Chinese Navy’s Prototype Railgun Could Make Its Cruisers Dominant, Rings Alarm Bells for US

Advanced technology on new Chinese cruisers could change balance of naval power
February 5, 2018 Updated: February 10, 2018    

The Chinese communist regime’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has fitted a test ship with a prototype electromagnetic railgun, an experimental weapon that could potentially become a game-changer in future naval warfare against the United States and its allies. The state-run media reported that the railgun design, once operational, could be installed on PLAN’s upcoming Type 055 cruisers and make them the “dreadnoughts” of the 21st Century.

On Jan. 31, a Chinese netizen in Wuhan uploaded several photos on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) showing PLAN’s aging Yuting I-class amphibious ship Haiyangshan (No. 936) has been heavily modified and is now fitted with what appears to be a large turret on the front.

The ship, which was a 390-foot tank-landing ship originally designed to carry tanks and equipment for the PLA ground troops, is now apparently a test ship for the PLAN’s electromagnetic railgun project. This conclusion is shared by many observers, based on the fact that other available photos of the ship also show various visual features consistent with installations in support of an electromagnetic railgun’s firing.

The railgun is an experimental weapon that uses electromagnetic energy, instead of explosive power, to propel a projectile to inflict damage upon a distant target. In comparison with conventional artillery, the railgun has the potential advantage of firing a much faster projectile at a greater distance—a game-changing weapon, especially in naval warfare. An operational railgun could greatly enhance a warship’s engagement range and lethality against enemy ships, airplanes, missiles, and even ballistic missiles.

For example, a railgun-propelled projectile fired at Mach 7 (seven times the speed of sound) could cover 150 nautical miles (173 miles) in just 2 minutes, which would be 10 times faster than a Harpoon anti-ship missile currently used by the U.S. Navy flying at Mach 0.7 speed (20 minutes), or at least 3 times faster than the conventional naval gun at Mach 2 speed (6 minutes).

A screenshot from a video released by the U.S. Navy in 2017 showing the firing of the Navy’s experimental electromagnetic railgun. Despite successful tests on the ground, the U.S. Navy has yet to outfit a railgun on any existing warship. (Office of Naval Research)

Projectiles flying at such high speed would be very difficult to intercept using surface-to-air missiles or close-in weapons systems. A railgun firing at such high velocity would also likely have a range in excess of 100 nautical miles, which would be comparable or even superior to the range of conventional anti-ship missiles such as Harpoon. It would also be vastly superior to most conventional naval guns, which typically have ranges of around 10 to 20 nautical miles.

The PLAN railgun looks very similar to the ones the United States is currently experimenting with, according to observers. The U.S. Navy has been working on the development of a railgun weapon for many years, and various videos of their test firings have been released in the past. The U.S. railgun project, however, has not yet reached operational status, and no ship in the U.S. Navy has ever been fitted with one.

China could, therefore, be the first country in the world to ever have fitted an electromagnetic railgun on a ship. Should the gun be test-fired, it would also be the first navy ship to ever fire an electromagnetic railgun.

The railgun is an experimental weapon that uses electromagnetic energy, instead of power from explosives, to propel a projectile to inflict damage upon a distant target.

The appearance of a prototype railgun mounted on a ship suggests a breakthrough has been made in PLAN’s development of the weapon, which has been ongoing since at least 1986. This is consistent with an earlier report by The Epoch Times in December 2017 that documented how the Chinese regime made a critical breakthrough in the development of the electromagnetic aircraft launch system used on aircraft carriers.

In 2008, a Chinese state-owned company discreetly acquired Dynex Semiconductor, a small British semiconductor company that once held a technical edge in the production of an insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) chip, which is a critical component in the application of electromagnetic technology.

The acquisition of IGBT from the British company a decade ago led to China’s leapfrogging of electromagnetic aircraft launch technology critical for its aircraft carrier program, and it could also have led to its recent breakthrough with the electromagnetic railgun, since both projects would have benefited from the advance in the IGBT technology.

Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center had earlier commented on China’s breakthrough in electromagnetic aircraft launch systems as “a tragedy for the United States,” since it would erode U.S. military superiority in ways that could alter the outcome of a conflict with the Chinese regime’s military.

The USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) conducting at-sea tests and trials on Dec. 7, 2016, in the Atlantic Ocean. The Zumwalt is outfitted with the Advanced Gun System (as shown in the two turrets in the front), which could be made obsolete by the even more advanced electromagnetic railgun currently being developed by both the United States and China. (U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works via Getty Images)

The railgun could make obsolete the U.S. Navy’s significant investment in advanced conventional naval guns, such as the 155m Advanced Gun System found on Zumwalt-class destroyers. The U.S. Navy reportedly plans to install a railgun on the USS Lyndon B. Johnson, the third and last Zumwalt destroyer, which is currently under construction. However, there are no plans to fit any other U.S. Navy warship currently in service with a railgun.

Due to the need for a large amount of electrical power (around 25 megawatts) to fire, the railgun is usually thought to be more suitable for larger surface combat warships like cruisers or large destroyers. The most recently launched Zumwalt-class destroyer, for example, can generate 78 megawatts of power thanks to the ship’s advanced turbine generators, which makes it the only U.S. Navy surface combat warship that can theoretically operate a railgun.

Soon after the photo of the railgun was widely reported in international media, the Chinese regime’s mouthpiece the Global Times reported Chinese military experts as saying that PLAN’s state-of-the-art Type 055 cruisers, (classified as destroyers by the Chinese) is the best fit to be equipped with the railgun, as it could meet the weapon’s huge power demand. It is speculated that the four advanced gas turbines on the Type 055 could generate as much as 110 megawatts—even more than those of the U.S. Zumwalt-class.

In this photo released by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the first Type 055 destroyer (classified by Western sources as a cruiser) is being launched in Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard on June 28, 2017. China is reportedly building at least 5, and possibly up to eight, Type 055s. (PLAN)

With the new electromagnetic railguns, the Type 055 will become the “dreadnought” of the 21st Century, said Cheng Shuoren, a Chinese military analyst quoted by the Global Times. The 13,000-ton Type 055 is also equipped with an advanced active phased array radar system and at least 112 tubes of vertical launching system cells that contain various missiles.

The Epoch Times reported earlier that the PLAN is building at least five and possibly as many as eight Type 055 cruisers simultaneously, at the same time that the U.S. Navy has no viable plan to replace any of its 22 existing Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which are decades old and unable to mount next-generation weapons such as the railgun.

 

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