by Kent Ballard
In the American press, the U.S. Air Force usually steals all the thunder when it
comes to new weapons development. The Stealth fighter, the B-2 bomber, and now
the new F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning captured—and continue to hold—the public's attention. For the most part, they deserve it. I'm thankful this
particular Air Force is ours and not somebody else's. It would be dreadful to
think of these aircraft belonging to an unfriendly nation. It's also fun to
speculate on what they're flying around that we don't even know about yet. The
SR-71 Blackbird was kept Top Secret for decades after it became operational, no
doubt puzzling and even frightening radar operators around the world who simply
knew no human aircraft could fly that high or fast.
I think it would be great fun to peek inside a half-dozen or so secret Air Force
hangers and have a close look at whatever mind-blowing craft they have today.
But then they'd have to shoot me, so maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea
after all. Air Force security frowns on writers snooping around their black
Yet, while the Air Force has cornered the majority of the public's attention,
our Navy has been up to some pretty incredible things themselves. When I say “incredible,” I'm talking about a vastly new and more capable Navy and Marine Corps in the
very near future, just over the horizon. And while I'm sure the Navy has its
own black projects, a surprising number of them are merely “dark blue,” navy blue if you prefer. While it seems if the Air Force develops a new tire for
landing gear, they immediately classify it, the Navy's been much different.
They've cheerfully allowed science and military writers to get a good look at
some of their new technology—and friends, what they're working on is so wild, so unexpected, it can only be
described as breakthrough technology. What we now think of as naval armament is
about to become as obsolete as a rotary dial telephone.
For decades, science fiction writers have armed their imaginary spaceships with
guns that needed no gunpowder to fire a projectile, and projectiles that don't
contain explosives. All kinds of fanciful names were given to them; “electro-guns,” “mass drivers,” “Gauss rifles,” and “kinetic energy weapons.” SF writers, always scrambling for some imaginary new weapon, knew that if you
lay a magnet on a table and push another magnet towards it, they will either
attract or repel each other, depending on which way you laid the magnets. This
mysterious but well-known action became “weaponized” as early as 1897 by John Munro, in his SF novel “A Trip To Venus.” They had developed electromagnets by then, and forward thinkers realized such
magnets could be turned off and on, and even reverse polarity—and do it very fast. And once again it's being proven that if humans can imagine
a thing, later humans will figure out a way to build one.
As you've probably guessed, among the first real-world applications of this were
the magnetic levitation or “Maglev” trains of Japan and Europe. They don't ride on wheels. They literally hover just
above their magnetic track and are pushed along by alternating magnets. Japan
holds the world's speed record for their “bullet train” at 361 mph, pretty impressive for a magnet trick.
Somebody in the Navy must read science fiction, and one day turned to another
sailor and asked, “Say, why don't we make one of those things?” (Don't laugh. Many a secret project had just that humble a birth.) Once looked
at seriously, the problems seemed insurmountable. In the real world, a gun or
cannon that could fire a shell magnetically would melt down midway through the
first shot from mere friction. Steel couldn't possibly hold up to the heat
generated. Then there was the power problem. It takes unholy amounts of
electrical energy to get something moving at the speed of a real bullet. And
then there were the magnets themselves. They'd overheat, melting any insulation
around their wiring. And there was no way to control the energy being forced
through the magnets at that speed. The precise control of the electrical
components was far too quick for any kind of mechanical device to regulate them
properly. It turned out to be a nice idea, but impossible.
After taking that into consideration, the Office of Naval Research set about to
make it possible.
New materials development led to heat resistant “barrels” for magnetic cannon. New capacitors were designed to provide the enormous power
required for containing the electrical energy. Computer controls mounted to
lightspeed switches were devised. Ingenious cooling systems were drawn up. The
Navy wasn't thinking small. They had in mind nothing less than replacing the
great cannons that had been the main armament of warships since the 14th
Century. Their physicists had already done the math and told them a working
model of what they were tinkering with would be a game-changer in naval
warfare. If they could make it fly fast enough, a two foot long chunk of almost
anything weighing just a few pounds would have the same destructive power
on-target as a cruise missile due to the kinetic energy it would hit with. No
explosive warheads would be needed. The sheer speed of the flying “chunk” would flatten a reinforced building. The Brits were working along these lines
too, and in 2003 successfully fired a 1/8th scale model with very impressive
results, so their Navy and ours began to collaborate on the project.
