China's Navy May Have World's First Ship-Mounted Railgun
Reports of Chinese military investments in electromagnetic railgun technology have been circulating for years. A maintainable, usable railgun would allow a warship to launch a projectile with tremendous force and speed, with long range and relatively low cost. The weapon could be deployed against surface targets, aircraft and even high-speed missiles. However, the railgun faces significant hurdles to full-scale deployment - notably the difficulty in building a device that can withstand the extreme stresses of repeated firing.
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has invested over $500 million in researching the technology, but its contractors have yet to develop a gun that can fire as quickly as the Pentagon's requirement of 10 shots per minute. In December, defense media outlets suggested that the DoD is switching gears and repurposing the railgun's hypervelocity projectile - a streamlined slug of solid tungsten - for use in conventional powder-propelled artillery shells. The railgun itself appears unlikely to be fielded aboard an American vessel in the near future.
Railgun test shot, 2008 (DARPA)
However, these forecasts may not apply to Chinese warships. Photos published on Chinese social media platforms this week show what appears to be a turret-mounted railgun aboard an aging People's Liberation Army (Navy) landing craft, the Haiyang Shan. Containerized units aft of the device could be the generators and capacitor banks needed to satisfy a railgun's large electrical power requirements.
Haiyang Shan is a Type 072III-class tank landing ship, and would ordinarily be fitted with 37mm deck guns, comparable to the U.S. Navy's small 25mm autocannon in size and purpose; the turret on her forecastle is far larger, and analysts say it bears a strong resemblance to the dimensions of the American railgun prototype.
The photos appear to validate recent comments by a top Chinese defense engineer about the nation's recent advancements in railgun technology. Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a decorated military scientist, has focused his research on electromagnetic assisted launch systems (EMALS), a related technology used for launching aircraft from carrier decks, and on shipboard power systems for energy weapons like lasers and railguns. He recently told a conference of defense scientists that China is making rapid progress in key areas of railgun and EMALS development.