Pacific, China, reportedly, is ready to test its first ship mounted Electro Magnetic Rail Gun (EMRG). After a picture of a Chinese ship with mounted Gun, resembling EMRG appeared online, the world was alarmed to the fact that China appeared to have developed a working rail gun. This created quite a buzz among the online defence sites.

Giving credence to the buzz, People’s Daily- the mouth piece of Chinese government, on February 5, quoting a Chinese military expert, said, “Though, the US has been openly developing electromagnetic guns for years, it doesn’t mean that China is far behind in this field, as the latter [usually] keeps quiet about its progress due to secrecy concerns.”

The report accepts that picture making round was released and the rail gun was indeed mounted on the bow of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Type 072 II landing ship Haiyangshan. Report also say that as the US funding for rail gun has declined has “provided China a chance to catch up.”

The guns are power intensive systems and the landing ship generates enough power to fire them. These are expected to arm the China’s first 10,000-tonne destroyer, the Type 055.

To fire a rail gun, any ship would require an integrated electric power system which can channelize all the power generated in the ship to fire the rail gun and after the shot has been fired it will resume the normal electrical supply. In 2015, China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation had announced that they have crossed a certain threshold in electromagnetic launch technologies.

What is a Rail Gun?

The Electro Magnetic (EM) rail gun is an emerging gun technology which has revolutionized the way a gun operates as it fires projectiles employing electricity instead of using chemical propellants. This is achieved by producing magnetic fields by high electrical currents which accelerates a sliding metal conductor (or armature), between two rails to launch projectiles at about 7,200 kmph (4,500 mph).

The idea behind EMRG is magnetic field created by electric current which interacts with the metal object and makes it move. The force created is at right angles to both direction of the current and the direction of the magnetic field. This simple idea has been translated to develop a rail gun.

Behind the Scene Story

China has developed an integrated propulsion system (IPS) that can handle both EMALS and other power consuming weapons like electromagnetic guns, laser-weapons etc., massive technological jump for any nation. IPS with conventional power can convert power more efficiently than nuclear propulsion. With this kind of flexibility IPS can also be fitted in other vessels like destroyers.

At the centre of the IPS is a semiconductor device, called Insulated-Gate Bipolar Transistor (IGBT) and its related technology. State owned Zhuzhou CRC Times Electric, manufacturer of propulsion and control systems for trains and electric vehicles, during the economic crisis of 2008, acquired 75 per cent stakes in Dynex Semiconductor – a British electronic component maker to access the restricted IGBT technology.

Type 055 Destroyers

The under development Type 055 Destroyers is being compared to the US Navy’s Zumwalt class Destroyers. Both these naval ships are slated to have rail guns in their arsenal. The first Type 055 is undergoing outfitting at the Chinese Jiangnan Shipyard. The ship was launched in June last year. It is expected to enter into the service some times this year.

The guided missile destroyer was launched on June 28 at China State Shipbuilding Corp’s Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and it is expected to carry 100 vertically launched missiles. It will carry anti ship, anti submarine, anti aircraft and anti ballistic missile capabilities. The stealth ship when fully loaded may reach 13,000 tonnes. The enormous fire power of the ship will come handy when it will replace the Type 052 destroyers from its aircraft carriers escort duty. The Type 055 is designed to fulfill the needs of the carrier battle group.

BAE’s Gun

On December 10, 2010, a prototype EMRG, developed by BAE System, was test fired at the US Naval Surface Warfare Center. According to the BAE Systems, “At full capability, the EM Railgun mounted on US naval vessels will be able to fire a projectile 100 nautical miles at a muzzle velocity up to Mach 7.5 and impacting the target at Mach 5. The high-velocity projectile will destroy land, sea, and air targets due to its kinetic energy, rather than with conventional explosives.

Why EMRG?

According to report of the US’ Congressional Research Service, December 2017, the estimated unit cost of the EMRG’s projectile is about $25,000, much lesser than any missile of the similar range. According to the study, the “unit procurement costs for ship-launched SAMs in the FY2018 are as follows: about $9,76,000 for the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), about $1.75 million to about $2.5 million for the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), about $4.4 million for the SM-6 Block 1 missile, and about $12.5 million for the SM-3 Block 1B missile. RAM and ESSM are short-range missiles for defense against aircraft and ASCMs. The SM-6 Block 1 is a medium-range missile used for both defense against aircraft and ASCMs, and terminal (i.e., endo-atmospheric) defense against theater-range ballistic missiles. The SM-3 Block 1B is used for mid-course (i.e., exo-atmospheric) defense against theater-range ballistic missiles.”

Cost of the projectile is not the only rationale behind the gun but the depth of the magazine and cost exchange ratio. With proliferation of missile and military drone – armed and unarmed, the naval ships require large number of projectile to bring them down as the chances of overwhelming the fleet with low cost drones are very high. There is a limit to the number of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) any ship can carry. Moreover, firing a costly missile to bring down a cheap drone will be potentially unaffordable.

Most of the major nations can acquire military drone in large number and can also manufacture them as well. Therefore, possibility of swarm of attacking drone is a real possibility and naval ships need to prepare themselves for such eventuality. EMRG solves this problem as it not only has range, hypersonic speed but also deep magazine with cheap projectiles. Any ship can carry hundreds of them.

In 2005, when the development programme was launched, EMRG was supposed to provide fire support to US marines operating on the enemy shores. But due to its hypersonic speed the gun was also found out to be capable of neutralising fast maneuvering aircrafts and anti ship – ballistic and cruise – missiles.

The under development gun is slated to have capability to fire 10 rounds of 35 pounds projectile at Mach 5.8. The barrel of the gun can last up to 1,000 shots. US Navy is expected to integrate EMRG on to its latest over 14,000 tonnes Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class destroyer by the middle of the next decade.