What’s crazier than an electrically fired, 5,600 mph bullet? An electrically fired, 5,600 mph bullet that’s GPS-guided, too. The Navy wants one of those to use with its cutting-edge cannon — a gizmo also known as the Electromagnetic Rail Gun.
The Office of Naval Research wants this guided munition to be compatible with current naval artillery guns, too. It’s the Navy’s latest step into its quest to improve warships’ capabilities to shoot down missiles coming at them — as well as fire projectiles at enemies miles and miles away.
Announced on July 19, the new program is called Hyper Velocity Projectile, and the Navy hopes that researchers will find a way to design bullets that will work both with naval artillery guns like the Mark 45 and its rail guns, weapons that will hasten “the end of the dominance of the missile,” Adm. Gary Roughead, the former top officer in the Navy, told Danger Room in 2011.
The Navy doesn’t only want the bullets to be super fast, it hopes to be able to steer and guide them in mid-air. The proposal refers to this capability as “potential in-flight retargeting.”
These new bullets, according to the proposal, will have to be 24 inches long and weigh around 20 to 30 pounds. They should also have the same reach as the current ones used by 5” Mark 45 Mod guns and reach farther away than 30 miles. Bullets that will be used by Mach-8 rail guns are expected to reach even further, perhaps even 200 miles.
To reach these lofty goals, the proposal “will explore technologies related to extended range guided projectiles for Naval Surface Fire Support and exploit recent advances in miniaturized electronics, guided projectiles and mortars, and warhead technology for small UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] launched munitions.”
So how far into the future is this futuristic endeavor? The Office of Naval Research is anticipating “a multi-stage program leading to full-up live-fire demonstrations of the technology,” which should be ready for the end of 2017. The Navy doesn’t expect to grant any contracts until midway through next year. After that, the first nine-month phase of the program should begin.
Given the Navy’s mixed record with futuristic technologies like the rail gun, it’s hard to predict when these super-fast bullets will see the light of day. The Navy has already spent more than seven years and $240 million trying to develop rail guns, facing increasing congressional opposition. The program was almost shut down last year, among fears that its technical challenges would make it impossible to deliver. Following pressure from the Navy, the program was later resurrected.
But, truth is, nobody still knows exactly when rail guns will actually begin to be mounted on warships. The Navy’s best guesstimate is in the early 2020s. Considering that, the rail gun motto — “Velocitas Eradico” or “Speed Kills” — sounds a little bit ironic.