Although militaries are fond of making grandiose announcements about prospective weapons systems that don’t end up amounting to much, this is the real deal.

The idea of the railgun is nothing new. The French thought up the concept almost a century ago, the Germans came up with the first viable designs during WW2, and there was interminable work on them by both the US and the USSR during the Cold War – the concept kept stumbling upon the twin challenges of barrel wear and power generation.

But technological progress is now finally making them practically realizable and once they deploy on a large scale they will revolutionize naval warfare.


You can have thousands of projectiles on a destroyer versus the 96 missiles a typical US destroyer is currently limited to. They do not pose an internal explosion risk. Like cruise missiles, they can be precision guided. Unlike cruise missiles, they approach from a ballistic trajectory that is more difficult to counter, they are far smaller, and they are capable of much more rapid fire. It should in fact be trivial to deliver a simultaneous barriage of several  projectiles from a single railgun by angling the barrel over time in an appropriate pattern.

Moreover, the technology syncs very well with concurrent developments in free-electron lasers (FELs). Indeed, the same power plants that enable railguns can also power FELs. If one can already imagine the day when railguns will become a viable defense against cruise missiles, with the possible exception of the latest hypersonic ones being developed by Russia, then prospective FEL systems will all but annul them by providing an extremely potent point defense around the warship.

There has been some talk in the past two decades that the proliferation of cheap cruise missiles, which can be easily concealed within freight containers, might herald an end to modern “gunboat diplomacy” by providing Third World countries with an affordable deterrant against even the most technologically advanced navies. One consequence of these developments is that these visions are highly unlikely to ever get realized, with the advantage remaining firmly on the side with the advanced navy.

The US currently has the lead on railgun development, but China at least is not far behind. Their next destroyer model is basically going to see a convergence with that of the Zumwalt:

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has reported online that its 206 Institute, which researches electromagnetic launch technologies, has made breakthroughs in electromagnetically launch boosted missiles and railguns designed for close in weapons systems (CIWS)… There have been online rumors that suggest that the second batch of Type 055 guided missile destroyers (potentially to be termed the Type 055A, following the naming pattern) will be armed with large railguns in the place of older 130mm cannons, for long range anti-surface and air defense warfare. The putative Type 055A destroyer class would likely be launched after 2020, and feature integrated electrical propulsion, for increased power generation to power railguns, lasers and advanced sensors.

Russia also claims to be developing railgun technology, although the lack of any concrete evidence suggests that it is lagging considerably (it’s not like Russia tends to refrain from showing off its weapons platforms on principle). However, this is probably not a major issue, since the railgun will enjoy its greatest utility at sea and Russia is primarily a land power.

In the prospective Great Power naval wars of the future – say, 2050, between China and the US – an extrapolation of current trends would suggest a conflict dominated by almost or completely automated destroyers or cheap “arsenal ships” firing autonomously-guided railgun volleys wherever their drone “eyes and ears” detect an enemy presence or even just based on probabilistic models (military satellites having been knocked out in the first days of the conflict and any further complex space activity having been made unfeasible for the next few decades).

Of course in this new environment surface ships will be in more danger than ever before, so the next logical step would be to install railguns on submarines. Or revive the old Soviet “dive boat” concept of a surface warship capable of shallow submersion.


  1. We should consider: 1.payload capacity and complexity of railguns 2. the price and complexity of “smart” railgun shell as compared to rockets in the future. 3. Life span of the gun barrel. 4.Air resistance. In the video you posted, the railgun shell is propelled by a rocket engine to maintain speed (in order to have a 200nm range lol).
    You may like to read (in Chinese): http://newsblog.chinatimes.com/duduong/archive/37502

  2. they will revolutionize naval warfare.

    No, they will not.

    FEL systems will all but annul them by providing an extremely potent point defense around the warship.

    Again, not true. Any laser, when and if it becomes a viable weapon system, not technology demonstrators, has to be physically “pointed” towards the target. How the firing solution will be developed against a salvo of hypersonic missiles is anybody’s guess but, call it a hunch, all this for now and foreseeable future is nothing more than what is called by the title of famous Soviet/Russian children’s illustrated magazine “Murzilka”. And then, there is another funny physical fact, hypersonic missiles are designed to withstand brutal temperatures in forward hemisphere and nobody, I underscore, nobody has resolved the issue of beam’s attenuation and it is not coming anytime soon, unless one believes fairy tales for the sake of stock inflation. So yes, in the future it could be possible to develop some “laser” weapon which will be capable to “package” high energy to a distance of 1-3 nautical mile–good luck shooting serious missile, let alone salvo, with that.

