According to a new report, China may have beaten the U.S. to mounting a railgun on a ship.
A naval vessel called the Haiyangshan, carrying what appears to be a railgun on the bow, allegedly left the confines of the Yangtze River and is being tested on the Pacific Ocean. First spotted in January of 2018, the railgun appears to be the first put on a warship by any country—the United States included. Whether or not China is actually ahead of the U.S. in the world of railgun tech is an open question.
The Haiyangshan, a , resurfaced on social media December 29. Its location is unknown, but believed to be on the open ocean, though the heavily overcast background makes it impossible to geolocate the ship.
Photographs of what was dubbed the “Yangtze River Monster” first emerged in late January 2018. The photos showed Haiyangshan with a large gun turret on the bow, with the rest of the ship covered shipping containers, tarps, and miscellaneous equipment. The 390-foot-long ship is an older tank-landing ship, designed to run up on enemy coastlines and disgorge 10 tanks or 500 tons of cargo.
Unlike conventional guns that use chemical energy (gunpowder) to force a projectile out of a barrel and towards a target, railguns rely on electromagnetism. These weapons use electricity to generate very strong electromagnetic fields between two rails. A conductive metal device, called an armature, picks up a projectile and accelerates down the path between the rails, sending the projectile whizzing downrange. Railguns can accelerate their projectiles to much faster speeds than traditional guns, and to distances in excess of a hundred miles.
Testing a railgun on a tank landing ship makes perfect sense. For one thing, Haiyangshan is an obsolete vessel, so China could either use it as a test bed for something or scrap it. Secondly, the ship’s long, flat, open cargo well makes an excellent location to park banks of electrical generators that power the railgun. These also counteract the weight of the railgun parked on the bow.
In June, CNBC on a classified intelligence report that predicted China’s railgun would be “ready for war” by 2025. “China's (railgun) is capable of striking a target 124 miles away at speeds of up to 1.6 miles per second, according to the report. For perspective, a shot fired from Washington, D.C., could reach Philadelphia in under 90 seconds.” CNBC stated. The rounds for the railgun reportedly cost between $25,000 and $50,000 each.
Despite such pronouncements, it’s still not clear how far ahead China may be on railgun tech—that is, if it's really ahead of the U.S. at all. The American Navy has been testing a railgun at Dahlgren, Virginia, for years. , it has the stated goal of a long barrel life, firing shots using 32 megajoules of energy, at a rate of fire of ten shots per minute. However, power generation problems, electronics woes, and rapidly wearing out railgun barrels have been persistent issues. The Navy is pushing to have the railgun as close to combat-ready as possible before installing them on ships.
Far less is known about China’s railgun. A skeptical point of view might be that China is farther behind the United States, or at a similar point of development, but is conducting much of the testing at sea rather than on land. Or China really could be eating America’s lunch in the railgun world.
According to Task and Purpose, the U.S. has in the 2019 defense budget for railguns. One bright side for the U.S. Navy: once developed, the railguns could quickly find a home on the three Zumwalt-class guided missile cruisers. The three ships, Zumwalt, Monsoor, and Johnson can each generate 78 megawatts of electricity to power directed energy weapons, railguns included. The railguns would replace the two 155-millimeter Advanced Gun System guns the Navy built but never purchased any ammunition for.