One of the first conventional ideas the Office of Naval Research (ONR) threw out
the window was the idea of a round barrel. They could make the bore of their
magnetic cannon barrel any shape they wanted because the “shell” wouldn't spin in the gun. This led them to experimenting with various-shaped
gun barrels that would be able to transfer magnetic energy more efficiently
than a round one. ONR experimented with triangular barrel muzzles before
settling on a square barrel, which turned out to be the most efficient. There
were various small-scale models fired, but as new materials kept being
developed, new ways of harnessing the awesome electromagnetic energies, and the
idea of firing the shell while surrounded in a
“sabot” when in the gun itself was worked out. The sabot threw much more (tremendously
more) power and speed into the shell, and once it left the barrel would simply
peel itself off.
Here we need a word or two about physics. Don't be alarmed, there will be no
test and I've already done the math for you. The multiplication of kinetic
energy via speed is easy to demonstrate. Take two apples. Poke a hole through
one with a sharp pencil. What happens? Well, not much, other than you have a
small hole through your apple. Now take a 30-.06 rifle bullet, which is roughly
the same diameter as your pencil, place it in a rifle and shoot through your
second apple. What happens then?
It vaporizes. Whyzatt? It's because the bullet transferred more kinetic energy into the apple
due to its supersonic speed. So, the faster things go, the more energy they
carry along with them and this kind of energy is called “kinetic” energy.
We're going to wade a little deeper into the pool now, but remain calm. A “joule” is a unit that measures energy or work. The formula for deriving joules would
scare a vampire, so we won't go there. (To make matters even worse, the formula
is in the metric system.) So let's look at what one joule really is. It takes
one joule of energy to lift a small apple one yard straight up. Or, one joule
of energy is equivalent to a tennis ball moving 14 miles per hour. And like all
terrifying math equations, you can flip this one around to determine how much
work it takes to make a joule. If you can produce enough work to make one watt
of electrical power for one second, yep, that's one joule's worth of energy.
And I'm figuring that you already understand that a megajoule is one million
joules. That tennis ball moving at 14 mph isn't so much, but a million of them
all hitting a brick wall at the same time would knock it over.
Like I said, the Navy does not think small.
In early 2007, the Navy made a baby model of their science fiction gun for a
test. It generated eight megajoules of energy and spat out a metal “brick”weighing just a hair over seven pounds at supersonic speed. It would have
really, really ruined the day for anyone in front of it. Or a dump truck in
front of it, for that matter. They blasted away with it for a period of time,
taking measurements, speed readings, calculating the impact, and scaring the
bejayzus out of people at the test facility who hadn't been informed when they
were going to shoot it. Heads nodded all around. Yes, this thing had potential,
Work continued, and in 2008 they built a little bigger one, setting more
records. They fired rounds weighing up to 22 pounds, but they were unstable, being as aerodynamic as, well, a brick. Then, just this
January, they cobbled together a model with more than four times the energy and
loaded a projectile into the thing that Navy officials claimed looked like “a metallic icicle.” (It reminded me of an old 1950's science fiction rocket ship, complete with
fins.) They ramped up the energy to 33 megajoules and let 'er rip. This time
observers felt the ground shake. It came shrieking out of the end of the gun at
hypersonic speed, punched a neat hole though a metal plate they'd set up in its
way 100 yards down range, and then flew on straight as an arrow for seven more
kilometers with no barrel elevation. The Railgun was born, so called because of
the inner rails the projectile's sabot rides on during acceleration. Reporters
invited to witness the test said they thought the electromagnetic gun would be
silent. So what was that awful bang they heard? The Navy explained it was the
sonic boom created by the projectile itself.
So they're satisfied, right? Nope. Again, that was just a toy, just a test
model. The final model they're going to start placing on Navy ships around the
end of this decade will be, most likely, of a classified “joule-rating” and range. But they'll be giants compared to the power of today's most powerful
shipboard guns. Muzzle velocities of Mach 6 to 8 are within reach. Even so, the
navy's ultimate stated goal is a speed of Mach 7.5 at the barrel and Mach 5 on
target—up to 200+ miles down range with deadly accuracy. And a maximum range shot will
take only six minutes to travel that 200 miles, arriving on target faster than
a Tomahawk cruise missile.
