The US Navy has reportedly fired new hypervelocity railgun rounds out of 40-year-old deck guns - here's why

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) fires its M45 5-inch gun as part of a live-fire exercise, Nov. 2, 2018.The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) fires its M45 5-inch gun as part of a live-fire exercise, Nov. 2, 2018.U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Intelligence Specialist Matt Bodenner/Released

  • A US Navy destroyer test-fired hypervelocity projectiles from its standard MK 45 5-inch deck gun during the Rim of the Pacific exercises last year, USNI News reported Tuesday.
  • The high-speed rounds, designed for railguns, can be fired faster and farther than traditional artillery rounds from naval deck guns and land artillery pieces without modification.
  • The cost of each hypervelocity round is only a fraction of the cost of the missiles the US uses to intercept incoming threats.

The US Navy has reportedly been firing hypervelocity projectiles meant for electromagnetic railguns out of the 40-year-old deck guns that come standard on cruisers and destroyers, in hopes of taking out hostile drones and cruise missiles for a lot less money.

During last year's Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, 20 hypervelocity projectiles were fired from a standard Mk 45 5-inch deck gun aboard the USS Dewey, USNI News reported Tuesday, citing officials familiar with the test.

USNI's Sam LaGrone described the unusual test as "wildly successful."

BAE Systems, a hypervelocity projectile manufacturer, describes the round as a "next-generation, common, low drag, guided projectile capable of executing multiple missions for a number of gun systems, such as the Navy 5-Inch; Navy, Marine Corps, and Army 155-mm systems; and future electromagnetic (EM) railguns."

The US Navy has invested hundreds of millions of dollars and more than a decade into the development of railgun technology, but while these efforts have stalled, largely due to problems and challenges fundamental to the technology, it seems the round might have real potential.

The hypervelocity projectiles can be fired from existing guns without barrel modification. The rounds fly faster and farther than traditional rounds, and they are relatively inexpensive.

While more expensive than initially promised, a hypervelocity projectile with an improved guidance system, a necessity in a GPS contested or denied environment, only costs around $100,000 at the most, Bryan Clark, a naval affairs expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told USNI News. The Navy reportedly estimates that the high-speed rounds ought to cost somewhere around $85,000.

The cost of a single hypervelocity projectile is a fraction of the cost of air defense missiles like the Evolved Seasparrow Missile, Standard Missile-2, and Rolling Airframe Missile, all of which cost more than one million dollars each.

With the standard deck guns, which rely on proven powder propellants rather than electromagnetic energy, the Navy achieves a high rate of fire for air defense. "You can get 15 rounds a minute for an air defense mission," Clark told USNI News.

"That adds significant missile defense capacity when you think that each of those might be replacing a ESSM or a RAM missile. They're a lot less expensive," he added. Furthermore, US warships can carry a lot more of the high-speed rounds than they can missile interceptors.

USNI News explains that the intercept of Houthi cruise missiles by the USS Mason in the Red Sea back in 2016 was a multi-million dollar engagement. The hypervelocity rounds could potentially cut costs drastically.

The hypervelocity projectile potentially offers the Navy, as well as other service branches, a mobile, cost-effective air defense capability.

"Any place that you can take a 155 (howitzer), any place that you can take your navy DDG (destroyer), you have got an inexpensive, flexible air and missile defense capability," Vincent Sabio, the Hypervelocity Projectile program manager at the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, said last January, according to a report by Breaking Defense.

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