  3. the price and complexity of “smart” railgun shell

    If my Alzheimer doesn’t fail me–single shot, 2 million bucks. Cool. They might as well made them out of gold.

  4. Vendetta says

    You can just hear the lust for “engaging ship-to-ship” again. Desperate to relive the glory days by fighting the Imperial Japanese Navy all over again.

    This weapon will not revolutionize anything, assuming they even deliver a practical version. Another fancy toy for bombarding helpless third world countries. Why would China, Russia, or anyone else throw money away trying to outbuild the U.S. in a boondoggle railgun destroyer race when they could just put that money into building more submarines to sink our handful of boondoggle behemoths? Does this thing even come close to outranging a DF-21?

  5. The answer is in targeting data. The use of rail guns against moving and maneuvering targets is a fantasy, really, for a reason of provision of real-time targeting data. Excalibur and whatever other munitions are being developed for this weapon are GPS-guided. Shooting at maneuvering targets is a little bit different proposition. In general, this whole rail gun shebang is another “power projection” (that is against the shore) weapon against third world shitholes, this is not Sea Control weapon, nor is USS Zumwalt a ship designed to fight against other ships. Basically it is another weapon which merely underscores how far US fell behind in advanced high-supersonic hypersonic missiles. Per DF-21, I don’t know. Frankly I doubt this weapon to be what it is being advertised as. But whatever it is–it has much longer range, same as most current AShMs. Agree with your point on subs.

  6. they could just put that money into building more submarines to sink our handful of boondoggle behemoths

    You underestimate the PRC’s longing for status & showing off. They will build more submarines, anyway, but at the same time they want to show how great their armed forces are, by building aircraft carriers & having the “most advanced” weaponry possible etc.

  7. Karlin,
    I’ve been bugging various people about Kessler Syndrome for the last few weeks. I think I agree with you that it’s a big deal, but I don’t feel confident in this judgment. Do you know of any comprehensive military references on the subject? It seems to me that sat comms are extremely vulnerable right now, can be expected to be knocked out instantly in any serious conflict, and that Kessler Syndrome might pose a substantial barrier to bringing them back online. But I’m open to the possibility that I’m simply ill-informed…

  8. You underestimate the PRC’s longing for status & showing off

    No different from any navy in the world and, especially so, US Navy. Big shiny toys often mean more senior-high rank officer billets and careers.

  9. railguns on submarines might not be very feasible for power-consumption reasons… I don’t know the specs offhand (can someone weigh in?) but I’d imagine there’s a big difference between the type of power available on a sub and what’s possible on a big aircraft carrier

  10. railguns on submarines might not be very feasible

    I can not conceive a single reason for rail guns to be on subs.

  11. Low energy hype mongery. Sad!

  12. ilkarnal says

    ‘Energy weapons’ are conceptual garbage as primary weapon systems. The problem is power. To illustrate this point, let’s look at this wonderful Wikipedia article on power: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orders_of_magnitude_%28power%29#Gigawatt_.28109_watts.29

    The Saturn V first stage power output was considerably greater than that of France’s entire electrical grid. In terms of energy density, chemical systems are vastly superior to electrical systems – but in terms of potential power density the gap is incomparably wider. A chemical system can put all of its much much much denser energy storage to work in arbitrarily small periods of time. Electrical systems not only have terrible energy density, they also are comparatively terrible at putting what they have to work.

    Where electrical systems excel is reliability and efficiency in taking on modest tasks. Probably all non-flying vehicles should use electric propulsion, and some flying vehicles eventually should as well. They are utterly terrible for applications where max power output for minimum footprint is required. Max power output for minimum footprint is obviously of cardinal importance in a weapon.

    Look at the retarded piece of shit in that video. Just look at it. How rapidly do you think it fires? How many shots before it needs intensive maintenance? How quickly can it be moved? How fucking heavy is it? How fucking absurdly heavy is all the infrastructure needed to support it?

    If you’re going for retardedly expensive artillery pieces, you want a whooooole lot more bang. German railway guns were stupid, but at least they fired monstrous projectiles that make that little bar of steel look pathetic. Yes, I know it’s going fast. Do the fucking math. A couple dozen MJ is nothing when you’re considering the footprint of the device delivering that energy, and muzzle energy is where that idiotic thing looks best!

    Directed energy systems, outside of niche uses, are even worse conceptually. At least the railgun projectile releases its energy in a very brief window, and has excellent penetration capabilities. Any directed energy weapon fails on both counts, in addition to having pathetic effective range.

