THE MIL & AERO VIDEO BLOG, 6 Aug. 2012. Imagine a naval surface battle without missiles. Okay, it's really not that hard; many of the big ones -- Trafalgar, Jutland, Leyte Gulf -- didn't have missiles. They only had the most powerful naval guns of their eras.
To add punch and accuracy to surface warfare, the Navy later added anti-ship missiles like the Harpoon to its arsenal. Big guns and big missiles are effective, but they have their drawbacks. Missiles are expensive, with their rocket engines and precision guidance. Big naval guns cause lots of damage to the enemy -- sometimes too much -- and they're dangerous for the users, as well. In 1989 a turret on the USS Iowa fitted with three 16-inch guns exploded, killing 47 crewmen.
Now imagine a naval surface battle fought not with missiles, and not with big guns, but with hypervelocity projectiles launched from shipboard electromagnetic railguns. The U.S. Navy is imagining doing just this, and to do it they need some of the most rugged electronics and guidance systems ever developed.
Now everybody has an idea of how naval guns and missiles work. The 16-inch main guns on Iowa-class battleships travels at about 1,800 miles per hour, give or take; it's about the speed of a bullet. The shell reaches its top speed shortly after leaving the gun's barrel, so that projectile is under some pretty impressive G forces at the instant of firing.
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Now think about a naval anti-ship missile like the U.S. Harpoon, or French Exocet. That weapon has a top speed of about 540 miles per hour -- or less than a third the speed of a battleship shell. A missile, moreover, builds up to its top speed much more gradually than an artillery shell, and so safeguards its guidance electronics from excessive and potentially damaging G forces.
But now think of future generations of hyper-velocity projectiles launched from shipboard electromagnetic railguns. These naval munitions will travel at about six thousand miles per hour, or eight times the speed of sound. That's more than three times the speed of a battleship shell -- which will subject these projectiles to 20,000 to 30,000 Gs at launch.
Now these hyper-velocity projectiles of the future won't simply be dumb munitions like a battleship shell. They will have their own electronic guidance systems, which will have to survive the crushing G forces of launch, and intense heat of hypervelocity flight, to guide these future weapons to their targets.
This isn't just science fiction either. The Office of Naval Research has announced the Hyper Velocity Projectile program, which seeks to develop rugged electronics, strong materials, and warheads for accurate high-velocity weapons. Navy researchers demonstrated an electromagnetic railgun prototype four years ago. Trust me, this kind of weapon is coming.
Hyper-velocity projectiles destroy targets by pure speed; they don't even need conventional explosive warheads. The kinetic energy alone is enough to make vehicle-size targets disappear in balls of fire.
Shoot an electromagnetic railgun at a target 10 miles away and the projectile gets there in less than six seconds. For a target 200 miles away it gets there in about two minutes. A missile would take more than 20 minutes to reach such a distant target. Furthermore, no one would hear it coming, and probably wouldn't even be able to see it.
I guess that's the idea.