DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- A new electromagnetic railgun is ready for testing at Dugway, where General Atomics has been testing railguns for the Navy periodically since 2008. Railguns use electricity instead of gunpowder to propel projectiles far faster than conventional munitions.
Previous railguns tested at Dugway were three megajoule systems, but the new system will use up to 10 megajoules of energy to fire specialized projectiles at velocities unobtainable with gunpowder, according to Nick Bucci, vice president of Missile Defense and Space Systems at General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems. A joule is a measure of energy. A megajoule (one million joules) is equivalent to the kinetic energy of a 2,205-pound vehicle moving at 99.42 miles an hour.
Dugway's primary mission is to test defenses against chemical and biological agents, but it regularly opens its 800,000 acres of desert to be used by unrelated testers requiring more space to test their systems. Another attribute: Dugway's climate is diverse; annual temperatures range from 105 to -15 Fahrenheit. High winds, snow, rain and dust storms are occasional.
"It's those real-world conditions that help us hone the design better, that the Warfighter has to deal with in the real world," Bucci said. "Dugway won out for flexibility of range, willingness to work with us and capabilities. One of the biggest advantages is that it's an open range. We're out there firing for kilometers. It just gives us the flexibility to get a lot more data."
Interest in railguns is high because the weapon fires projectiles at higher velocity, farther and with greater rapidity than conventional artillery, making it a formidable defense against ballistic and cruise missiles. A June 26 Pentagon report noted that Iran, Russia, North Korea, China and others are investing heavily in ballistic and cruise missile programs with long range capabilities. The threat is expected to continue growing.
Invented in France in 1918, the railgun has long drawn military interest for its advantages over conventional munitions.
Railguns use two parallel metallic rails with a sliding armature between them that holds the projectile. When a large electromagnetic pulse is introduced to the rails, a powerful magnetic field is created that propels the armature and projectile along the rails at hypervelocity. Velocity depends upon the power of the pulse.
Railgun projectiles are non-explosive and safer to manufacture, transport and store. Velocity is adjustable shot-to-shot, conserving power. Projectiles are guided to the target after leaving the launcher, and reach a target faster. At 100 yards, railguns sound no louder than a .30-06 rifle firing. What little "smoke" they create is actually plasma particulates or dust.
Previous testing with the three megajoule railguns produced projectile velocities up to two kilometers (6,562 feet) per second -- nearly double that of conventional artillery. According to press releases, within 10 years, the Navy expects to arm some ships with the railgun for missile defense. In 2018 at Dugway, General Atomics plans to test the 10 megajoule system against a cruise missile surrogate.
Historically, railguns have been hindered by their enormous power demands and rapid rail wear from heat and friction, curtailing their field portability. But General Atomics is making progress on both issues.
"We're getting more energy in a smaller package, so you can have more energy and still have (the railgun) be transportable," Bucci said. "We've made tremendous strides on the energy density of capacitors."
In the past, the rails lasted for a few dozen shots. "The way we produce the launchers now, we believe bore life will be in the neighborhood of thousands of shots," Bucci said.