Sea Trials Resurface for Shipborne Electromagnetic Artillery, Marking the Arrival of an Era of All-Purpose Naval Vessels?

Recently, there were reports in Chinese media suggesting that China’s electromagnetic railgun has overcome erosion issues and can now achieve continuous firing of up to 120 rounds while maintaining accuracy. Additionally, Chinese observers have spotted the “Haiyang Shan” tank landing ship, which disappeared from the public eye after electromagnetic railgun tests in 2018. It seems that the long-awaited versatile ship, envisioned by scientist Ma Weiming, may finally be on the agenda.

China’s Electromagnetic Railgun Resurfaces! Haiyang Shan Electromagnetic Railgun undergoes sea trials again

The author was surprised to see the Haiyang Shan landing ship making headlines again, as there had been no updates since the electromagnetic railgun tests in January 2018. Globally, many countries are researching electromagnetic railguns, but only China has successfully conducted sea trials, making the world closely monitor China’s progress in this field.

The reason for the global attention is the immense difficulty in developing electromagnetic railguns. Even major powers like China and the United States, pioneers in electromagnetic railgun development, struggled to overcome the challenges. The U.S., which previously showcased a prototype, did not progress to sea trials.

However, what’s particularly intriguing is the absence of updates on the Haiyang Shan since the January 2018 sea trials, until its reappearance in mid-December 2023, almost six years later. What happened during these six years? Why was the Haiyang Shan chosen as the testbed for electromagnetic railguns?

The mystery unraveled by a paper in the Journal of Huazhong University of Science and Technology

On November 10, 2023, the Journal of Huazhong University of Science and Technology published a paper titled “Research Status and Prospect of Insulation Support for Electromagnetic Rail Launchers.” The paper detailed the challenges faced in the development of electromagnetic railguns, particularly addressing issues related to rail damage during the launching process. It highlighted ongoing efforts in material technology to address erosion problems and proposed potential solutions.

Currently, railguns mainly use rail launchers, a novel launching technology utilizing Lorentz force to accelerate projectiles. Despite sounding sophisticated, the structure is remarkably simple, consisting of only two conductive rails and a “projectile” with a conductive armature. When an electric current flows through one rail, the armature’s current is pushed rapidly by the magnetic field generated by the wire, illustrating the basic principle of an electromagnetic railgun.

Despite its simplicity, this structure faces an unsolvable problem. The electric current propelling the “projectile” can reach megampere levels, resulting in harsh environmental conditions: large currents of 0.1-5MA, ultra-high pressures of 200-600MPa, instantaneous temperatures exceeding 20,000°C, and high-speed friction of 2-10km/s. The rail is prone to arcing, and the materials around it degrade after a few uses, presenting significant challenges.

The paper in the Journal of Huazhong University of Science and Technology stated that the main causes of material damage are high-temperature erosion and impact associated with plasma armatures. Tested materials, including inorganic glass composite materials, organic polymer materials, glass fiber-reinforced composite materials, and structural ceramic materials, showed poor resistance to erosion or were prone to structural damage.

Furthermore, the paper identified issues such as erosion, metal contamination, and abrasion damage caused by the C-shaped aluminum armature as significant failure reasons. The conclusion suggested that toughening ceramic materials is crucial to solving the insulation problem of plasma armature railguns, while improving the composition and preparation technology of composite materials and applying surface coating techniques are effective means to address insulation issues in C-shaped aluminum armature railguns.

While the paper presented possible solutions, it didn’t provide specific methods, ensuring no compromise on classified information. However, it confirmed a crucial point: electromagnetic railguns have demonstrated the ability to maintain intact rails and accuracy after 120 rounds of firing, suggesting that the previous rail erosion issue has been largely resolved. All obstacles to installing electromagnetic railguns on ships seem to have been eliminated.

What happened in six years? It might exceed everyone’s imagination

While the paper hinted at resolving erosion issues, it also suggested that the electromagnetic railgun tested on the Haiyang Shan in January 2018 might have faced erosion problems initially. The statement about the railgun remaining intact after 120 rounds might indicate that the issue was potentially resolved as early as 2018, and the information is only now being disclosed.

The most plausible scenario is that the “120 rounds test” may not meet the military’s requirements. The electromagnetic railgun currently on the Haiyang Shan likely has a lifespan far beyond 120 rounds, possibly approaching the design lifespan of conventional naval guns. It’s safe to assume that the major challenge of installing electromagnetic railguns on ships has been essentially overcome. However, the difficulties go beyond erosion, as discussed in the following sections.

