Rail Gun

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Navy 'Rail Gun' Moves Forward
InsideDefense.com NewsStand | Rati Bishnoi | February 02, 2007
Navy officials charged with furthering the service’s electromagnetic rail gun effort will begin using a powerful “lab launcher” this summer that may shed light on the most pressing technological hurdle in the development of the futuristic weapon, Inside the Pentagon has learned.

The launcher, which replicates portions of the system, will provide an “instrumented environment” for service officials to better understand and control the inside of the gun’s barrel, Elizabeth D’Andrea, the Office of Naval Research’s rail gun “innovative naval prototype” program manager, told ITP this week.

This June, BAE Systems will deliver the 32 megajoules lab launcher to ONR’s Electromagnetic Launch Facility, located in Virginia at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Dahlgren Division Laboratory.

A measurement of energy, a megajoule, or MJ, is a million joules.

The launcher is “designed for us to be able to open the inside of the gun and put in new rails, put in new materials, insulators, put in testing equipment [that are] able to analyze what’s going on inside,” D’Andrea told ITP in a Jan. 30 interview.

Navy officials tout rail guns, which could one day send warship-based kinetic fires hundreds of miles inland, as a means of providing ground-support fires in a fraction of the time it takes conventional munitions to arrive on target.

The technology involves sending an electric current along parallel rails up and through an armature -- an iron rod that connects the poles of a magnet. An electromagnetic force is created strong enough to fire a metal projectile at high speeds, between Mach 7 and 8, before its hits a target at around Mach 5.

Last year, BAE Systems was awarded a $5.4 million contract for the design and fabrication of the lab launcher, according to a July 2006 company statement.

Experiments with the launcher will focus on how the “projectile will interface inside the barrel” and examine the effects of the temperature and electromagnetic field on its performance, D’Andrea said.

Developing the launcher is the main focus of the “innovative naval prototype” program’s first phase. INPs “are conceived to develop prototype systems for technologies that still have high risk associated with them, but which will produce high payoff if successful,” according to an ONR fact sheet.

The first phase is scheduled to end in fiscal year 2011, D’Andrea said.

At the end of the phase, teams from BAE Systems and General Atomics will present ONR with their versions of a rail gun capable of 32 MJ of muzzle energy. The guns will be evaluated on launcher construction, firing power, and barrel life, Roger Ellis, ONR’s technical director for the program, said during the same interview.

The second phase of the program, which will focus on developing the projectile, will end in FY-15.

If development progresses as planned, ONR officials believe the science and technology effort could be transitioned to research and development under Naval Sea Systems Command the same year, with “sea demos” involving a tactical system with 64 MJ of muzzle energy in FY-16, D’Andrea said.

A ship-based rail gun is presently being targeted for the 2020 to 2024 time frame, she added.

This time line will be valid only if the chief of naval research determines in August FY-09 that rail gun technology is mature enough to proceed past a “go, no-go” point, D’Andrea said.

Before the review, officials will develop modeling and simulation systems that will take into account how materials, temperatures and other aspects of the technology affect intended performance, she said.

Officials will then conduct live testing and then compare results to modeling and simulation results. “If we believe we have a 70 to 80 percent understanding of the interaction that is occurring in the barrel and we believe there is a clear path [for] overcoming any obstacles based on that analysis, then it will be a go,” D’Andrea said.

“But if we have any show-stoppers, things that we don’t see a clear path ahead, we haven’t come across any materials, we can’t explain certain aspects of the physics, these things would have to be looked at closely to determine whether to continue the program,” she said.

The Navy has already invested $36 million in the effort, and is projected to need an additional $240 million until FY-11 in order to maintain the current time line, according to D’Andrea.

Scheduling the program’s review for late FY-09 will give officials nearly 10 months of data, culled from shooting projectiles from a 32 MJ rail gun that will be delivered to the Dahlgren facility in the summer, D’Andrea said.

ONR officials are already preparing for the review.

D’Andrea has chartered studies on ship integration, the effect of electromagnetic energy on personnel and systems, the potential logistics benefits of having rail gun systems aboard ships and different types of projectiles.

Findings from all the studies are due to ONR this year and are part of the progress toward the decision point in FY-09.

Further, D’Andrea has already received the results of a “test site study” that looked at the potential ranges where phase-two testing could take place. Potential candidates include White Sands Missile Range, NM, and Army Yuma Proving Ground, AZ, she said. A test plan is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

Although the gun will be delivered to the Dahlgren test facility in June, officials will be unable to use it until early FY-09 because the Navy has not procured enough capacitors to power the system, she said.

Nearly 100 capacitors are needed to power the 32 MJ of muzzle energy of the gun, but the cost, volume and limited industrial base are lengthening the procurement process, D’Andrea said.

“So it’s really not the gun that’s the limiting factor for doing a 32 megajoule shot, it’s really the ability of industry to provide the capacitors and our ability to procure them,” she said.

Until now, officials have conducted low-energy tests at the Dahlgren facility using a rail gun with 8 MJ of muzzle energy, according to D’Andrea. The gun, which was originally used by the Army during the late 1980s and early 1990s for testing, has been loaned to the Navy, Ellis said.

The Army is also developing rail gun technology for tanks, which will require one-quarter of the energy the Navy needs for its ship missions, D’Andrea said.

Navy officials are still eying “electric ships” such as the next-generation destroyer DDG(1000) -- formerly known as DD(X) -- for the weapon, if development progresses as planned.

Although it is early in the program’s development, officials have already created a operating concept to help maintain focus on how the rail gun may one day be used by the warfighter, D’Andrea said.

“We have made significant strides in the first year of funding of the program,” which began in 2005, D’Andrea said. “We have got clear goals and objectives set for each year to reduce risk and increase our technology readiness level.”

“This is not your mother’s S&T program,” she said, noting that Office of Naval Research chief Rear Adm. William Landay has added more structure and “deliverables” to such high-risk projects.

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