That thing will be Thor's hammer to the enemy.
The Railgun is expected to mature to full power-- a staggering 64 megajoules--
by 2025. In the meantime some ships will have the 100 mile range version
mounted to them. Compare this with the standard 5-inch gun now mounted on Navy
destroyers. Their effective range is 13 miles, and maximum range is 15 miles.
The Navy's new DD(X) destroyers will be all-electric, even down to the
propulsion system. The massive generators on board will produce enough amperage
to power these, and even more exotic weapons.
The Railgun will bring other benefits too. No longer will our warships need to
carry tons of explosives, either as propellant or in the shells themselves. No
powder magazines to explode, USS Arizona-style. No explosives for a shipboard
fire to detonate. Faster response time on target. A Marine company needing fire
support from a ship can have it delivered on target more quickly than firing
missiles at it, and a destroyer will be able to cover them inland for ten times
the distance. And a Tomahawk costs between $600,000 to around a million dollars
per missile, depending on range, warhead, and guidance devices. The Railgun
rounds can do the same amount of damage due to their horrendous kinetic energy
(remember the apple you shot?) and will be spare change compared to that cost,
plus a ship will be able to carry a great many more of them, and more safely.
Then we have the next-gen phenomenon known as “reactive materials.” Remember earlier in the article when I kept yammering about “new materials development?” Let me introduce you to the wonderful world of “reactive” materials. They come in various forms and types, but generally speaking you
could have a crowbar made out of the stuff and toss it in a fire. Nothing would
happen. You could beat your ex-spouse's car full of dents with it. Nothing
would happen, at least not to the crowbar. You could run over it with a truck,
drop it twenty stories out of a window, shoot it with a shotgun. It would still be in the shape of a crowbar, and none
the worse for wear.
But pack it in or around a high-explosive warhead or someplace where it would be
exposed to outrageous energies, and—ta-da!--it becomes a very powerful explosive! Sure, you can take a ball peen
hammer and pound on a block of plastic explosives all day long and nothing will
happen either, but reactive materials (RM) have metallic properties. They have
structural strength. You can make things out of them. You can't do that with
C-4. And our navy blue friends at the ONR are busily finding all kinds of uses
Whatever odds and ends the Navy shoots at bad guys are generally packed with
explosives. Let's say a Naval aviator is in a life-or-death dogfight with a
pair of those nasty Sukhoi Su-30MKs. He fires a Sidewinder and gets a good hit,
splashing one. But he's now down to just one Sidewinder left and out of
ammunition for his cannon (it's been a busy day for our aviator). His last
missile simply must take out the other jet. He locks on, gets the tone, and
fires. The Sukhoi pilot shoots off flares and they distract the heat-seeker in
the Sidewinder. It closes and explodes, but it's not a direct hit. Shrapnel
rips through the fuselage of the Su-30, but does minimal damage and the enemy jet is
still battle-worthy—and heavily armed.
This is not a good thing.
But let's say that Sidewinder is the next-generation model, one made out of that
weird reactive material. The missile closes and detonates too far away for a
regular kill, but the reactive material itself, the very shrapnel of the
missile, becomes highly explosive, impacting the Sukhoi and viciously exploding
again after ripping through the fuselage. Splash two, because shrapnel and
fragments made of reactive material have a 500% greater lethality! Instead of
peppering the enemy with shards of inert metal, it hits like a few dozen pounds
of secondary explosives.
Okay, so now imagine a Railgun projectile made out of RM. Spooky, ain't it?
There's now a warhead almost ready to field called the “BattleAxe.” It will eliminate “soft” targets like trucks, thin-skinned vehicles, and hordes of enemy soldiers over a
wide area. So what? you say. We already have cluster bombs. The big deal with
the BattleAxe is that any fragment of it that does not explode goes inert
again. In a cluster bomb, often several of the little “bomblettes” contained in the main bomb fail to detonate—but remain deadly. Advancing troops, civilians, even farm animals can set them
off later by merely stumbling over one. There's a lot of collateral damage
involved with using cluster bombs. Packing the main bomb with fist-sized
pellets of reactive material eliminates this hazard. If three or four pellets
don't detonate, you could play baseball with them. They won't hurt anybody.
