Back in March 2006, BAE Systems received a contract for “design and production of the 32 MJ Laboratory Launcher for the U.S. Navy.” Some hint of what they are talking about can be gleaned from the name. The project is an electro-magnetic rail gun that accelerates a projectile to incredibly high speeds without using explosives. BAE isn’t the only firm that’s working on this program, which the US Navy sees as its gateway to a game-changing technology.
The attraction of such systems is no mystery – they promise to fire their ammunition 10 or more times farther than conventional naval gun shells, while sharply reducing both the required size of each shell, and the amount of dangerous explosive material carried on board ship. Progress is being made, but there are still major technical challenges to overcome before a working rail gun becomes a serious naval option. This DID FOCUS article looks at the key technical challenges, the programs, and the history of key contracts and events.