Electromagnetic railguns and high-power electronics: you ain't seen nothin' yet

By John Keller
Posted by John Keller

There's just no way to understate the military's future need for high-power electronics . Electric-drive vehicles, all-electric aircraft, and aircraft carrier catapults are just some of the potential applications.

Yet the emergence of electromagnetic railguns has raised the bar dramatically for high-power electronics. The U.S. Navy plans to use these weapons aboard future surface warships to shoot non-explosive shells at a speed of March 8 -- eight times the speed of sound, or roughly 6,000 miles per hour.

At that speed you don't need explosives; the kinetic energy alone is enough to make vehicle-size objects disappear in balls of fire. Forget artillery shells and missiles. Fire an electromagnetic railgun at a target 10 miles away and the projectile gets there in less than six seconds. That's not much time to react. You'd never hear it coming; you'd be lucky even to see it.

Now get this: the Navy wants electromagnetic railguns with ranges of hundreds of miles. Shot a target 200 miles away and the projectile gets there in about two minutes. A Harpoon anti-ship missile would take about 22 minutes to fly that far. It's not hard to see how batteries of electromagnetic railguns -- especially those that could fire rapidly -- might be able to overwhelm enemy air defenses very quickly.

Believe this is science fiction? Think again. The Office of Naval Research has taken delivery of a functional, 32-megajoule Electro-Magnetic Laboratory Rail Gun from BAE Systems, and the gun will be demonstrated this week at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va. The Navy envisions 64-megajoule electromagnetic railguns for future shipboard use.

The difficulty of deploying future electromagnetic railguns might not lie in the technology necessary to build these weapons, but in producing the incredibly large amounts of electricity necessary to operate them.

Think of the kind of electromagnetic railgun the Navy wants for future warships. It takes 64 megajoules to shoot it. That's equal to about 18 kilowatt hours, or about the same amount of power an average American household uses in an entire day. Those future warships carrying these kinds of weapons are going to need amazing power plants.

Think of the generators that will be necessary to operate the electromagnetic railgun. This requirement for electricity production is likely to have a profound influence over future ship design.

It looks like the designers of high-power electronics and components have their work cut out for them. Ready or not, industry, the Navy is going to need a lot of electrical power, and very soon. We wouldn't want those electromagnetic rail guns to be all dressed up and have nowhere to plug them in.

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The Mil & Aero Bloggers

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell’s Aerospace & Defense Media Group, including Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence and Avionics Europe.  He’s a father of four, a runner, and an avid digital media enthusiast with a deep background in the intersection of media publishing, digital technology, and social media. He can be reached at ernestob@pennwell.com and on Twitter @aero_ernesto.

Courtney E. Howard, as executive editor, enjoys writing about all things electronics and avionics in PennWell’s burgeoning Aerospace and Defense Group, which encompasses Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, the Avionics Europe conference, and much more. She’s also a self-proclaimed social-media maven, mil-aero nerd, and avid avionics geek. Connect with Courtney at Courtney@Pennwell.com, @coho on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Mil & Aero Magazine

December 2013
Volume 24, Issue 12
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