Railguns to defend against hypersonic missiles: What are they and why Japan is betting on this Next Gen weapon

Months after North Korea joined the major powers, such as Russia, China and the United States with the test of a new hypersonic missile late last year, Japan is getting ready with its own Next Gen weapon to defend against any misadventure from its neighbours

FP Staff January 15, 2022 07:39:15 IST
Railguns to defend against hypersonic missiles: What are they and why Japan is betting on this Next Gen weapon

An electromagnetic railgun setup in the US in 2017. Image courtesy: US Navy/John F. Williams

Months after North Korea joined the major powers, such as Russia, China, and the United States with the test of a new hypersonic missile late last year, Japan is getting ready with its own NextGen weapon to defend against any misadventure from its neighbours.

Last week, the Japanese newspaper Nikkei Asia reported that the Ministry of Defense is hoping to develop a fast and accurate railgun that will not only destroy missiles in flight but will be able to deter the launch of those missiles in the first place.

“The Japanese Defense Ministry will develop a means to intercept hostile missiles using magnetically powered projectiles, as the nation scurries to respond to the hypersonic weapons being developed by China, North Korea and Russia,” Nikkei Asia reported.

However, Japan is not the only country to have tried its hands at developing a gun that is nothing short of an item straight out of sci-fi books.

Here is everything you need to know about railguns and why Japan is betting on this technology:

What is a railgun and how it works

Unlike a regular weapon that uses an explosion to propel a shell out of the barrel, which is known as explosive propulsion, a railgun uses an electromagnetic field to eject a projectile at speeds greater than hypersonic missiles.

According to Popular Science, “A railgun works by generating a strong electromagnetic current that flows from one rail, through a U-shaped back end of the projectile, and into another parallel rail. This generates three magnetic fields—a parallel one around each of the rails, and a perpendicular one around the projectile. Squeezed forward by the magnetic fields, the projectile accelerates rapidly along the rails and is then launched forward, breaking the circuit. The end result is a large metal slug that can go very far, very fast.”

When the United States Navy started its railgun project, it aimed for the weapon to fire at Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound, and to reach distances more than 180 kilometres away.

To generate the electromagnetic current required to propel a projectile at Mach 7 speeds, railguns will need to be plugged into existing power grids or have dedicated generators, which may be a constraint in operating them from a ship.

Who else has developed a railgun

After spending nearly two decades and half a billion dollars, the US stalled the project to develop railguns last year. The US Navy had announced that it had decided to pause the project in light of “fiscal constraints, combat system integration challenges and the prospective technology maturation of other weapon concepts”.

However, the country had managed a successful test of railgun for the public in 2017 at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, but the development could not continue as expected due to technological and financial constraints.

Japan itself has been planning to develop the railgun since as early as 2015, according to Navy Recognition. The next year, in 2016, it even demonstrated a prototype that launched a projectile at a speed of 4,470 mph.

According to Nikkei, Japan has included $56 million in the 2022 defense budget to develop railguns by the end of the decade.

So far, only China seems to have developed and deployed a working railgun atop a naval ship, according to Popular Science. A set of photos that surfaced online in 2018 showed a Chinese warship with a full-scale railgun mounted on top.

“The entire railgun measures roughly 65 feet from turret rear to barrel muzzle, with the barrel itself about 33 feet long, and 12-20 feet in diameter. Such a wide barrel provides room for the parallel magnetic rails that propel metal projectiles to speeds of over Mach 7,” Popular Science reported.

With inputs from agencies

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