Gunpowder Gives Way to Batteries as Naval Warfare Turns Electric

The era of gunpowder that dominated warfare at sea for centuries may be drawing to an end.

BAE Systems Plc is experimenting with electrically propelled long-range projectiles to hit targets ashore, after it secured a contract with the U.S. Office of Naval Research for development of an electro-magnetic railgun. The system has a reach in excess of 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a speed greater than seven times that of sound, said Steve Kelly, vice president at BAE;s land & armaments unit.

A railgun uses electric energy to create a magnetic field that launches the round, eliminating the need for explosives that are hazardous to carry aboard a ship. While the concept, which lets a vessel rapidly attack targets, has drawn interest for years, developments have been stymied by technical challenges including the need for high power.

“The developments we have done to date are showing what can be done,” Kelly said at the DSEI defense and security conference in London this week. “We are starting to see a way we can get there.”

London-based BAE Systems demonstrated some of the underlying technology to launch a round in a laboratory last year. Kelly said an operational system is still years away, with more work needed to perfect the launch mechanism and the round itself.

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The Navy, which began railgun work under the Innovative Naval Prototype initiative in 2005, called the technology a “game changer” in a program description. Muzzle energy of 32 megajoule, equivalent to 8 kilograms (18 pounds) of TNT, have already been demonstrated, it said.

“You can respond to calls for fire much more quickly,” said Kelly.

Work on the current $34.5 million contract will see BAE working on upgrading existing equipment to fire multiple shots and other improvements.

The company is also working on other efforts to improve the ability of navies to strike targets, and is developing the multi-service long-range projectile, Kelly said. The munition, which could strike targets at a distance of about 100 kilometers, could be fired from weapons such as BAE’s Mk 45 Mod. 4 naval gun.

The company demonstrated the accuracy of the round in a recent test in which the projectile flew about 35 kilometers and struck within 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) of its target, Kelly said. The weapon could fill a U.S. Navy gap left after the cancellation of Raytheon Co.’s Extended-Range Guided Munition, he said.

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