High-tech railgun spotted in photos of Chinese warship

BEIJING • In what could be a world first, China is believed to be testing advanced electromagnetic weapons mounted on a warship, based on photos circulating online.

Photos that first emerged on social media were carried by state-run People's Daily on Monday, which encouraged speculation that China has mastered the technology after years of research.

The electromagnetic weapon, also known as a railgun, was seen mounted on the bow of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's Type 072 III landing ship Haiyangshan, docked at a naval shipyard in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.

Railguns use electromagnetic energy to attack targets, and "are considered an advanced technology that offers greater range and more lethality, while the cost is even cheaper than traditional guns", according to the People's Daily.

A railgun uses a pair of conductive rails to launch projectiles which enables them to attain an extremely high speed, according to China Daily.

The projectile normally does not contain explosives as artillery shells do, but employs its strong kinetic energy generated by the high speed to inflict damage on a target.

This weapon is widely believed to be capable of revolutionising future naval warfare as its power, range and speed are much better than explosive-powered guns currently mounted on combat ships, China Daily said, citing experts.

Mr Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of World Military Affairs magazine, told China Daily that an electromagnetic railgun is able to carry out anti-ship and land attacks as well as aircraft and missile defence operations, enabling it to replace all the missiles and guns on a ship.

In October last year, the PLA Naval University of Engineering said in a news release that decorated PLA naval engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, also the university's top researcher, has designed electromagnetic launch systems as part of "a key national defence programme", China Daily reported.

It was also the first time that the Chinese military had officially confirmed its railgun programme.

Although no railgun has ever been seen on any US military vessels, the US Navy has tested a railgun several times at its Naval Surface Warfare Centre Dahlgren Division in Virginia that reportedly can fire a projectile at Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound, and hit targets at least 160km away, according to China Daily.

"Though the US has been openly developing electromagnetic guns for years, it doesn't mean that China is far behind in this field, as the latter keeps quiet about its progress due to secrecy concerns," Mr Chen Shuoren, a military commentator, told the state-run Science And Technology Daily on Monday.

Mr Chen said that although the US is currently the most powerful country in electromagnetic weapons research, its declining research fund has provided China a chance to catch up.

"If the pictures are confirmed to be true, this would be a milestone for China's electromagnetic weapons research programme, with epoch-making significance," Mr Chen added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2018, with the headline 'High-tech railgun spotted in photos of Chinese warship'. Print Edition | Subscribe