Rail gun "goes off the rails"
A couple of weeks ago, the United States media reported on the plans of the US military to reduce one of the most interesting programs of recent times. It is already clear that as a result of this decision, one of the options for a promising weapon - if it is created - will appear only in the distant future. In addition, the Pentagon now has to reconsider its plans to re-equip some types of troops.
According to the analysis of the current situation, the US Department of Defense decided to revise its plans for the project of a promising rail cannon / railgun developed in the interests of the naval forces. This weapon, created by General Atomics and BAE Systems, was originally intended to be installed on advanced destroyers such as Zumwalt. Such ships must be equipped with a special power plant capable of ensuring the work of advanced weapons on new physical principles.
Principles of using ship and coast rail guns with an HPV projectile. Slide from the presentation of the US Department of Defense
When ordering the development of a new gun, the US military wanted a system capable of accelerating the projectile to the highest speeds and sending it to a range of nautical miles to 80-100. Acceleration of the ammunition with the help of the electromagnetic field made special demands on the electrical systems of the carrier ship, but gave significant operational and logistical advantages. In particular, only shells could be transported in the ship’s cellars; sleeves with a propellant charge for them were simply absent.
According to statements from the past, in the middle of this decade, the Zumwalt destroyer railgun had to pass all the necessary tests. Already in 2018-19, the first such product was planned to be delivered to the lead ship of the project. In the future, all serial destroyers could receive such weapons. A promising rail gun for American ships could be a real revolution in the field naval weapons.
In early December, the American edition of Task & Purpose revealed some details of the current work, and also spoke about the customer's dissatisfaction with their progress. It turned out that the railgun project does not fully fit into a certain estimate, and besides, it does not fully meet the technical requirements. In particular, the rate of fire of the gun does not yet exceed 5 rounds per minute with the required 10. The muzzle energy of the projectile also does not meet the requirements and has not yet reached the desired 32 MJ. In addition, the military had questions about the advisability of using a new gun with a promising "hyperspeed projectile" HVP.
The HVP product is a special carbide projectile capable of withstanding the highest mechanical and thermal loads. Using the railgun it can be accelerated to a speed of the order of M = 6 and sent to a distance of 170-180 km. This product was adapted for use by the “traditional” Mk 45 ship cannons. In this case, the speed is reduced to M = 3,5, and the range - to 50 km. However, even with such characteristics, the projectile is of interest to the military. Not so long ago, it was decided to continue the development of HVP as an independent project and without direct connection with the railgun. Such a decision markedly hit the prospects of the latter.
According to recent reports, the further development of promising weapons will look like this. The defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year provides for increased funding for the HVP project. Allocations for the railgun, in turn, will be reduced. If the contracting companies succeed in completing the required work and get the desired results within a reasonable time, the rail gun program will return again “to the old rails”. Otherwise, rejection of it as a means of developing weapons of the fleet is not excluded.
The Task & Purpose edition writes that in the absence of serious success in 2019, the Pentagon may completely abandon promising weapons. In this case, the work can be continued, but the use of the finished gun by the fleet, at least, is postponed indefinitely.
However, the refusal of the military department will not lead to a complete stop of work. It is reported that in this case, the study of promising areas will continue. However, due to cuts in funding, the deadlines for carrying out the work will noticeably move to the right.
It should be noted that such events around the weapons project on new physical principles are unlikely to have a negative impact on the program for building ships of the Zumwalt type. It was originally planned to build more than three dozen such destroyers, but the increased cost of the program, financial constraints and technical problems led to a sharp reduction in the order. Now the shipbuilding industry will have to transfer to the Navy only three ships: the head and two serial ones. Instead of new railguns, they will carry artillery of existing types.
What will happen next - it remains only to guess. It can be said that the next 2018 year will be decisive for a program that once seemed promising. If General Atomics and BAE Systems, as well as numerous subcontractors manage to get rid of existing problems, the railgun will get a chance to reach practical use. Otherwise, the list of bold, but useless projects that did not give real results, despite all the costs and efforts, will be updated with a new item.
Rails for plasma
It should be noted that the potential failure of the current project is not something new or unexpected. In the recent past, several other rail cannon projects were developed in the United States, including those designed for the use of unusual “projectiles” in the form of plasma clots. The concept of Plasma railgun envisioned the creation of a cloud of ionized gas, which with the aid of a pair of rails could be directed in the right direction. As the current state of affairs in the field of armaments shows, such ideas never reached the stage of introduction into the troops.
In recent decades, several research programs have been carried out as part of the study of plasma railguns. One of the most famous and large-scale remained in stories under the name MARAUDER (Magnetically accelerated ring to achieve ultra high directed energy and radiation - “Magnetic Ring Acceleration for Super Powerful Directional Radiation”). This program was launched in 1991 and was implemented by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The work continued for several years and, apparently, led to some results.
