Why China’s ‘miracle’ railgun weapon should scare the U.S. navy

WATCH ABOVE: The Office of Naval Research demonstrates the navy's electromagnetic railgun.

China appears to be testing an experimental, warship-mounted railgun capable of punching a hole in an enemy aircraft carrier from up to 150 kilometres away, according to expert analysis of images on social media.

That’s roughly the distance from Toronto to Buffalo, N.Y., or half the distance from Calgary to Edmonton.

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The U.S., China and Russia have been in a race to develop the coveted railgun technology for over a decade, in hopes of using the science fiction-inspired weapon to gain an edge in naval combat.

Railguns use electromagnetic force to launch metal projectiles at supersonic speeds from Mach 4 to Mach 7, meaning they can shoot farther and do more damage than any gunpowder-propelled bullet. The weapon gets its name from two electrified rails that are used to launch the projectile.

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Any warship with a working railgun would have the power to disable “almost any ship in very short notice,” according to Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute.

“They basically give you the ability to bypass all known defensive systems,” Bronk told Global News.

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Bronk is one of several defence experts who concluded last January that the People’s Liberation Army Navy had built a tank-landing ship with a railgun on its bow, based on photos taken at China’s Wuchang shipyard.

That same vessel was spotted heading out to sea last week, sparking concerns that China was about to test its railgun.

“It’s confirmation of something we already suspected,” Bronk told Global News on Thursday.

The latest photos were first shared by defence blogger RedShark on China’s social media site, Weibo. The Chinese government has the capacity to filter content on Weibo, but it has not removed the photos.

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If the weapon proves to be operational, China would become the world’s first nation capable of launching unstoppable, hypersonic projectiles that can disable an enemy naval fleet before full-scale combat ever begins. That would give it an edge in a number of contentious areas of the world, including the disputed South China Sea.

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Beijing critical of U.S. military operation in the South China Sea
Beijing critical of U.S. military operation in the South China Sea

“This would fundamentally change the nature of engagements,” Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told ABC News on Wednesday.

“This would see belligerents able to strike at each other at distances ranging in the hundreds of kilometres.”

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Railgun projectiles are cheaper to make and easier to store than torpedoes or missiles, Bronk says. They would also be much easier to aim at incoming missiles, making them┬ásuperior to anything installed on today’s cruisers or destroyers. However, railguns also require a lot of electricity to run, so a warship would have to be specifically built to accommodate one.

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China is in the early stages of building out its navy to rival that of the U.S., and it could easily build some of its new ships with railgun technology on board, Bronk says. The U.S., on the other hand, would have to completely gut one of its warships in order to install the same weapon.

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“(China is) basically starting from scratch, and so… they can incorporate new technologies from the keel up, with much fewer problems than the U.S. navy,” Bronk said.

He described the railgun as a “revolutionary weapon” and a “miracle technology,” but stopped short of dubbing it a potential superweapon.

“The level of destructiveness on the target is comparable to an anti-ship missile,” he said.

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U.S. warships sail near islands claimed by Beijing
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The U.S. navy has contracted General Atomics and BAE Systems to develop its own version of the railgun. A prototype weapon fired several rounds last year, but that occurred on a testing range, not aboard a warship.

Bronk says the U.S. is currently focused on developing better long-range projectiles for its existing guns, rather than trying to accelerate its railgun program.

The U.S. did not expect China to have a war-ready railgun until 2025, CNBC reported last June. However, U.S. authorities already knew that China was testing its railguns at sea, according to an intelligence report cited in the story.

In this image, provided by the U.S. navy, a high-speed video camera captures a record-setting firing of an electromagnetic railgun, or EMRG, at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Va., on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008.
In this image, provided by the U.S. navy, a high-speed video camera captures a record-setting firing of an electromagnetic railgun, or EMRG, at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Va., on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008. AP Photo/U.S. Navy, John F. Williams

China’s seemingly railgun-equipped vessel, dubbed the Haiyangshan, is a Type 072II Yuting-class tank landing ship. The 120-metre-long vessel usually carries tanks and helicopters for amphibious warfare operations.

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The Haiyangshan appears to have been specifically modified to carry a power supply and cooling system to support the railgun, Bronk wrote in a blog post last year.

The government-backed Global Times reported last March that China was making “notable achievements on advanced weapons, including sea tests of electromagnetic railguns.”

Global News has reached out to the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for comment.

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