More railguns and lasers, less gunpowder -- the Navy’s future high-tech weaponry

You’ve got to get us off gunpowder, Navy admiral says

US Navy

US Navy war ships and gunpowder have gone together like peanut butter and jelly throughout history but that relationship may change in the not too distant future.

 Speaking before nearly 3,000 attendees at the Naval Future Force Science and Technology (S&T) EXPO in Washington, D.C, Admiral Jonathan Greenert Chief of Naval Operations charged his audience to reduce reliance on gunpowder in a wide-ranging speech on the future technogical needs of the Navy.

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“Number one, you’ve got to get us off gunpowder,” said Greenert, noting that Office of Naval Research-supported weapon programs like Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the electromagnetic railgun are vital to the future force. “Probably the biggest vulnerability of a ship is its magazine—because that’s where all the explosives are.”

 Weapons like LaWS have a virtually unlimited magazine, only constrained by power and cooling capabilities onboard the vessel carrying them. In addition, Greenert noted the added safety for Sailors and Marines that will come from reducing dependency on gunpowder-based munitions.

 He also cited the tremendous cost savings offered by, for instance, laser weapons fired at a dollar per shot, or low-cost Electromagnetic Railgun projectiles, versus needing to rely on million-dollar missiles, in some cases without the same range, for all threats and missions.

The Navy showed off the railgun publically for the first time at the Expo this week. The Navy said that the railgun program is moving toward at-sea testing in 2016. Its technology relies on electricity instead of traditional chemical propellants, with magnetic fields created by high electrical currents launching projectiles at distances over 100 nautical miles—and at speeds that exceed Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound. That velocity allows the weapon’s projectiles to rely on kinetic energy for maximum effect, and reduces the amount of high explosives needed to be carried on ships.

Specifically, on a ship at sea the railgun would gather electricity generated by the ship and store over several seconds in the system's pulsed power system. Next, an electric pulse is sent to the railgun, creating an electromagnetic force capable of accelerating the projectile to Mach speeds the Navy stated. Ultimately the Navy wants the gun to fire projectiles more than 200 nautical miles.

The 30-kilowatt LaWS system has already been successfully tested at sea aboard the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce between September to November. The Navy hopes to deploy variations of the laser weapon system in the fleet by 2020.

The Navy has made directed-energy weapons a top priority to counter all manner of threats including drones and light aircraft and small attack boats.

In June, the  Office of Naval Research said it had awarded contracts to develop a similar weapon to be used on ground vehicles.

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