Earlier this month, we talked about how BAE Systems are utilizing VR tech to build advanced warships for the Royal Navy. As it turns out, the firm is also looking forth to develop and improve electromagnetic railgun technology for the US military. As a matter of fact, there are two folds to this development scope, with the initial project entailing a prototype system to be furnished for the US Navy by 2016. However, the BAE engineers are also confident of a more streamlined railgun design that can be potentially equipped on land-based tracked vehicles, thus transforming them into futuristic tanks.
For the uninitiated, the railgun is basically an electromagnetic projectile launcher which is powered by electricity. In terms of design, the weapon generally comprises of a pair of parallel conductive rails and a sliding armature. Now, when current is passed through the system, the armature is accelerated by the resultant electromagnetic effect, which finally helps in discharging the projectile. So, as can be comprehended from this working scope, the railgun totally eschews the need for an explosive mechanism. This makes the munitions safer to both store and handle, while also accounting for lower collateral damage.
However, the real advantage of railguns lies in the incredible degree of acceleration that can be achieved when discharging such inert projectiles. For example, BAE’s own working prototype has an impressive muzzle velocity of Mach 7.5, and a range of over 200 km (124 miles). When these factors are combined without taking any payload into account, each projectile can boast of a massive magnitude of contained kinetic energy that is perfect for ranged missile systems.
As for the upcoming technological applications from BAE, the firm is looking forth to install operational railgun prototypes on high speed marine vessels for the initial testing phase. Funded by Office of Naval Research (ONR), these advanced weapons can make their debut on boards of the future Zumwalt class of destroyers. But arguably more interesting is BAE’s second phase plan for inducting railgun tech into US Army’s next generation Future Fighting Vehicles (FFV). The company’s grand scheme relates to a scaled down version of a railgun system that can be possibly attached as tank armament by 2019 (much like the Tau technology from the Warhammer 40K universe).
If successfully implemented, this might very well be a game changer in the realm of land-based weaponry. However, with the stakes being higher on land-based warfare, there are also several problems that can crop up with such mechanisms. For starters, railguns need electricity to operate, with a single shot likely to account for a substantial 30 MJ. Well, ships can offer that kind of energy through their on-board power stations (some of which have nuclear credentials). But the predicament gets exacerbated in the case of land vehicles, since even futuristic tanks can rarely boast of dedicated power setups. A good example to cite here would be the proposed plan from Germany’s Ordnance Office during World War II of railguns being fitted to existing 12.8 cm FlaK 40 mounts. Later studies done on the project revealed that each of these guns would have needed the lighting power of at least half of Chicago!
Another major predicament to the practical adoption of railgun technology pertains to the weapon’s durability (or lack thereof). The high magnitudes of energy flowing through the conductive rails often manage to debilitate their internal components. Furthermore, railgun barrels also have the tendency to be eroded due to unstable handling of the heat ambit. Anyhow, the full fledged unveiling of the FFV program will only occur in 2016; and by that period, many of the military experts will surely have some notions about the practicality of a hi-tech railgun mounted on a boisterous tank.