Is China Railgun a Sputnik moment for the USA?

Just over 60 year ago the Soviet’s launched the basic Sputnik satellite. Sputnik was not a weapon but it showed that the Soviet Union was competitive with US military technology. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite—Sputnik—into orbit.

The Soviets had already detonated an atomic bomb in 1949.

China has apparently deployed a prototype railgun on a navy ship.

China had said throughout 2016 and 2017 that they had made electromagnetic military technology advances. Chinese Admiral Ma proposed in 2017 that chinese warships would be equipped with lasers, railguns, and electromagnetically assisted missile launchers.

In 2016, retired Rear Admiral Zhao Dengping discussed plans for a follow-up warship to the Type 055 destroyer; a “Universal Combatant Ship” that would be equipped with laser, railguns, and, most intriguingly, electromagnetically assisted missile launchers, which could increase missile range.

Smaller electromagnetic launchers (EMALS) would be able to boost the range and speed of missiles, drones and planes launched from ships.

The Chinese railgun development provides more credibility to China’s claims of electromagnetic launcher and other technological developments.

The US has only spent a few hundred million dollars per year on railgun technology. A focused effort from China and China base of advanced commercial electronic technology shows that China can compete and lead in electromagnetic weapons and systems.

This Sputnik military technology moment shows that the US can no longer assume it will have a military technology lead.

Efficient Electromagnetic launch capability

China is confident about its EMALS technology now that it was able to produce its own insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) chips, a key component of the high-efficiency electric energy conversion systems used in variable-speed drives, trains, electric and hybrid electric vehicles, power grids and renewable energy plants.

The technology was developed by China’s first semiconductor manufacturer, Hunan-based Zhuzhou CSR Times Electric, and British subsidiary Dynex Semiconductor after the Chinese company acquired 75 percent of Dynex’s shares in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.

An integrated propulsion system, a technological breakthrough developed by top PLA Navy engineer Rear Admiral Ma Weiming and his team, will enable China’s second home-grown aircraft carrier to use the world’s most advanced launch system for its fighter jets without having to resort to nuclear power.

An aircraft carrier uses a lot of electric power for take-offs and landings and the integrated propulsion system will be able to provide it. Ma has said experimental results showed the system could result in fuel savings of up to 40 percent for an aircraft carrier.

Wang Ping, an expert in military technology at the Institute of Electrical Engineering under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said the innovative design meant that high-energy consuming launch systems and weapons could now be used on a vessel driven by conventional power.

It was a complete overhaul of the energy supply and distribution system. The same technology could be used to launch not just aircraft, but also missiles and satellites, and maybe even power high-speed trains.

The US electromagnetic launcher has been a source of technical problems and delays for the Gerald ford supercarrier.

A new electromagnetic launch system for aircraft carriers that has faltered when attempting to launch heavier planes is now sound thanks to a software fix, Navy officials announced this week. However, it won’t reach the Navy’s new carrier for more than a year (2019).

The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, is one of several brand-new technologies installed aboard the first-of-class supercarrier Gerald R. Ford, which was commissioned July 22.

Universal Combat Ship. This photo is from a presentation by Rear Admiral Zhao Denping. It shows a streamlined, integrated mast superstructure for a large surface combatant.