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The Railguns Are Coming

AN-ZumwaltWell, it’s official: starting this summer, some warships of the United States Navy will be equipped with directed-energy weapons. That means that in some ocean around the world, a USN Captain may be confronted by a real-world combat situation which will require the words: “Lock laser on target.”

And all of us sci-fi types will feel a meaningful chill.

Soon after the USN deploys lasers, railguns are expected to follow. For those not familiar, the basic idea of a railgun is to fire a projectile not by detonating a powder charge, but by using electromagnets to accelerate it to speeds approaching mach 10. Going that fast, the projectile would be virtually unstoppable –– it would deliver a blow infinitely more powerful than a speeding shell of similar size, unless that shell was nuclear.

There’s plenty of reason to start getting big ideas about what might come next –– energy shields, anti-gravity, fusion! But let’s not mix up sci-fi with reality… and indeed, let’s be honest, it’ll take a while before these new technologies really come into their own.

The USN is saying that lasers and railguns will be rolled out alongside more conventional weapons, and that’s very reasonable indeed. Historically, whenever new technology is introduced, there are some things that it can’t do –– and perhaps never will be able to do –– better than what went before. Imagine being becalmed in port, with no wind in your sails… while oar-powered galleys hungrily circle you. Might leave the Captain of even a 74-gun ship of the line wishing for the good old Ben Hur days.

The same sort of problem applies to lasers: word is they’ll be less effective in rain, fog, or dusty air, which basically rules out using them during bad weather at sea, when the interceptor missiles they replace would have done just fine. So why install them? Because aside from the enormous amount of power they require, they are cheap –– each interceptor costs $1 million. If the technology can be perfected, then the cost of naval warfare (which, as we’ve lately discussed, can be considerable) goes down.

Test-firing a USN railgun.

Of course, perfecting it may take decades. The technology will need to be sent to sea, used in action, and then lessons can then be learned. Logistical problems will have to be understood, and doctrines developed. This is how things always happen when fundamentally new systems arrive. Take steam for example.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way navies made the move from relying on the wind, to carrying engines and propellers. It took more than half a century for everyone to sign on, not because the technology that drove locomotives was considered unproven, but because of the anxieties surrounding logistics. After centuries of knowing that a ship needed only carry food, water and ammunition, Admiralties were being told they had to also carry fuel as well? What would happen if they ran out of coal? Where would they keep it all? Ships would have to get bigger, and coaling stations would need to be set up around the world…

And all of that happened, so eventually people got comfortable enough to do away with sails.

Similar anxieties came along with armor on ships, and turrets for big guns, and torpedoes, and turbine engines, and moving from coil to oil, and carrying aircraft. The process of modernizing a fleet takes time. Indeed, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the author of the sea warfare doctrine that led to the dreadnought race before the First World War, did his sea time in the United States Navy aboard a wooden sailing frigate –– at a time when Brazil had steam-powered, armored battleships.

Perhaps the next era of great change is upon us. How will the new ships look, and how will they fight? It’s tough to tell –– and indeed, it’s fair to ask whether these new weapons are what we need in an age when the navy’s main duty seems to be fighting piracy. But when you asked a Nelsonian Admiral whether steam would help the navy function, it was very likely he wouldn’t see the necessity. It’s always hard to guess, until you take the tools to sea, and see what happens.

Time will tell, though I’m pretty sure it’ll still be a while until naval gunnery delivers days like this:

In the meantime: safe shooting, USN crews. We’ll be watching.