Reactive materials are also capable of “dial-a-bomb” characteristics. In America's nuclear arsenal, many of our warheads are capable
of being set to different detonation powers. They can be programed to explode
at different energy levels, generally anywhere from 70 kilotons to 780 Kt. This
has long been known in military circles as “dial-a-bomb,” a darkly humorous name for a very serious matter. God forbid we ever need any
of them, but if we do the same nuclear weapons can be scaled up or down,
depending on the target and situation. The Pentagon realizes there's no sense
in using a large nuclear explosion when a much smaller one will destroy the
target. This gives our arsenal, and our generals, a flexibility they may need
in response to a nuclear attack.
ONR is working on land mines made primarily from reactive materials, “dial-a-mine” if you wish. Depending on the threat they're faced with in the field, Marines
will be able to set the mines for various levels of explosive power. Need to stop advancing tanks? Crank 'em up. But what
about rampaging groups of hostile foreign civilians charging an embassy?
Reactive materials will allow the Marines to set mines at such a low power
level they actually become non-lethal weapons! They can merely knock people
down, temporarily blind them with a brilliant flash, and maybe break a few
bones and eardrums—but diplomatically, that's far better than simply killing them all. RM mines
will give our Marines at the pointy end of the stick the capability to set
their mines for the lowest power level needed, another option in our effort to
reduce collateral damage and actually harm as few people as possible.
The Office of Naval Research is also developing an “active protection system” RM defensive gun-launched grenade that will take out incoming mortar rounds,
RPGs and enemy grenades. On the other end of the scale, they're also working on
large bombs filled with powdered reactive material which will “softly” explode and fill the air over a wide area with RM “dust,” then ignite it. The result would be an awesomely massive “thermobaric” explosion—and the thermobaric bombs we already have are considered “the next best thing to a nuke.” RM bombs of that nature could approach genuine low-kiloton nuclear explosions
with no EMP, no radiation whatsoever, and no after-effects save for figuring
out how to refill the giant crater where that enemy tank battalion was
At this point, if you love your freedom, you're probably thinking the ONR is
well worth our tax dollars. But things that go “boom” are not the only futuristic weapons they'll soon put in the hands of our
sailors and Marines. They've made breakthroughs on other weapons that do not
measure their speed in Mach numbers. These work at the speed of light.
Current U.S. Navy ships are protected from enemy aircraft and missiles by their
own batteries of surface-to-air missiles. Their last line of defense is the
close-in Phalanx weapons system with a range of about 2,000 yards. Under
sustained attack, it is conceivable that one of our ships could simply run out
of ammunition for both. And while the Phalanx is incredibly fast and accurate,
a supersonic anti-ship missile could cross that distance in a breath's time.
The Phalanx is designed to engage multiple targets, but if the aggressor
seriously wanted to take out a high-value target (an aircraft carrier, for
example) the Phalanx could be facing swarms of missiles coming from different
angles and directions.
The Navy needs ship defenses that do not run out of ammunition, have a much
longer range, are easy to maintain, and powerful enough to destroy any incoming
threat. Cruise missiles are bad enough, but with more and more nations (not all
of them friendly) getting access to long range supersonic anti-ship missiles,
we need to rethink our defenses.
Among all the physicists and engineers in the world who are working on lasers,
the ONR arguably has the best. The term “breakthrough” is often over-used and terribly exaggerated, but the profound discoveries made
by ONR in laser research defies the use of any lesser term. Quite simply,
they're doing things now that just a very few years ago were considered
Our civilian hand-held laser pointers now come in a variety of colors; red,
blue, green for example. A green laser pointer is sixty times more powerful
than a red one, due to its energy consumption and the gain medium that's
electrically charged to make the beam. The “gain medium” for early lasers was a ruby rod. Now they've learned to use garnet crystals and
various gases and chemicals. All hand held laser pointers have an output power
rated usually between 3 to 20 milliwatts. A very few range as high as 200mW.
(One milliwatt is equal to one-thousandth of a watt.)
But military-grade lasers for use in warfare need to be at least 100 kilowatts,
34,000,000 times more powerful at the very minimum, to burn holes in enemy
missiles or aircraft. If you had a hand-held laser capable of that (and was
crazy enough to fire it), you'd vaporize a neat little hole through your wall
and your pointer would immediately flash-fry you because conventional lasing
also generates a tremendous amount of heat, most of which is wasted energy,
never actually going into the beam.
