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Could Battlefield Railguns Be Coming Soon?

A railgun in action on a Navy vessel.

Advances in military technology are forever happening, with dedicated research and development sections constantly working on new ways to give their forces the edge in warfare. Now, it seems as if the U.S. Army is pushing forward for battlefield railguns, hoping to be the first country to be equipped with these powerful weapons.

For those of you who may be unsure as to what a railgun is, it is a device that uses electromagnetic force to launch projectiles over great distances. This works with the use of a sliding frame that is pushed along a pair of conductive rails at great speed, giving the projectile a great deal of force behind it.

They are currently only found on a select few battleships due to the sheer size of them and the amount of equipment needed for it to work effectively. But thanks to rapid advancements in miniaturising railguns, compact versions of the weapon could soon be out of the laboratory and onto the battlefield. This could lead to potential weapons that would have a big increase in range and energy.

According to reports, the Pentagon’s Defense Ordnance Technology Consortium has awarded a contract to General Atomics. This is the company who developed the U.S. Navy’s railgun system, and they will be tasked to: “evaluate and mature railgun weapon system capabilities in support of U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Command.” The contract also talks about the construction of railgun prototypes that could be used in ground combat for by the Army.

Railguns have been said to be able to send objects at speeds of up to Mach 6, which is much faster than traditional guns that rely on explosive force to fire their projectiles. To try and put this into context, Mach 6 equates to 6,752 fps, and a lot of our airsoft rifles are around 300-350 fps… so yeah, the projectiles fire pretty quickly!

Ground Combat Adaptations

The Army reportedly has two ideas of how they would utilise the railgun technology in ground combat. The first would involve launching projectiles over very long distances, much further than conventional artillery can currently do. Doing this would enable the Army to hit targets deep behind enemy lines while staying out of the range of counter-fire from the enemy.

The second potential use for the railgun verges slightly on the realm of science fiction; they aim to use it as a hypervelocity gun as the main weapon on a battle tank! A tank equipped with a railgun would be extremely formidable on the battlefield, capable of penetrating even the thickest enemy armour from impressive distances.

But to make the railgun a practical land weapon, there still needs to be plenty of technological developments. Although the railgun has been made around eight times smaller than it used to be, it will need to be made even smaller again in order to fit onto a thirty-foot-long tank weighing around sixty tonnes.

Example of railgun damage

Example of railgun damage (DoD photo by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

They must also create a weapon that is durable to withstand long-distance journeys and one that will last; currently, the railgun ‘barrel’ only lasts for a handful of shots, but the armed services would want this to be up at least thousand.

With regards to the projectiles being used, they must be able to withstand strong magnetic fields and the shock of going from zero to Mach 6 pretty much instantaneously. This is particularly important if the projectile features a complex fuse or guidance systems.

These will no doubt be just a few of the issues that will need to be assessed and looked at when it comes to the future of ground combat, but it seems more and more inevitable that gunpowder-based weapons will eventually give way to electricity-based firearms. There is no timescale on when this will happen, but everything is pointing to the fact that it is a matter of when and not if, and America want to be the first ones to do it!

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