The Coming Railgun Deployment Gap
By: Rhys McCormick
As many observers have noted, the Navy’s new distributed lethality strategy requires the procurement of a multitude of missiles. While missiles are likely to remain at the core of this strategy in the near term, a cheaper long-term potential option exists: the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG).
Capable of firing projectiles more than 200 nautical miles at speeds in excess of Mach 7, the EMRG has the potential to change surface warfare in ways not seen since the end of the battleship era. The Navy envisions the railgun complementing, and in some cases replacing, the current missile inventory for the naval surface fire support, anti-surface warfare, anti-air warfare, and anti-missile defense missions—all at a fraction of the missiles’ costs given the railgun’s $25,000 per round price tag.
With sea-testing set for 2016, the EMRG continues progressing toward an envisioned mid-2020s initial operational capability (IOC). However, a vital question emerges: Which ships will operate the EMRG?
Given the EMRG’s power generation and size requirements, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer is the only ship currently capable of operating the EMRG without significant modifications in its basic configuration. With just three DDG-1000s procured before the program was truncated, only one is likely to be deployed at any given time, complicating wide-ranging employment and operational experimentation for EMRG. The Navy will not begin procurement of ships capable of operating the EMRG under basic configuration until the next-generation destroyer program, Future Surface Combatant (FSC), in the early 2030s.
Lacking the requisite ships, the Navy must begin developing a plan for this probable 5- to 10-year gap between EMRG IOC and FSC commissioning. The Navy faces a difficult choice between two options that both carry significant trade-offs. It can either retrofit existing ships, such as the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Flight III and Small Surface Combatant, to carry an EMRG, or limit EMRG employment until the FSC enters service.
If the Navy waits for the FSC, those potential 5 to 10 years of fleet-wide operational experimentation, pivotal in shaping future naval doctrine, can never be recovered. Furthermore, there are no guarantees the FSC will be fielded by the early 2030s as the program competes within the historically stressed shipbuilding budget already strained by other large-scale recapitalization programs.
Retrofitting existing ships to meet the room and power requirements for the EMRG demands the Navy willingly accept additional operational risk, a difficult sacrifice in even the most peaceful of times. The decision ultimately comes down to the fundamental question: Are the interim sacrifices to existing capabilities worth the potential gains from operational experimentation? The Navy will ultimately be forced to make this choice, but it should only do so after rigorous analysis and consideration of trade-offs.
The era of overwhelming missile dominance is coming to an end as the EMRG and other technologies radically redefine the cost-calculus. If the Navy is serious about employing the EMRG, it’s time to mind the gap between EMRG development timelines and future shipbuilding plans.