Why choose a tank landing ship for testing? There’s a hidden reason!

This question intrigued not only online enthusiasts but also the author. The Haiyang Shan with an electromagnetic railgun seemed awkward, displaying a noticeable imbalance. Typically, during navigation, the bow of a ship slightly lifts because the dynamic center of gravity of the vessel is towards the rear. V-shaped bows tend to rise when cutting through waves. However, the Haiyang Shan’s bow seemed as if it wanted to dive into the waves. Why is that?

The most significant reason might be the nature of the electromagnetic railgun. It’s not just a gun; it involves numerous essential components. Even chemical naval guns, if stripped of auxiliary equipment below the deck, can still fire by directly loading projectiles into the barrel. However, the electromagnetic railgun is different. Its gun is just the launching part of this critical structure, which also includes control systems and highly powered energy storage and charging systems. Calculating the required space for such a system is enlightening.

Assuming a muzzle energy of 64MJ, an efficiency of 50%, and a consumption of 34.4 degrees of electricity per shot, the author estimated a significant power demand. The huge power requirement cannot be easily satisfied by a lithium battery, so a combination of lithium batteries and supercapacitors is likely. Additionally, a powerful generator is necessary for recharging, and the entire system could occupy at least six large containers.

Considering this complex setup, the Haiyang Shan, being a tank landing ship, is suitable for testing due to its ample internal space. The electromagnetic railgun’s power supply system, control equipment, and charging equipment could be accommodated, making it a cost-effective choice.

The Era of Versatile Ships is Truly Here: The Century-Old Navy Can Be Realized

In June 2023, the South China Morning Post reported that renowned Chinese scientist Ma Weiming proposed the construction of a “super warship” using energy weapons. This warship, according to Ma’s vision, would function as an entire fleet, integrating electromagnetic railguns, coilguns, laser weapons, and high-energy microwave weapons on a single vessel.

Ma Academician stated that this warship’s weaponry could handle various tasks, encompassing both offensive and defensive roles for the entire fleet. A single warship could undertake the entire fleet’s missions, potentially revolutionizing modern naval warfare.

Electromagnetic railguns could launch projectiles

200-300 kilometers away, laser weapons could intercept incoming missiles, VLS with electromagnetic launchers could hit targets at longer ranges, and electromagnetic energy weapons could destroy various incoming threats. A super warship equipped with these weapons could contend with an entire carrier battle group.

Of course, the power requirements for such an all-encompassing warship are terrifying. High-power lasers need megawatts, electromagnetic railguns require even more power, and electromagnetic energy weapons demand substantial energy. With all these high-energy weapons combined, the total power is staggering, necessitating a specially designed hull structure to meet the needs of a versatile ship.

The attached image illustrates a concept of a Chinese 20,000-ton sea-based anti-missile ship proposed by “Xigexi,” featuring only an electromagnetic railgun alongside conventional weapons. The ship includes 160 850mm vertical launchers capable of firing various missiles, offering an intriguing vision.

While recent 055-class destroyers have been launched, their bow-mounted main gun positions remain empty. Some speculate that these ships are intended to be equipped with electromagnetic railguns. However, this seems unlikely as the available space in the bow area is limited, and the power requirements for an electromagnetic railgun are substantial. Furthermore, the 055 destroyers do not feature an all-electric propulsion system, posing additional challenges.

The Era of Versatile Ships is Truly Here: Ma Weiming’s Dream Comes True

On June 16, 2023, the South China Morning Post reported that Ma Weiming, a top Chinese scientist, proposed the construction of a “super warship” utilizing energy weapons. According to Ma, this warship would be capable of performing the functions of an entire fleet, integrating electromagnetic railguns, coilguns, laser weapons, and high-energy microwave weapons on a single vessel.

Ma Academician stated that these weapons on the warship could handle various tasks, combining both offensive and defensive capabilities for the entire fleet. A single warship could shoulder the entire fleet’s missions, potentially revolutionizing modern naval warfare.

The power consumption of such a versatile warship is staggering. High-power lasers require megawatts, electromagnetic railguns demand even more power, and electromagnetic energy weapons necessitate substantial energy. With all these high-energy weapons combined, the total power is significant, requiring a specially designed hull structure to meet the needs of a versatile ship.

The attached image illustrates a concept of a Chinese 20,000-ton sea-based anti-missile ship proposed by “Xigexi,” featuring only an electromagnetic railgun alongside conventional weapons. The ship includes 160 850mm vertical launchers capable of firing various missiles, offering an intriguing vision. (Xing Chen)

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