Engineers have fired the Navy’s first industry-built electromagnetic railgun (EM Railgun) prototype launcher at a test facility, beginning an evaluation that is an important intermediate step toward a future tactical weapon for ships. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is evaluating the first of two industry-built launchers. The tests will bring the Navy closer to a new naval gun system capable of extended ranges against surface, air, and ground targets.

The EM Railgun launcher is a long-range weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. Magnetic fields created by high electrical currents accelerate a sliding metal conductor, or armature, between two rails to launch projectiles at 4,500 to 5,600 mph.

The 32-megajoule prototype demonstrator, built by BAE Systems, is the first of two industry-built launchers to be delivered to the Navy. General Atomics is building the second launcher. After installing the BAE Systems launcher and outfitting it with a suite of sensors, high-speed cameras, and measuring devices, engineers fired low-energy test shots to prepare it for the evaluation. The team will conduct tests at 20 megajoules and 32 megajoules.

When fully developed, the EM Railgun will give sailors a dramatically increased multi-mission capability. Its increased velocity and extended range over traditional shipboard weapons will allow them to conduct precise, long-range naval surface fire support for land strikes; ship self-defense against cruise and ballistic missiles; and surface warfare to deter enemy vessels. The Navy’s near-term goal is a 20- to 32-megajoule weapon that shoots a distance of 50 to 100 nautical miles.

To achieve this, the Navy is moving ahead with the EM Railgun program’s next phase: to develop thermal management systems for both the launcher and pulsed power to facilitate increased firing rates of up to 10 rounds per minute.