China’s military fires up world first in revolutionary rail gun technology

Photographs surface of ship-mounted electromagnetic weapon that could one day supersede traditional explosives with greater power, speed, range and accuracy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 11:54pm

China is believed to be testing the world’s first ship-mounted rail gun, a technology that military experts say has the potential to fire shells with enough force to destroy a warship and precision to shoot down a satellite.

The controversial development comes as China seeks to transform its navy into a blue-water force capable of rivalling the United States and projecting power far from home shores.

Photographs of a rail gun mounted on a warship docked in Wuhan, Hubei province, have surfaced on Chinese military websites in the last week, indicating the People’s Liberation Army Navy is testing the electromagnetic weapon and has been able to make it more compact.

Rail guns fire shells using electromagnetic force rather than traditional explosive propulsion systems. They are designed to fire the projectiles with more accuracy and power and over a longer range, but are also extremely expensive.

The US has researched and tested rail guns for years, with prototypes firing projectiles at up to 7,800km/hour over a 150km range. The cost of the projectiles was reportedly US$1 million per round.

But the Chinese device appears to be the first mounted on a ship.

The rail gun uses electromagnetic technology known as IEPS that state media confirmed last year would power China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier.

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The system was developed by a team headed by decorated PLA naval engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, who told state broadcaster CCTV in July that his ultimate goal was to install weapons such as rail guns on the carrier.

China’s state-run Science and Technology Daily reported on Monday that the cutting-edge technology would be deployed on the Type-055, the country’s biggest guided-missile destroyer designed as part of future aircraft carrier battle groups.

But sources close to Chinese military told the South China Morning Post that the destroyer’s propulsion system and internal design were not suited for the rail gun.

The gun in the photographs was installed on a Type-072 landing ship refitted to house the bulky electrical equipment.

Song Zhongping, military commentator and former member of the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, said future generations of the destroyer could be fitted with the weapon down the track.

Song said China was closing the gap with the US and it was possible that China could eventually abandon explosives in favour of electromagnetic systems.

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“China has spared no effort to catch up the US’ electromagnetic technology, to turn the new technology into an all-purpose propulsion system for wide use in ship-mounted weapons and maglev trains and even to replace rockets to launch satellites into the space,” he said.

“The leaked photos show China is now not only catching up to the US in ship-borne rail gun technology, but may surpass the US in next five to 10 years. This is because the US needs more time to approve budgets while China’s political system allows it to put more funding into special projects.”

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The US Naval Institute reported last month that the US Navy scrapped plans in 2016 to buy 2,000 rail gun projectiles but would continue to monitor new technologies that could be incorporated into its existing systems.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said the purchase stalled because of the expensive technology’s low return on investment.

“The US is hesitating because the cost of the new weapon’s development is huge, while its practicability is debatable,” Zhou said.

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“Proponents argue that [rail guns] can hit targets several thousand kilometres away guided by the space-based Global Positioning System. But [the US] air force can hit long-range targets easily by dropping cruise missiles from their stealth bombers or fighters, something that is much more cost-effective.”

Military insiders said the high cost of and Ma’s involvement in the Chinese rail gun project also made it contentious.

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“The decision to develop the costly electromagnetic rail gun also provoked debate because so far only Ma and his team are the only electromagnetic experts developing it,” one insider said.

“But Ma’s team has the backing of the leadership and that is also the reason why the electromagnetic technology has been developed so fast in China.”

Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping awarded Ma, 57, the country’s highest military honour, the Order of August 1.