    As a tool for blinding and burning defenseless enemy assets at close range, directed energy weapons are excellent, and that is a significant use-case especially in the age of unmanned RC scouting aircraft. As a primary means of engaging enemy armies, they make no sense. Compared to any chemical propelled penetrator system, they are slow-acting, short range, and have zero ability to deal with hardened targets. There is no technological advancement on the horizon that can change the fundamental characteristics of such weapons.

  13. These things are all very well and interesting, but when articles talk about a naval war between China and USA in 2050 using some sexy new weapon, they never seem to cover that old weapon -nuclear ICBMs. If Chinese and US ships are waging a full scale shooting war, why exactly would this not quickly escalate to a full nuclear exchange ? Would any non lunatic politician really risk nuclear war no matter how advanced their weapons are compared to the other side ?

  14. dave chamberlin says

    You aren’t alone in not understanding that naval warfare has dramatically changed.

    Boats are sitting ducks. They move slowly and can be targeted very accurately from a great distance with missiles. Missile defense is spotty at best. Shooting down all incoming missiles with your defensive missiles doesn’t work very well at all. Guided missile systems are extremely accurate and defensive missile systems have a vastly more difficult job of shooting all incoming missiles out of the sky before they reach their target.

    In a real conventional war situation using todays technology military boats are going to sink extremely fast. Just like the aircraft carrier made other types of naval weapons obsolete during World War 2, guided missiles will put your rail gun delivery system at the bottom of the ocean long before it reaches it’s target.

    Guided missiles hidden inside what looks like a freight container, now we are talking brilliant strategy that will work. Every container ship could be a launching platform for a deadly cruise missile attack.

  15. In quantity the projectiles should be between $30k and $50k. A little bit more expensive than GPS guided artillery shells.

    This thing is really designed to give the Navy some inexpensive shore bombardment capability. We’ve been using cruise missiles for that, but the cheapest ones are over $600k, and most of them are about double that. Normally you use arty for that, but range is pretty limited with conventional propellants.

    It should be able to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles as well. Maybe even ballistic missiles – we’ll see.

  16. In the video you posted, the railgun shell is propelled by a rocket engine to maintain speed (in order to have a 200nm range lol).

    No, that’s not true.

  17. It should be able to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles as well. Maybe even ballistic missiles – we’ll see.

    There is a number of huge issues when dealing with modern AShMs. Any cannon (gun) on board of modern ships are designed as the last resort against incoming missiles. It is called point-defense, CIWS etc. The recent spike in media re: US-made wunderwaffe, from “mysterious” (in reality knee-jerk reaction) SM-6 which suddenly became an “answer” (in reality gave a good laugh to professionals) and was used as AShM and even “sunk” FFG-57, to


    All this is a result of historic suppression of serious AshMs development in US which today became apparent against the wide spectrum of long-range high supersonic weapons which could be deployed even on a 1000 ton ship and be able to both attack surface targets and provide long-range strikes to a strategic depth. That is the main reason for all those “miraculous” weapons suddenly occupying the media space–US Navy is simply not able to deploy modern long-range high supersonic, let alone hyper-sonic, anti-shipping missile. It simply does not exist. If not for Elmo Zumwalt US Navy probably wouldn’t have even Harpoon. Mind you also that Tomahawk also started as anti-shipping missile first and foremost, but as Zumwalt himself made it painfully clear who and how were suppressing this development in favor of obsolescent combat doctrine:


    Now it all came to “fruition”: from LCS program (aka Self-propelled 57-mm gun), to F-35 to 2.5 billion dollars a pop USS Zumwalt-class (poor Elmo Zumwalt, should he live today he would have been appalled), to DDGs 1.5 billion USD a pop. All this is while others, whom we don’t speak of, are ready to introduce M=5+ hyper-sonic missiles. Good luck trying to shoot it down with the rail gun. US Navy is a magnificent navy with extraordinary WW II combat history but it made one crucial strategic mistake and it is paying the price now, no matter how upbeat descriptions of wunderwaffe try to conceal a very unpleasant fact.

  18. What people are missing is

    a) railguns are cool

    b) sci fi is full of railguns

    so the sort of people who invent stuff will want to make cool railguns rather than something more boring.

    There may be fundamental problems that make it impossible but being impossible is the only thing that will stop them doing it.

    It’s a boy thing.

  19. I think you may be one of the very few people thinking clearly about what the next general mobilization will actually involve.