US has epidemic of big project failures – will watch China press its railgun advantage

The US has been trying to develop railguns’s since 2005. The US did complete a prototype landbased 32-megajoule railgun, but failed to put a railgun onto a Navy ship. China has succeeded in putting a railgun onto a navy ship. US Intelligence issued a report that China will have combat-ready mach 7 railguns’s deployed onto destroyers and other Navy vessels by 2025.

USA not just taking twice as long but has complete failure most of the time

This is a bigger problem for the United States than just railguns. There has been a crisis in the ability of the US civilian and military companies to complete large projects on time and budget for decades.

Civilian and military failures and insane costs for completion

New advanced US and European civilian nuclear reactors had completed designs and construction was started years before China. The designs were then licensed to China. China started building them years after the USA and Europe. China has completed their reactors while the US and Europe are still years from completion. Two out of four US AP1000 reactors were canceled due to massive cost overruns.

There are repeated examples of the failure of US large project research and development and US large project construction over the last three decades. The Freedom Tower skyscraper took until 2014 to complete. Construction did not start until 2006. The eastern span replacement of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge was a construction project to fix a bridge damaged in a 1989 earthquake. It was built between 2002 and 2013. The eastern span replacement is the most expensive public works project in California history and had a final price tag of $6.5 billion. This was 25 times more than the original estimate of $250 million.

US Intelligence reports that they first saw China’s railgun in 2011. This was six years after the US started its railgun work. US Intelligence knew that China started railgun testing in 2014. Between 2015 and 2017, China’s railgun was calibrated to strike at extended ranges, increasing its lethality. By December 2017, it was successfully mounted on a warship and began at-sea testing.

China succeeded in delivering on a major technological development program in half the time and the US fell behind despite a 6-year lead.

Previously some analysts had speculated that China’s railgun as a hoax. The US Intelligence report indicates that it is real.

The US has tried to shift to new ships that would be able to use the full engine power of a navy warship as electricity. The result was the Zumwalt destroyer program, which is only building three ships that are going to be four times the cost of a regular destroyer. Zumwalt’s like the electromagnetic catapults on the new Gerald Ford super-carriers have been full of bugs that are taking years and billions of dollars to fix.

China will has no mass production problem and will have ship railguns, land railguns, train railguns and then tank railguns

China has claimed to have made a breakthrough with medium voltage integrated DC power. US Navy presentations indicate that medium voltage DC power distribution is the key to making affordable power for railguns and electromagnetic launchers. China appears to have better basic electrical engineering and chose more pragmatic options for lower cost. It also shows that the US engineers know what should be built for practical and economical scalable solutions.

Medium voltage (about 12000 volt) DC power distribution that is reliable and affordable is the key to having the power for futuristic technology like railguns and electromagnetic launchers.

China placed its railgun onto a smaller warship which required a more compact power system. The US was going to put into a catamaran with a many shipping containers full of power systems.

China has several obvious follow-up moves when they have navy warships. They will place multiple railguns onto each of the south china sea islands.

Five years ago, the US company General Atomics showed the vision of mobile land railguns using about three shipping containers full of gear on large trucks. China could deliver such a mobile land railgun in 2025 without needing to improve the technology by shrinking the component. They would just reconfigure the Navy system.

China also has lots of trains and railway. It would be simple for China to build railguns that were like the 800 mm Great Gustav train gun built by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The Germans transported the train gun to Crimea on a heavily customized 1.5 kilometer long 25 car train. It devastated Soviet fortifications.

Over a short 4 week period commencing on the 5th of June 1942, Gustav fired 7-tonne concrete piercing shells to penetrate more than 100-feet of earth before destroying Soviet underground ammunition store.

China could have 3 to 4 train car long railguns with power systems that could be moved anywhere in China. They could also just move around on the extensive underground rail systems or rail systems built into mountains.

If China could make the railgun systems more compact for self-propelled armored guns and eventually into tanks. Currently, Russians work on incorporating larger conventional guns onto trucks and tanks.

Tanks railguns would have several times the penetrating power and several times the range of conventional guns.

China is working on molten salt reactors, factory mass produced pebble bed reactors

China is spending $3.3 billion to develop molten salt nuclear reactors. The US first built molten salt reactors in the 1960s. There have been US startups working on molten salt nuclear reactors. Again China is starting development after the USA. Molten salt nuclear reactors can safer and more energy dense than existing nuclear reactors. There is the potential for molten salt nuclear reactors to be several times smaller than existing submarine reactors. Submarine nuclear reactors are the smallest high power nuclear reactors.

A US company Thorcon is working with Indonesia for rapid modular construction of molten salt reactors onto ships. This could potentially allow molten salt reactors to be mass produced at shipyards. Globally 100 one-gigawatt nuclear reactors could be built each year for less than the cost of coal.

Obviously, China would try to license such designs and/or China would copy the development. China’s existing shipyards could produce about forty one-gigawatt nuclear reactors per year. China could expand shipyards to double or triple production.

For factory build pebble bed reactors. The research and development occurred in Europe and the USA decades ago but China is completing the first commercial pebble bed reactor.

The USA has to cure its failure with large civilian and military projects

Lockheed and Boeing have to clean house. SpaceX is the main US company showing world class leadership and success.

The US government and the old space industry had the overpriced and underperforming space shuttle. Instead of $5 million per launch it was over $1 billion for the shuttle. A planned successor to the shuttle was the “Shuttle II” during the 1980s and 1990s. Then billions were spent onthe Constellation program during the 2004–2010 period. Constellation failed and did not deliver a single launch. In September 2011, NASA announced the selection of the design for the new Space Launch System. Again billions have been spent and the first test launch could slip to 2021.

SpaceX started after and has successfully flown the Falcon Heavy for about $500+ million in development costs.

Falcon 1 did not fly until 2008.
Falcon 9 was developed from 2005 to 2010. It first flew in 2010.
Falcon Heavy was based off of the Falcon 9 but strengthening the core to allow for side boosters took more redesign work. It successfully flew February 2018. It has the performance that is expected from the first version of the Space Launch System. Space Launch System will 10 to 20 times more expensive for each launch compared to the Falcon Heavy. The development cost for the Space Launch System is already $10 billion and will reach $20 billion by 2021 and will be about $50 billion by 2030.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said that at some point NASA will rethink the Space Launch System. This will likely be after Falcon Heavy has eight successful launches. SpaceX has an Air Force Falcon Heavy mission for $130 million for 2020. There will probably be one to three Falcon Heavy launches each year for the next several years.

SpaceX is putting all development funds into the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). This will be fully reusable and launch 150 tons per launch. Based on SpaceX track record the SpaceX BFR will be successful and cost about $1 billion to develop. It should have an orbital test flight around 2021 to 2023. It will be one hundred times less cost per launch than the Space Launch System.

The US could start fixing large project failure problem, but apparently it will take several more years and maybe decades of watching China and SpaceX before any real change will happen.


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