The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well known for turning out a wide number of weird high-tech weapons, and their latest, the railgun, is no exception. Built in conjunction with the US Navy, the weapons system promises to fire projectiles at never before seen speeds.
The railgun's projectiles can be fired at more than 7 times the speed of sound
A railgun is not really a gun in the traditional sense. Rather than using gunpowder and a barrel, a railgun propels a metallic object along a series of rails using magnetic repulsion. By using a series of electromagnets, objects can be fired at more than 7 times the speed of sound, so long as sufficient electric power is made available. This high-power requirement makes them ideal for ships - especially nuclear powered ones - which generate an excess of electricity.
The advantage of a such a system comes from the ultra-high velocities of its projectiles. As the well known physicals formula goes, Force = Mass x Acceleration, and given its high speed the rail gun does not need to fire a large projectile (or indeed an explosive one) in order to massively damage a target. This has the advantage of allowing ships to carry a much greater amount of ammunition than is currently possible.
In addition to this, the projectiles are much better at evading defences due to the speed. While slower missile can be shot down by other missiles or close-in weapons systems, a railgun projectile would need to be hit with something of equal or greater velocity to be meaningly stopped. Furthermore these railgun shots, while still costing in the vicinity of $25,000 are nonetheless an order of magnitude cheaper than conventional missiles.
The US Navy plans to begin the deployment of their railguns aboard ships beginning in 2016 for testing purposes, before bringing them into combat zones later in the decade.
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