In 1993, an experienced plasma rail gun was built at the Phillips laboratory operated by the United States Air Force. She could heat 2 mg gas to temperatures of the order of 1010 ° K and form a ring with a diameter of 1 m from the plasma. The kinetic energy of the plasma ejected through the barrel of a particular design reached 8-10 MJ. The tests showed that a small plasma cloud is capable of inflicting the most serious mechanical and thermal damage to the target object. Radiated electromagnetic pulse could hit electronic devices.
There is reason to believe that the Pentagon is interested in the Plasma railgun theme. The main argument in favor of such an assumption is the fact that since the mid-nineties, American scientists have never mentioned the MARAUDER project in their new publications. Perhaps the topic was classified. Similarly, the situation was with other attempts to study a system that combines a plasma generator and a rail system for accelerating charged particles.
Nevertheless, the presence of a number of interesting features and a certain potential did not affect in any way the real prospects of such systems. Even a quarter of a century after the start of work, no plasma-railgun type device was ever brought to the test of a full-scale prototype, as has already happened with rail guns or combat lasers. It seems that the interesting direction turned out to be too difficult for development and simply could not justify itself.
"Air laser" went to land
One of the most famous American weapons programs on new physical principles that have not gone beyond the stage of testing and research is the project Boeing YAL-1. His goal was to create a special aircraft equipped with a laser complex and a variety of additional equipment. The new aircraft was to become one of the elements of a promising missile defense system and destroy enemy ballistic missiles in the initial segments of the trajectory.
Since the beginning of the nineties, several American enterprises have been working on the ABL (Airborn Laser - “Air Laser”) project, which has developed a new combat laser and additional systems necessary for it. At the end of the decade, the construction of a prototype aircraft with special equipment - Boeing YAL-1. According to the plans of that time, two prototypes should be involved in the tests. After the completion of all inspections, it was planned to build five serial machines and deploy them on the main directions of a possible nuclear missile strike by a potential enemy.
Due to the high complexity, the ABL / YAL-1 program proved to be prohibitively expensive. Already in the first half of the two thousand years, the program cost reached 3 billion dollars, exceeding the original estimate. Estimates have shown that to achieve the desired results will have to spend at least another 5-7 billions. In this regard, the Pentagon refused to adopt new equipment for service. The plane with the laser was transferred to the category of technology demonstrators. The construction of the second prototype and serial equipment for combat use was canceled.
After the appearance of such solutions, Boeing YAL-1 began to demonstrate the required capabilities. In the spring of 2007, the aircraft’s equipment was able to detect and accompany the training target. In 2009, two tests took place during which the aircraft was able to accompany real target rockets. Finally, in February 2010, the aircraft with a laser in two flights destroyed three ballistic missiles. It took no more than a few minutes to destroy the rocket structure using a 1 MW beam.
After these tests, the checks of the equipment were suspended in practice. In 2011, the Pentagon, following the instructions of the country's leadership to reduce military spending, decided to close the ABL project and abandon further work on the Boeing YAL-1 aircraft. The only prototype was sent to storage, but in 2014-m it was disposed of as useless.
Failures on the background of success
Wanting to gain a military advantage over potential adversaries, the United States is developing weapons based on so-called. new physical principles. To date, American scientists have explored a number of promising areas and created a significant number of new projects of various kinds. Studied and tested, at least in laboratory conditions, rail gun systems (both kinetic and plasma), numerous laser devices, etc. Over the past decades, a total of several dozens of similar projects and prototypes have been created.
Nasal laser installation of the aircraft Boeing YAL-1. Photo of Wikimedia Commons
As practice shows, not all such projects have real prospects and can be completed with the desired result at reasonable costs. For whatever economic, technological, or practical reasons, the US military has to close promising projects. Prototypes are sent to storage or cutting, and the documentation goes to the archive or becomes the basis for new developments.
The current situation has one specific feature. The closure of some projects led to the actual loss of funding without the desired practical result. Nevertheless, the second result of closed projects turned out to be solid experience in various fields, suitable for use in new projects. Thus, even the negative results of the projects contributed to the further development of new directions and - even if indirectly - influenced new works.
In addition, it should be remembered that for each closed weapons project on new physical principles, there are a number of ongoing programs. For example, several companies continue to work on a combat laser for ships. A return to relatively old ideas is also possible, but in a new form. Thus, in the spring of this year, the Pentagon announced its intention to integrate a combat laser into the armament complex of an AC-130 fire support aircraft.
Thus, the failure of individual ambitious projects, causing some damage to the budget and defense, still does not lead to fatal consequences for the development of the US armed forces as a whole. Negative experience indicates the real prospects of certain ideas, and the accumulated knowledge is used in new projects. However, all these failures lead to unnecessary spending, delaying the rearmament of the army and, as a result, prove useful to the “likely opponents” of the United States. Other countries, including Russia, should take American successes and failures into account when drawing up new plans for the development of their own armed forces.
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