Is the future of the electric cannon in small calibers and anti-aircraft defense?

If the United States ended its electric cannon, or railgun, program in 2021, other programs around the world have persevered in this way, and now seem to be reaching a certain technological maturity.

This is particularly the case with the Chinese program, which seems to be getting closer and closer to operational tests, if we are to believe recent statements from the Chinese engineers in charge of this project. But China is not the only one to get closer to an operational solution, Japan, as well as France, are also moving there quickly.

These programs share, in addition to a similar timetable, a common technological approach. Indeed, far from seeking to reproduce the large caliber American system, to replace traditional artillery, they all turned to much smaller caliber munitions, to make anti-aircraft, anti-missile and anti-drone systems, with unique characteristics. and remarkable.

How does an electric cannon, or Railgun, work?

Since the appearance of gunpowder in China in the 11th century, cannons, howitzers and other firearms have all functioned in the same way. As it burns, the powder releases a large amount of hot gas, propelling the projectile into the barrel of the gun, and giving it its trajectory.

railgun electric cannon Chinese LST
One of the close-up photos of the Chinese Railgun installed for testing on the Chinese Navy's LST

Many advances have, obviously, been made over ten centuries, whether in the quality of powders, the resistance and length of tubes, the quality of projectiles, etc. Thus, modern artillery systems have very high performances. superior to that of the guns of the Second World War, with a range often more than tripled for a given caliber, and an unparalleled precision.

The electric gun uses an electromagnetic field to give the projectile, placed on a rail (hence the name railgun), its initial speed. From a theoretical point of view, this solution offers many advantages, as long as a powerful electrical source is available.

In particular, it makes it possible to dispense with a stock of powder, which is both bulky, particularly difficult to transport, and which generates significant risks in combat. In addition, it makes it possible to give the projectile an initial speed, much higher, for the same tube length, than powder propulsion, including beyond the hypersonic threshold.

In fact, it potentially makes it possible to reach ranges or altitudes inaccessible to conventional artillery systems. Thus, during its tests, the US Navy estimated that its Rail Gun program could reach a range of 200 km with a muzzle exit speed of Mach 7, and even beyond 350 km, if this speed was brought to Mach 10.

The impasse of the American large-caliber Railgun program

However, the Railgun is not without constraints. As said previously, it must have significant electrical power available, like high-energy armies, lasers or microwave cannons.

Railgun US navy
The US Navy program was abandoned in July 2021

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