Future Operating Environment

The Future Battlefield: What Impact Will Railguns Have?

By Bruce Cameron June 23, 2021
Infographic containing 3 diagrams of railguns.


“The U.S. Army is pushing ahead with plans to field railguns on the battlefield of tomorrow, awarding a leading railgun developer a contract to mature a ground-based railgun system. Rapid progress in miniaturizing railguns technology has transformed the hypersonic weapons from laboratory curiosities to potential weapons that promise tremendous increases in range and energy.”  Popular Mechanics

 

Companies such as BAE regard electromagnetic rail guns as being a real option for employment on the future battlefield. While practical applications have previously focussed on naval weapons (particularly in the US and China), land-based applications are now coming to the fore.

A rail gun uses stored electricity to generate sufficient energy to propel a projectile at very high velocity. Instead of a barrel, it is fitted with a pair of parallel conducting rails between which the projectile is accelerated by electromagnetic force.

Advantages: Velocities much higher than can be achieved with conventional guns means improved accuracy and longer range. No cartridge cases means reduced size and silhouette of the weapon platform. Smaller 'rounds' and an open breech means faster rate of fire. The absence of combustible propellant means increased survivability. And the list of advantages goes on.

Personal Involvement: In 1981, a friend in the Scientific Advisor’s Office gave me a tip. The Material Research Laboratories (MRL), following on from research conducted at the Australian National University, had constructed several rail guns. It was suggested to me that I could ask if they would give me simplified drawings to allow me to propose a project at the UK's Royal Military College of Science (part of the course that I was about to attend). I did, they did, and our project team subsequently built a scaled down demonstration model.

It was the first rail gun fired in Europe, as far as is publicly known. Our model used a plastic projectile, backed by a piece of aluminium foil as the armature. When the electric charge was switched from the capacitor to the rails, the foil was transformed into an ionised plasma, and propulsion resulting from its interaction with the magnetic fields generated between the rails. (It was a great relief when the target balloon was burst during the project presentation.)

Applications: We were captivated by the hypervelocity that was achievable. It was a surprise, therefore, when our research found that projectile velocity can be too high to penetrate armour effectively. Though overall, the fact that velocity had to be 'tailored' in terms of targets, was not really a disadvantage (just a matter of regulating the size of the current pulse before firing).

Theoretically, survivability in a ground-based application is increased as there is no propellant associated with the projectiles; however, the electrical energy has to be recharged, requiring a generator and a power source, though these can be separated in the design of the vehicle. There have been reports recently about China’s hypersonic glide vehicles… what better means to counter such a threat, than a hypersonic rail gun?

Conclusion:  It cannot be denied that a revolution in battlefield weaponry is imminent. The day of conventional ballistics (i.e. propellant and cartridge cases) as the only solution across the board is long gone. Could a manned or unmanned vehicle incorporate an electromagnetic railgun? Most definitely.


Portrait

Biography

Bruce Cameron

Bruce Cameron served in the Australian Regular Army for 19 years. After commanding the last troop of tanks in action in Vietnam, his career saw him attend the UK’s Long Armour Infantry Course and Royal Military College of Science, as well as the Australian Command and Staff College. His last appointment involved responsibility for developing the Army’s future ground mobility requirements. He left the Army in 1987 to take up a position with the Office of Defence Production. He is the author of 'Canister! On! FIRE! : Australian Tank Operations in Vietnam' (Big Sky, 2012).

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

I was very fortunate to graduate from the OCS Portsea with Bruce Cameron and even more fortunate when he invited me and Capt Allan Gray RA to join him on the 'Jupiter Project' at RMCS Shrivenham in 1982. We toiled our way through both the practical aspects of building the demonstration model and went on to speculate on the possible land based applications. The model worked but we were disappointed at the time that the electrical muzzle flash disrupted the electronic velocity measuring equipment so that we never did find out just how fast our little piece of plastic projectile achieved. We looked at both direct fire kinetic energy roles small and large calibre and indirect artillery roles where more even acceleration compared with conventional chemical propellants allows much higher round payloads. We realised that Naval application with the ready availability of power sources would be likely to be the first applications but that land based applications would become more possible using small nuclear power sources as and when they were developed. Our fore-castes were pretty accurate and to see both western and Chinese realisations in the Naval role is satisfying even 40 years later but wonder what took them so long. Thank you again Bruce. Ken Arnett LTCOL (RAEME) Retired

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