Michael E. Ruane / Washington Post – 2010-12-23 21:41:06
WASHINGTON (December 15, 2010) — The red and yellow warning flags were out. The gun range was cleared. The klaxon sounded.
“System is enabled,” the voice on the speakerphone said. There was a pause, then a distant thud that could be felt through the floor. “Gun is fired,” the voice said.
Inside a cavernous building at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., a gigantic pulse of electricity hurled a 20-pound slug of aluminum out the barrel of an experimental gun at seven times the speed of sound. The slug trailed a pillar of fire as it left the weapon and the building, illuminating the surrounding woods like a giant flashbulb. It streaked down range, generating a small sonic boom, and traveled about 5,500 feet before tumbling to the ground harmlessly.
The demonstration Friday was the latest test of the Navy’s electromagnetic rail gun — a futuristic weapon that is right out of the latest video war game and could one day change the face of naval warfare.
Huge Jolt of Electricity
Roger Ellis, the rail gun program manager, said people “see these things in the video games, but this is real. This is what is very historical.” The gun, which consists of two rails bolted inside a long oblong box the length of a tractor trailer, is fired with a huge jolt of electricity that can propel a round more than 100 miles and at such velocity that it does not need an explosive warhead.
Two tests were conducted Friday — the first of which the Navy said generated a world record 33 megajoules of force out of the barrel. The second shot, witnessed by reporters, produced 32 megajoules. Forty-five minutes after the second shot, a part of the battered bullet that was retrieved from the range was still warm to the touch.
The Navy hopes the rail gun might bring a sci-fi level of range and firepower to its fleets of the future. “It’s exhilarating,” Elizabeth D’Andrea, the rail gun project’s strategic director, said after the test.
The gun itself doesn’t look much like a gun. It consists of two rails, along which a surge of electricity runs. They are bolted inside a long oblong box the length of a tractor trailer. Bundles of thick black cables feed into one end of the box, where the slug is loaded between the rails. When the power is fed through the rails it creates a surge that flings the slug along and out the muzzle at tremendous speed.
Building up Energy
Charles Garnett, the rail gun project manager at Dahlgren, said it gets its power the same way a pocket camera builds up energy to operate its flash, but on a much larger scale.
The use of electricity to power such a round would change the way naval guns have been fired with explosive propellants like gunpowder for centuries, the Navy said. The electromagnetic rail gun was once a focus of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, called “Star Wars.”
A quarter-century later, the Navy hopes it might soon provide a ship fast, new, long-range fire power. “It’s a very important technology,” said Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, chief of Naval Research, although “this is not a weapon that’s going to be here tomorrow.”
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