Hypervelocity Electromagnetic Railguns

The Institute for Advanced Technology at the University of Texas recently produced a very interesting presentation on hypervelocity railguns (2.6MB PDF) and their potential military applications.

The premise is brutally simple – use a large amount of energy (kilojoules) to propel a relatively small projectile at wickedly high velocities. How high? In excess of three kilometres per second, that’s how high (close to 10,000 feet per second.) At these kinds of velocities, they say, it’s all about kinetic energy – forget the thermobaric warheads, the shaped-charge explosives, the special warheads; a tungsten or tungsten-carbide rod is all you need to punch through even the most advanced reactive armor around, let alone boring old solid or composite armor:

Supposedly, the folks down in Texas have overcome most if not all of the major technical hurdles facing the military deployment of railguns, and have some pretty ambitious ideas for the uses of these things.

The technology has been around for decades, of course, and they’re not the first people to look at the military use of a railgun. One wonders if their time has finally come, and whether we’re going to transition from the age of an endless cycle of increasingly complex, increasingly expensive weapons systems and countermeasures into a new age where the competition is not to be more clever, or more ingenious, but simply to lob inert rods of metal at one another at ever-increasing velocities? What would this do for the world’s air forces? A projectile closing at 10,000fps doesn’t give one a lot of time for evasive maneuvering, and no countermeasure is going to do much against a dumb rod of metal, after all.

I suspect that it’ll be a long time before railguns become anything near commonplace in military use, and I’m personally skeptical that they’ll make it to the front lines of a conflict at any point in our lifetimes. That said, if they really achieve the promised performance, range, and accuracy, a handful of these doubtless expensive weapons could prove mightily effective, if only as a deterrent…

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on September 14th, 2007| 6 Comments »

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  1. On 9/15/2007 at 2:43 am Watching Them, Watching Us Said:

    The presentation says nothing about how you can possibly prevent such devices from instantly betraying their exact position to an enemy armed with even the crudest radio direction finding equipment.

    Thunderstorms and lightning strikes are automatically position mapped in real time from halfway around the world – how can these electromagnetic rail guns be any different ?

    You could probably even pick up significant characteristic radio emissions and a local disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field from the power plant when it is powered up, even before the weapon has fired its first shot.

  2. On 9/16/2007 at 3:30 pm Nemo Said:

    While the firing of such a weapon probably produces a quite identifiable electromagnetic signature, which as you point out is likely detectable with minimal difficulty, conventional weapon discharges are just as easily detected with relatively unsophisticated equipment, so I don’t really see that it’s that big of an issue.

    As for RF emissions from the power generation equipment, I like to think such would be very well shielded, if only to protect crew members and nearby friendly personnel and equipment from exposure to the same…

  3. On 9/17/2007 at 1:58 pm Beadwench Said:

    So we’ve come so far to only return to the past. The stupid things remind me of old time cannons lobbing solid balls of iron or stone at castle walls. I’m almost afraid to ask what is next…

  4. On 9/18/2007 at 5:24 pm Watching Them, Watching Us Said:

    @ Nemo –

    “conventional weapon discharges are just as easily detected with relatively unsophisticated equipment, so I don’t really see that it’s that big of an issue.”

    Conventional artillery and mortars counter-battery tracking requires active radar or artillery spotting drones etc. which also give away their own positions. Tank and anti-tank guns, with their near line of sight flat trajectories, are not usually picked up by such parabolic trajectory plotting radars.

    However, plotting the exact position of an electromagnetic rail gun, will only require undetectable, passive equipment which detects the the gun itself, rather than attempting to track the trajectory of the very fast projectile. It seems likely that this can be done at a very considerable distance.

    Plasma at “20,000 degrees Kelvin” will produces lots of electromagnetic waves at all frequencies i.e. “black body radiation”


    “As for RF emissions from the power generation equipment, I like to think such would be very well shielded, if only to protect crew members and nearby friendly personnel and equipment from exposure to the same…”

    Passive shielding must add considerably to the weight of such a system. Active shielding e.g. trying to generate an anti-phase electromagnetic field to mask the emissions, would add to the complexity, could also significantly increase the power requirements. It could be worse than useless, actually helping to betray the position, if it gets knocked even slightly out of perfect phase alignment due to vibration or severe weather conditions etc. on a battlefields.

    Given the multi-MegaWatt power output of the proposed weapons systems, even passive or active shielding measures which are more than 99% effective will still let through very strong radio signals, to betray the position of the unit to the enemy, at a long distance.

    The presentation shows a ship board system, which will make the designers of magentic mines and attack submarine commanders with their arrays of magnetometers very happy. It will also cause extra Tempest shielding headaches for the designers of other electronic equipment on board, something which is already a major problem today.

  5. On 9/18/2007 at 5:54 pm Nemo Said:

    WTWU – you forget, I think, that conventional weapon (and presumably, electromagnetic railgun) discharges can – and are – passively detected with both accoustic and optical sensors. Sure, you need two data points to triangulate from – but that’s true of any passive detection, I believe. Whiz-bang technology isn’t going to change the fundamental truth that if you have a line-of-sight to the target, the target has a line-of-sight to you, as well.

    As for tracking the weapons system itself – or, rather, detecting the system before it has been employed – much probably depends on how fast such a system can be brought up to power from a “cold start”; if it can generate the requisite power, energize the railgun, and fire in a matter of seconds – something I admit there’s no indication such a system can do, at least yet – “shoot and scoot” might be the order of the day.

    Like I said, I’m really skeptical of the front-line potential of such a device, but the designers and developers evidently see the technology as suitable for a long-range, indirect-fire support weapon, where the detectability of the weapon platform is presumably acceptable.

    To be perfectly frank, I suspect the developers are only concerned with making their device do what it’s supposed to, and view all the incidental problems – power generation, shielding, and so on – as SEP. Too, if the American military are intent on a near-future of fighting irregular forces and third-world insurgencies, they might just not care about the detectability of the weapon by high-technology means. After all, why spend money trying to disguise the emissions of an artillery system and hide it from electromagnetic sensors if sympathetic locals can see it from a nearby hilltop?

    (Never mind the probable lack of well-protected insurgent targets needing the attention of such a weapon…)

  6. On 12/26/2007 at 4:59 am Donald Beggs Said:

    My Father worked on the first Calutron to create Little Boy, used over Hiroshima. After the War he Fathered me and the MidREX process using natural gas instead of coal (Direct Reduction). After he left for His Eternal Reward his co-workers developed a method to smelt Silvery iron pellets in 8 minutes instead of 8 hrs. a light extremely high velocity rain of such pellets using a SLAC type acellerator to accelerate the pellets as fast as the capacitors could be charged would be like a silent rail gun. My Father’s name is Donald Beggs, as is mine.