China's trying to turn its artillery into Mach 6 superguns with magnetized plasma

Infantrymen assigned to a combined brigade under the PLA 71st Group Army coordinate with main battle tanks to assault mock enemies' positions during a training exercise on December 24, 2018.Infantrymen assigned to a combined brigade under the PLA 71st Group Army coordinate with main battle tanks to assault mock enemies' positions during a training exercise on December 24, 2018.Chinese military/Jiao Mingjin and Li Pengfei

  • China is preparing to test magnetized plasma artillery, a prospective upgrade to China's conventional cannons, Chinese media reports.
  • The theory is that a thin layer of magnetized plasma inside the barrel could reduce friction and provide heat insulation, increasing the muzzle velocity and extending range.
  • The round could theoretically be fired at speeds in excess of Mach 6 and strike targets over 100 km away.
  • The US Army is currently working to extend the reach of its artillery, pushing to strike targets 70 km away in hopes of eventually being able to fire on enemies 1,000 miles away.

The Chinese military is preparing to test magnetized plasma artillery capable of firing hypervelocity rounds at speeds in excess of Mach 6, six times the speed of sound, Chinese media reports.

The power and range of such a weapon would likely offer tremendous advantages on the battlefield, assuming it actually works, which is apparently what the Chinese military is interested in finding out.

The People's Liberation Army appears to have begun soliciting vendors for magnetized plasma artillery test systems, a notice recently posted on the Chinese military's official procurement website indicated. The planned testing is presumably to evaluate theories presented in a PLA Academy of Armored Forces Engineering patent submitted to the National Intellectual Property Administration four years ago.

The Chinese military patent explains how the state-of-the-art coating could theoretically enhance the artillery's power.

First, a magnetic field is created inside the barrel using a magnetized material coating on the exterior and an internal magnetic field generator.

Then, when the artillery is fired, the tremendous heat and pressure inside the firing tube ionizes some of the gas, turning it into plasma and forming a thin, protective magnetized plasma sheath along the inner wall of the barrel.

The developers believe the plasma will decrease friction and heat insulation, extending the power and range of the artillery piece without jeopardizing the structural integrity of the cannon or negatively affecting the overall service life of the weapon.

Magnetized plasma sounds like something straight out of science fiction, but the concept is apparently reasonable enough for China to pursue.

Chinese media says that, if it works, this coating could be easily be installed on tanks and self-propelled guns. This would be an easier use than the country's experimental electromagnetic railgun, which it has reportedly begun testing at sea.

A ZTZ-96A Main Battle Tank (MBT) attached to a brigade under the PLA 76th Group Army fires at mock targets during a live-fire training exercise in northwest China's Gansu Province on February 20, 2019.A ZTZ-96A Main Battle Tank (MBT) attached to a brigade under the PLA 76th Group Army fires at mock targets during a live-fire training exercise in northwest China's Gansu Province on February 20, 2019.Chinese military/Li Zhongyuan

Chinese media reports that this concept has already been tested on certain tanks.

Unlike the naval railgun, which is an entirely new technology, magnetized plasma artillery would be more of an upgrade to the Chinese army's conventional cannons. Chinese military experts told Chinese media they estimate that this improvement could extend the range of a conventional 155 mm self-propelled howitzer from around 30-50 kilometers to 100 kilometers.

And the round's initial velocity would be greater than Mach 6, just under the expected speed of an electromagnetic railgun round.

China is "on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world," a US Defense Intelligence Agency report stated in January.

But China is not running this race unopposed, as the US military is determined not to be outgunned.

An M109 Paladin gun crew with B Battery, 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, Division Artillery at Fort Bliss, Texas fires into the mountains of Oro Grande Range Complex, New Mexico Feb. 14, 2018.An M109 Paladin gun crew with B Battery, 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, Division Artillery at Fort Bliss, Texas fires into the mountains of Oro Grande Range Complex, New Mexico Feb. 14, 2018.U.S. Army photo by Spc. Gabrielle Weaver

The US Army is currently pushing to boost the range of its artillery to outgun near-peer threats, namely China and Russia. The new Extended Range Cannon Artillery has already doubled the reach of traditional artillery pieces, firing rounds out to 62 kilometers.

The immediate goal for Long Range Precision Fires, a division of Army Futures Command, is to reach 70 kilometers; however, the Army plans to eventually develop a strategic cannon with the ability to fire rounds over 1,000 miles and shatter enemy defenses in strategic anti-access zones.

Read More: The US Army wants a powerful cannon that can hit Chinese warships in the South China Sea from 1,000 miles away

The US Army is also looking at using hypervelocity railgun rounds to extend the reach of US artillery.

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