Photos were leaked on Wednesday, Jan. 31, that have caused many to suspect that China is testing a ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun. This hypersonic railgun, which is described as a superweapon, would be the first such destructive tech for any government to develop. If this is confirmed, it could change relations between China and the U.S.
Hypersonic railguns operate by propelling projectiles along electrically-charged rails at incredible speeds using an electromagnetic force. In U.S. testing, prototype hypersonic railguns shot projectiles up to 7,800 km/hr (4,850 mph) with an impressive range of up to 150 km (93 miles).
But, after 10 years of development, the U.S. scrapped the project. They did this for a multitude of reasons, including the fact that these types of weapons are exceedingly difficult to apply in combat, especially on top of a ship.
However, while there are difficulties associated with the weapon's technology, it is not an impossibility. In an interview with New Scientist, Justin Bronk at the Royal United Services Institute in the U.K. discussed the political issues that would arise if this weapon were confirmed. “There isn’t really a known defense mechanism against a railgun shot at high Mach numbers," Bronk said. "It’s too fast and too small for current anti-ship missile and anti-aircraft defense systems.”
As Bronk illustrated, a functional hypersonic railgun would represent a new generation of weapons, requiring other nations to developed novel defense systems for potential attacks. So, while the superweapon has not been confirmed, if it does exist it would mean that China has a weapon for other countries do not have a proper response.
Bronk said of China in the interview with New Scientist, “If they can get it integrated as a major component into their future fleet arsenal, it will give them a really significant edge over the U.S. Navy."
So, how likely is it that this weapon exists? It is still very difficult to tell. But, even if the images were correct in showing the superweapon mounted on a ship, that does not prove whether it works or not. If it does work, the Chinese engineers were able to get over hurdles that ultimately led to the termination of the U.S. prototype. Other countries will likely have to start sharing notes in order to catch up.