A Chinese defense contractor may be on its way to key breakthroughs in railgun weaponry.
Railguns are one of the potential game-changing weapons of future war. Instead of using the power of chemical explosives such as gunpowder, a railgun uses electromagnetic force to propel projectiles to hypersonic speeds, potentially up to ranges of several hundred miles. A railgun’s barrel has two parallel conducting rails built into it. When a moving armature (usually the projectile) is inserted into the barrel, it connects the parallel rails to complete the current, thus generating an intense electromagnetic field. The projectile then accelerates out of the barrel at high speeds.
These new class of weapons are considered by the US Navy to be a key technology for meeting 21st century warfighting needs, most notably in plans for countering China’s military growth. Until now, the tech have been primarily a US dominated space; the U.S. Navy for example will test a railgun on the USNS Trenton starting in 2016. This seems to be changing.
The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has reported online that its 206 Institute, which researches electromagnetic launch technologies, has made breakthroughs in electromagnetically launch boosted missiles and railguns designed for close in weapons systems (CIWS). This follows the 206 Institute’s hosting of the Seventh Chinese Electromagnetic Technology Conference in Oct 2015, which also reported advances in material sciences to reduce railgun barrel wear (while railgun technology have been tested since 1918, power generation and the wearing out of the barrel are longstanding barriers to the deployment of militarily useful railguns).
Phoenix Television reported on a number of other related railgun research advances. An early November 2015 news broadcast stated that Chinese researchers have made breakthroughs in electromagnetic aircraft launch systems (EMALS) and railguns, in areas from power storage to tougher barrel materials. EMALS catapults could be installed on Chinese aircraft carriers in the next decade, improving the performance of Chinese naval aircraft. The Phoenix TV broadcast also suggested that the PLAN hopes to test its own operational railgun in the next couple of years.
Despite longstanding public conceptions of China only developing copycat weapons aided by intellectual property theft and espionage (such as the F-35 and J31 fighter jet similarity) , China’s progress in developing new cutting edge military technologies like railguns actually reflects a deep investment in the field. Chinese scientists from civilian and military universities submitted the most papers at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’s 2014 Symposium on Electromagentic Launch in California, and China will host the upcoming 2016 Symposium as well.
The likely use of the reported railgun in a close in weapons systems (CIWS) would be to defend Chinese warships and bases against not just conventional airplanes and missiles, but also hypersonic and ballistic missiles. But China’s recent progress in railgun technology also points to their potential in the same long range fight role the US navy envisions (covered in the recent book Ghost Fleet). There have been online rumors that suggest that the second batch of Type 055 guided missile destroyers (potentially to be termed the Type 055A, following the naming pattern) will be armed with large railguns in the place of older 130mm cannons, for long range anti-surface and air defense warfare. The putative Type 055A destroyer class would likely be launched after 2020, and feature integrated electrical propulsion, for increased power generation to power railguns, lasers and advanced sensors.
Just as a railgun was recently shown off at the US Army Association’s national convention, the technology might also be based on land, where indeed the power generation issues are less challenging than trying to fit onboard a ship. Large Chinese railguns could also be placed on ground vehicles (similar to the General Atomic Blitzer) to provide mobility, concealed on Chinese territory while defended by A2/AD systems. The long range and accurate rapid fire capabilities of railguns would give the PLA a cheaper, higher volume of fire, and less risky alternative to current ballistic, cruise missile and air strikes in the Chinese arsenal.
A railgun technology arms race seems to be happening, and it is something to keep a close watch. It could very well reshape what is possible or not in the Pacific security issues in the decades to come.