The Office of Naval Research is getting ready to deploy their electromagnetic Railgun for testing for the first time next year. But what is a gun without ammo? The Hyper Velocity Projectile is being built for not the just the Railgun alone, but also for existing 5 inch deck guns as well. And yes, it is very, very fast.
The Hyper Velocity Projectile is basically a flying hypersonic spike and is launched in a similar fashion as the sabot rounds fired by Main Battle Tanks. The super low-drag spike of a projectile whizzes through the air at hyper-velocity speeds (around 5,600mph), hence its name. Oh yeah, and it is guided.
The HVP’s sleek design allows it travel much farther than tradition naval gun shells, from 30 to over 100 miles depending on what it’s fired out of. Because of its high speed, it can arrive on target very quickly. Using different programmed trajectories, a whole swarm of HVP’s can land simultaneously, literally turning an enemy’s silent night into a hell-storm in a blink of an eye.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work examines the damage caused by a High Velocity Projectile
The projectile will come in a few different flavors, including an air burst, a kinetic energy penetrator and high-explosive round. Because of its high-speed and miniaturized and hardened internal guidance, it could be used against surface and a ground targets, but it could also be employed against air threats, as well. Think of it as the ultimate version of skeet shooting, where each round costs as much as an exotic car.
Although guided artillery-type shells exist, and are very effective, speed is what makes the HVP so attractive. A whole slew of new possibilities, many of which make traditional missiles less relevant, especially for short and intermediate range engagements, exist when you factor an operational HVP capability into naval warfare scenarios.
If network connectivity is added to the HVP’s design, it could be guided in-flight with command updates coming from external sensors. This means it can hit moving vehicles using a remote sensor’s data, such as from an unmanned aircraft or a ship’s radar system. Under such a scenario, a HVP could be launched from 100 miles away, toward an enemy land mass, and a loitering unmanned aircraft tracking a vehicle could provide the projectile with terminal targeting information. The whole engagement would last about one minute.
It also means that the HVP could one day become more deadly than a surface-to-air missile, as its speed makes it almost impossible to defend against. Under such a concept, a Destroyer’s AEGIS combat system, including its powerful phased-array radars, can track an enemy fighter 20 miles away, and fire off a HVP with its existing 5-inch gun. The HVP will use mid-course updates from the ship’s radar sent to it via data-link. The whole engagement would last under 15 seconds, and the projectile’s speed would make it nearly impervious to evasive maneuvers.
Seeing as such a weapon would not need to carry its own propellant (or its own sensors, for that matter), it would mean that, although clearly not cheap, the HVP could replace some missiles at a comparatively cheap price. They could also allow for precious vertical launch cells aboard US Destroyers and Cruisers to be used only for long-range weaponry, such a cruise missiles and long-range interceptors. This also gives the Navy’s primary surface combatants many more shots to fire and a whole new mission of medium and long-range persistent fire support that currently does not exist. Even a ship’s Close-In Weapons Systems defending against cruise missiles and swarming boat attacks could be augmented by the HVP’s capabilities.
What’s also cool about the HVP is that it can be dumbed down just like it can be smarted up, by removing its Inertial Navigation System (INS/GPS) along with its data-link and control mechanisms, and filled with more high-explosives instead. Such a setup would be ideal for long-range ship-to-shore area suppression and attacks on large fixed targets. In other words, great for prepping the battlefield for the Marines before a beach landing.
Another enticing aspect of the HVP is that it could give foreign allied navies a huge leap in capability without having to really modify their existing vessels, as the munition is being built in a common 5-inch gun sized format. Although this only offers a fraction of the Railgun’s range, it still is much faster, longer-ranged, and more accurate than any 5-inch shell available today. Combined with an off-the-shelf radar system, the HVP could give ships that were designed for surface warfare and hunting submarines an area air-defense capability on the cheap.
The Railgun will be tested aboard the Navy’s Joint High-Speed Vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV-3) next year.
Finally, for future ships toting a Railgun, the HVP would be fired without any explosive propellant, making the ship a safer place and less prone to horrific secondary explosions caused by battle damage or accidents. It could also mean that someday, in the not-so-distant future, we might see the return of ships packing multiple big guns. The DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class, with its two 155mm guns is a start, but even a pocket “Electronic Battleship” could be a real possibility.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com