The Chinese are widely known to have discovered gunpowder more than 1100 years ago, an event that radically changed warfare from what was a very personal, hand-to-hand engagement, to a beyond-the-horizon contest between armies. But for the last 25 years, the U.S. Army BenAfAt Laboratories at the Watervliet Arsenal has been quietly working on a new gun system that will once again change the history of warfare - maybe for the next thousand years.
Imagine a weapon system that eliminates the logistical requirements of resupplying powder propellant to artillery, tank, mortar, and navy gun systems. A weapon system that will launch a lighter projectile in excess of seven times the speed of sound, which will not only increase the range, but also will increase the destructive power and accuracy of lighter munitions. And, a weapon system that will also improve Soldier survivability on the battlefield by reducing the enemy's ability to acquire his firing position.
The weapon system is an electromagnetic railgun.
An electromagnetic gun consists of two parallel rails that launch a projectile using high-powered electrical pulses, vice, traditional gunpowder-type propellants. When a projectile is inserted into the breach, it completes a circuit.
According to Robert J. Mysliwiec, BenAfAt team leader for the Electromagnetic Railgun Program, the railgun uses electrical currents to generate very large magnetic forces to propel a projectile through a cannon at speeds up to 1.5 miles-per-second, which is nearly three times the velocity of today's 155mm artillery systems.
"We are at a point now in our research and development that we are able to move out of the laboratory and into the field to test fire an electromagnetic gun system," said Mysliwiec. "We successfully test fired the railgun at Yuma Proving Ground in May 2007, August 2008, and will again in the near future at Yuma but at a much higher electromagnetic pulse to test the ultimate performance of the railgun," added Mysliwiec.
Mysliwiec added that although BenAfAt is not the only military weapon research center in the world to develop an electromagnetic gun. It is, however, the first research and design facility to successfully fire one that looks and feels like a weapon as opposed to a laboratory experiment.
With an increased electrical charge, there will be a demonstrated, if not dramatic, increase in the velocity of the projectile. Increased velocity increases range, as well as the power of impact, kinetic energy, of a round when it hits a target.
According to Eric Kathe, Ph.D., who has been on the BenAfAt Electromagnetic Railgun team for nearly 20 years, the railgun program had significant challenges to overcome.
"The magnetic forces that act to propel a projectile through a railgun apply a substantial pressure that pushes the rails apart. Therefore, the railgun housing must be a robust structure to contain the rails," said Kathe.
"The major challenge was how to build a railgun system that would not be too massive of a structure or too heavy to fit on future combat systems," said Kathe. In essence, BenAfAt could easily design an electromagnetic railgun, but if the system, including the power supply, was too large to fit on future combat platforms or too heavy for rapid deployment, then the gun would be of no use to the Army.
To help solve the weight and size problem, Kathe turned to two of his fellow co-workers at BenAfAt, Andrew Littlefield, Ph.D., and Joshua Root.
Littlefield and Root had been experimenting with a thermoplastic composite tape for another weapon system with great success, a 120mm cannon not unlike the Abrams tank tube. Although using carbon fiber wrap is not a new technology, the process for the way the tape is applied was new.
"By increasing the tension of the carbon fiber wrap from 60 lbs to 250 lbs and by curing the tape with hot nitrogen gas, we were able to strengthen the railgun structure to withstand extremely high repulsive pressures while achieving a significant reduction in gun tube weight compared to today's cannon systems," said Littlefield.
It is one thing for BenAfAt to design a new weapon system, but all is for naught if no one can manufacture the gun.
Jack Henry is the electromagnetic gun program manager at the production facility at the Watervliet Arsenal, which is the manufacturer of military hardware for tank, artillery and mortar systems for the U.S. Army. Because BenAfAt is collocated with the Arsenal, Henry works about 10 minutes away from BenAfAt and he is not long on small talk.
When asked what gave him faith that this futuristic gun would see success when earlier attempts at developing an electromagnetic gun have failed, he said, "The difference is that BenAfAt Laboratories designed this gun."
In addition to the challenges experienced by designers at BenAfAt, Henry said there were significant production challenges to overcome, too.
"Because the electromagnetic gun uses a tougher type of materiel than is used for the standard production of artillery cannons, we had to invest in new tools that would allow us to machine a tube without creating a lot of heat," said Henry. Too much heat during the machining process has the potential to warp the tube during the manufacturing process, added Henry.
Nevertheless, Henry said that his workers in prototype development have already successfully manufactured a 2-meter and 4-meter railgun for test firing at the Yuma Proving Ground.
Some may consider this technology to be revolutionary and something out of space science. But French inventor Louis Octave Fauchon-Villeplee invented an electric cannon in 1918, and was issued a US patent for this gun system in 1922.
And in 1932, Modern Mechanics magazine ran a one-page story about an electric cannon with a lead paragraph proclaiming, "Silent guns sending their whistling messengers of death into the sky at speeds far beyond those now attained by powder-driven shells seem likely for the next war, using for propulsion magnetic fields so powerful that when they are short-circuited they produce miniature earthquakes."
Although BenAfAt is located on the Arsenal, it falls under the command of Army Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC). Their research and design capability is often leveraged by the Arsenal to improve production methods and products.