Japan has successfully tested its medium-caliber electromagnetic railgun on an offshore platform. According to its Acquisition Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), this was the first time any country had accomplished such a goal. The test was an important step in the development of this technology. Japan hopes to use it both on land and at sea.
ATLA, which is part of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, teamed up with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) for the test. There are few hard details on what exactly was involved in the test and when it occurred.
ATLA has released video footage showing the railgun firing from different angles.
Existing specifications for ATLA’s medium-sized electromagnetic railgun prototype — first seen in May of this year — highlight that the weapon is able to fire 40mm steel projectiles weighing 320g (or 0.7lb). At their most fundamental level, a The War Zone Railguns, as previously mentioned, rely more on electromagnets than chemical propellants for projectiles that reach hypersonic speeds.
ATLA’s railgun can fire rounds at a velocity of around 2,230m/s (Mach 6.5), as Shepard Reports, and uses 5 megajoules (5 MJ) or 5 million joules (5 J) of charge energy. ATLA plans to run it on 20 MJ charge energy in the future.
At present, we don’t know for sure which vessels Japan might ultimately mount future railguns to, if they actually turn into an operational reality. Previously, Japan has hinted at the possibility of mounting railguns on JMSDF ships. Back in 2015, for example, when the JMSDF’s first 27DD or 27DDG ships emerged — subvariants of the Atago class guided-missile destroyers — Japan Marine United (JMU) suggested the vessels could be equipped with an electromagnetic railgun due to the improved power-generating capabilities of these ships.
An artist’s conception of a railgun installed on a 27DDG ship, seen below, shows the weapon engaging a range of air- and sea-based targets.
As well as being mounted on destroyers, it’s possible the weapons could also find their way onto Japan’s in-development multi-purpose missile defense vessels. In recent years, Japan has made significant investments in ballistic missile defence (BMD) warships to combat a wide range of threats from the air and sea. You can learn more in this past article. War Zone pieces.
Railguns are attractive because of the speed at which they can fire projectiles. This includes hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic ballistic missiles. ATLA is also reported to be planning to mount railguns on trucks mounted on land to target hypersonic weapons.
This mid-caliber railgun could limit its capabilities to the localized defense of high-value targets on land and ships. The U.S. Navy’s railgun concept, which has been defunct for a long time, was based on a much larger caliber design. While it is more powerful, the system is more complex and requires more power and cooling. Even at 40mm there are major obstacles to overcome before a naval railgun system can be operational.
ATLA took a very long time to get to the point where they could test fire a working model of this weapon. In 1990 the agency’s Ground Systems Research Centre (GSRC) began working on a basic, smaller 16mm railgun. In 2016, the agency began working on a prototype with anti-aircraft and anti-ship capabilities. ATLA released a video in 2018 that showcased a proof of concept railgun with associated support and testing equipment.
Later in May 2022, ATLA’s GSRC concluded a $47.9 million (6.5 billion Japanese Yen) contract with Japan Steel Works for research and development of a prototype railgun, which was unveiled in May of 2023 as mentioned previously.
Despite this, Japan’s development of railguns remains more crucial than ever given the growing scale of threats it faces in the Indo-Pacific. North Korea’s growing arsenal of missiles — including hypersonic weapons — pose an immediate danger to Japan. North Korea shot a missile at the island nation last year. It landed in the Pacific Ocean further east. Japan’s response to the Pyongyang missile threat is not insignificant. The country has made it clear that they will destroy any North Korean ballistic missile that enters their airspace. North Korea’s cruise missile capabilities are also rapidly evolving, putting Japan’s ships at greater risk.
Moreover, Japan also faces challenges in the region from China, and that country’s expanding missile capabilities. Japan claims islets such as Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. If a conflict were to occur between Japan and China, China would be likely to target these islands. China’s anti-ship missile arsenal is more diverse than any other country and is rapidly evolving, too.
It should be noted that Japan’s commitment to developing electromagnetic railgun technology has continued despite its abandonment by the U.S. military. The U.S.’s research into advancing two electromagnetic railgun designs, one from BAE Systems and one from General Atomics, began in 2005. This was brought to an end when funding was removed as part of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget, the reasons for which can be explored in this War Zone piece.
Since then, Shigenori Mishima, vice commissioner and chief technology officer at ATLA, has indicated the possibility that U.S. contractors could join Japan’s less ambitious railgun program in the future. This could provide an indirect route for the U.S. Military to get back into railgun development.
China and Turkey, among others, are also working to field railguns. That China has been developing its own railgun was first noted back in 2018, following the appearance of a Chinese naval railgun in an advanced state of development. China claims that it has developed a system capable of firing a projectile weighing 124 kg (273 lb) at 700 km (435m) per hour in less than 0.05 second. China envisions the technology as a key component of future naval assets. It is not yet known what the railgun prototype was capable of, but it was also a weapon with a large calibre, similar to that used by the U.S. Navy.
Japan’s efforts to field an operational maritime electromagnetic railgun clearly have a long ways to go still, and significant hurdles will need to be jumped over in order to achieve something truly operational. Other factors, such as corrosive seawater, constant shock, extreme heat or cold, and other maritime-related issues, will also have to be addressed. But the recent test represents an important first step.
We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for what comes next.
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