It's no secret that engineers all over the world, both military and civilian,
have been slowly ratcheting up the power of lasers over the years. Like Thomas
Edison trying thousands of different fibers, metals, and materials, trying to
find one that would remain intact long enough to make the light bulb practical,
scientists have tried just about everything they could lay their hands on as “gain medium.” Some were better than others, some never worked at all, and a few led to other
laboratory curiosities. But there seemed to be a physical limit to all of them,
and none were what ONR was looking for.
The breakthrough came in 2004, when researchers at the Thomas Jefferson National
Acceleration Facility hit upon a fantastic idea. If we can't find any gain
medium that will do the job, why not get rid of gain medium altogether? They
developed a process to fire a highly charged beam of electrons to initiate the
lasing, then fed more power into that. The result was called the “Free Electron Laser” or FEL and it became known as the holy grail of laser research.
The FEL did things laser engineers could only previously dream about. Most
high-powered lasers could only fire brief shots without needing to be shut down
to allow them to cool, sometimes for hours. The FEL, well, you could turn it on
and fire as long as you fed electricity into the thing. They also learned that
a Free Electron Laser could be “tuned” to different wavelengths. This had them doing handsprings, because atmospheric
conditions can vary wildly. To be effective, you'd need one wavelength for
clear, dry weather, another for clouds and mist, still another to fire
efficiently through rain. The FEL gave them an all-weather military-grade
performance. And compared to other military lasers used in experiments, the FEL
was easy to maintain and much smaller. They kept experimenting, ramping up the
power, and finally fired the thing at an output of 10 kilowatts. When the nice
people at the ONR heard about this, they got on the first jet to the Jefferson
Facility. The ONR still needs a laser with ten times the power of the Jefferson
FEL, but their breakthrough in lasing was farmed out to other defense
contractors to see what their labs can do with it. In their own laboratories,
ONR has built an FEL with a 14 kilowatt output—so far.
Previous experimental military lasers usually used chemical-powered beams, and
some of them were outrageously powerful. But they were of such ridiculous size
(and fuel appetite) that everyone knew they'd have to become orders of
magnitude smaller and more efficient before they could ever be considered “weapons.” The Air Force did heroic work with its 747-mounted “flying laser” which used chemicals akin to rocket fuel for power. They charged head-on into a
variety of lasing issues, and whipped several of them. In fact, they tracked
and shot down two test missiles with their experimental plane. But even with a
747 full of electronics, flexible mirrors, and chemical fuel their laser was
woefully short-ranged, subject to “jitters” from the movement of the aircraft and its engines, and underpowered. The
Airborne Laser project was shelved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009.
Oddly, the first firing of a 100 kilowatt laser came out of older technology,
used with a twist. Northrop Grumman built a unit containing 32 garnet crystal
modules and combined them into “laser amplifier chains.” Then, in layman's terms, they focused these “chains” into one beam and finally broke the “100 kilowatt threshold,” firing a single laser beam at a record 105 kilowatts, well into the range the
Navy was looking for. But can they “tune” the beam for different weather conditions? What about heating problems? I could
find no information one way or the other. It's at this point where our navy
blue secrets fade into black.
But the ONR takes pains to point out that lasers have many capabilities besides
burning holes in enemy equipment. They can be used for rangefinders. You can
communicate over laser beams. They can be used as sensors, and to guide the
Navy's new Railgun shells. They also say that not every target requires 100Kw
or more—some may only take 50, others just 20. It depends on what they're shooting at.
At no point during research for this article did I find any mention of an upper
limit to the laser power the Navy seeks, but I did come across the word.
And since Navy guards would just as cheerfully shoot me as Air Force guards if
they caught me snooping around their labs, I'm not likely to find out any more
until it's officially released to the press. We do know that shipboard lasers
are still years away from being mounted on Navy vessels, perhaps a decade or
more. And we know the 100Kw threshold was finally broken. And that research
continues. Someday in the near future the Navy will begin launching the new
DD(X) class destroyers, armed with Railguns, improved missile systems, and
encircled with superpowerful laser defenses, each of the new “tin cans” far more deadly than a World War Two battleship. Or a fleet of them.