China’s landing of a rover on the far side of the moon grabbed headlines around the world this week. Less noticed, the country’s state media reported on progress in another arena: game-changing naval weaponry. The state-run Global Times said on Thursday (Jan. 3) that Chinese warships will soon be equipped with electromagnetic railguns that fire projectiles with “incredibly destructive velocity,” and that the underlying technology was based on ”fully independent intellectual property,” rather than designs copied from other nations. It cited a report that appeared Wednesday on China’s CCTV.
Using electromagnetic force, such guns are more accurate and send projectiles up to 125 miles (200 km) at 7.5 times the speed of sound. Because the projectiles do their damage through sheer speed, they don’t need explosive warheads, making them considerably cheaper.
The US Navy has conducted land-based experiments with such technology, and plans to also integrate it into future warships. Its research arm notes:
“Using a massive electrical pulse rather than a chemical propellant, the railgun can launch projectiles much farther than the 13-nautical-mile range of the US Navy’s standard 5-inch naval gun… The railgun, with a hypervelocity projectile, is expected to be very cost-effective while adding offensive and defensive depth. It can inexpensively address many lethal threats while conserving much more costly missiles for the most challenging targets.”
But China might become the first country to deploy the technology widely on warships. About a week ago, unconfirmed sightings of a Chinese warship at sea equipped with such weaponry spread online. It seemed to be the same vessel spotted earlier last year in a Chinese shipyard, also featuring what many took to be a railgun.
Citing CCTV, the Global Times wrote: “The US is also experimenting with the new weapon, but China will be the first country to actually equip it on a warship… China’s naval electromagnetic weapon and equipment have surpassed other countries and become a world leader.”
Others took a more measured view. Even if China was testing an electromagnetic railgun at sea, it could still be ”a year or two away from being operational,” Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, told CNN. He noted the significance, however, of China developing its own technology rather than copying foreign designs, saying it indicates the country is no longer 10 to 15 years behind the US and is “approaching parity with the West in terms of weapons development.”