02/21/2018 / By Frances Bloomfield
Pictures of what appears to be a ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun have surfaced on Twitter. The weapon, semi-obscured by cloth, was spotted aboard the Haiyang Shan, a landing ship tank (LST), under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). No official word has been given on the authenticity of these photos. But if true, this makes the Haiyang Shan the world’s first railgun-armed ship.
There are several clues to suggest that it is indeed a railgun, however. As per TechCrunch.com, first is the ship itself. The Haiyang Shan is a Type 072-class landing ship. The test bed ship most commonly used in China is the Type 909 weapon trials ship. According to the Twitter user, Dafeng Cao, PLAN chose to use a Type 072 to test the railgun because it’s capable of bearing the power load required for such a powerful weapon. Moreover, a Type 072 is easier to retrofit with, say, shipping containers storing power equipment.
Another clue lies in the railgun: it has a relatively short barrel held within a thick housing saddled with acceleration components. The barrel length is said to be similar to that of the BAE Systems 32-megajoule railgun, a laboratory railgun designed to hurl projectiles at Mach 7 speeds to over 100 miles.
Finally, a banner hoisted onto the ship has a message that, when translated, roughly reads: “Providing first-class weapons and equipment for building the best navy in the world.” (Related: China retaliates? Massive explosion rips through U.S. military ammunitions storage facility near Tokyo; sabotage device found on the scene.)
Though this is all speculation for now, Dafeng Cao has insisted that it’s all true. The anonymous online analyst claims to have an ex-PLAN officer as their primary source for all this information. Their source went on to state that the PLAN has been working on its own railgun for five years now.
Railguns can fire solid, metal projectiles that reach Mach 6 speeds, or 4,500 miles per hour. Placed on naval warships, they can extend their firing range by as much as 100 miles. But operating a railgun would call for massive amounts of electrical power and a barrel that can handle the force of the projectiles.
This is partly why the U.S. Navy shelved its own railgun program. Developing new ships around a single weapons system was too expensive an endeavor. The USS Zumwalt, which was designed with railguns in mind, is believed to have commanded a price of $3.5 billion to $4.4 billion, with ammunition for the ship’s own guns costing about $800,000 dollars each. Considering it, the entire program had spent well over half a billion dollars since 2005, it was an effort that was deemed too costly to continue. The gradually diminishing interest and shifting focused towards laser weaponry.
Though we may not be seeing ship-mounted railguns in the U.S. navy, there’s no guarantee that China will have any of its own just yet.
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