The U.S. Navy's New Plan to Reach Out and Touch Someone

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 24, 2007

When the 16-inch guns of the battleship Iowa fired in anger on our enemies, their firepower was as remarkable as it was deafening. They threw shells the size of a Volkswagen over 20 miles to reach out and pound their adversaries. But compared to the destructive power of future naval guns, those of the Iowa are like the relics that were fired from the tall ships.

That’s because recent advances in electromagnetic rail gun technology have created a naval gun that can strike enemy positions with the speed and force of a Mach 7 projectile over 250 miles inland. That’s nearly 5000 mph.

And because these projectiles travel at such high rates of speed, a warhead is totally unnecessary-the energy created by the impact of the round itself is enough to obliterate the target. Amazingly, these "supersonic bullets" can reach their furthest targets in as little as six minutes.

But these futuristic weapons aren’t just found within the pages of Popular Mechanics. In fact, a smaller version of the system was successfully tested last week at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

In that test, a small prototype fired an eight-megajoule electromagnetic device, which is comparable to hitting a building with a Ford Taurus at 380 mph. Current naval guns generate about nine megajoules, while the proposed new guns will generate a massive 64 megajoules.

This giant leap forward in naval gunfire is being pioneered by General Atomics, a division of General Dynamics (GD: NYSE). Last June the company was awarded a ten-million-dollar, 30-month contract to extend and mature the program.

But before any of this happens, the Navy needs to upgrade its ability to generate electricity. Because unlike their predecessors, the projectiles fired by the rail gun use no gunpowder at all. They use electrical current and magnetism to fire their projectiles, which is an entirely new requirement for naval ships.

That is the reason why the big movement in the Navy today is towards the "electrification" of ships. In fact, the Navy’s newest and most advanced ship, the DD(X) destroyer, is a perfect example of this trend.

Its design employs an integrated power system (IPS) that has the ability to generate, store and direct the huge volumes of electrical power necessary to make rail guns and other exotic weapons possible for the Navy of the future. These include such new classes of weapons as free electron lasers and high-powered microwaves.

Speaking about these new weapons, Capt. Roger D. McGinnis, director of the Navy’s directed energy and electric weapons program, said that while the "lethality mechanisms" of high-energy weapons are classified, "our bottom line is that if we can put millions of joules of energy onto a target, something will happen."

Providing all of this power is, naturally, the system’s electrical motor. And while the final contractor for this new motor has yet to be announced, one company, American Superconductor Corp. (AMSC: NASDAQ), seems to have the leg up on its competition.

Its 36.5 MW (49,000 horsepower) high-temperature superconductor propulsion motor, which is sized for the DD(X) program, is currently completing the third and final phase of the testing process. Other motor designs, while highly touted, have failed, leaving AMSC in a strong position to win the final bid.

But regardless of which company finally provides the power plant for this revolution in naval warfare, one thing is for sure-the ships of tomorrow are going to be vastly different than the ones we know today. When they engage their adversaries it will be farther, faster and more lethal than anything we can imagine.

Mach 7 or the speed of light-either way, it adds up to one bad day for those that would harm us.


Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,


Steve Christ, Editor

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