WASHINGTON — China is displaying a model hypersonic rail gun on one of its naval vessels, a public display that could mean Beijing has finalized development of one of the 21st century weapons sought by the U.S., Russia, Iran and others.
As shown in photos on social media, a Chinese warship the Haiyan Shan appears to be carrying a hypersonic rail gun mounted on its bow. Analysts told TMN on Thursday that it is unlikely Beijing would permit such photos to be posted unless it intended to send a message.
The same analysts cautioned that posting photos of a rail gun hardware does not mean the weapon works.
Pentagon officials confirmed Thursday that they were aware of the photos, as well as China’s announced policy to develop a rail gun. They could not offer further comment on national security grounds, they said.
Initial reports of the mounted rail gun were by Task and Purpose.
A rail gun is a launcher that uses high-powered magnets and electromagnetic fields to fire a projectile traveling 4,800 miles an hour at distances of up to 100 miles, according to published data.
It has two anchored parallel metal rails connected to an electric power supply. A projectile that can conduct electricity is placed between the rails, completing the circuit and creating a magnetic field. The projectile is thus akin to a charged wire in an electric field as part of the Lorentz force, according to published data.
The challenges to build and use a rail gun include finding enough electricity to power the gun, as well as offsetting the high velocity of the armature and the heat that could damage the surface of the rails, according to published data.
Existing guns ignite gunpowder or some other powder charge to trigger an explosion to send a projectile down a tube. That requires storing and charges, which can explode and sink a ship or destroy an outpost.
Current guns also have a more limited velocity and range.
Beijing had announced in March 2018 that it made progress on a rail gun, according to news reports then.
The Navy has been trying to develop a rail gun for more than a decade. The Pentagon tasked defense contractors BAE Systems and General Atomics in 2005 with creating a working rail gun for the Navy by 2020.
In early 2018, the Army announced it would seek one as well, according to a report in the Army Times.
Pentagon officials previously said the Defense Department has spent about $710.5 million on the rail gun program. The Army received $20 million for its program in the 2019 defense bill while the Navy also received $20 million.