Is America still the most powerful military in the world? That is debatable, depending on your foreign policy bent.
One thing is clear, though: The U.S. military is very much on the cutting-edge of weapons development and research and development, a factor that sets America apart from the rest of the world.
No better proof of this point can be found than Tuesday’s announcement by the Navy that they are testing a new railgun, a weapon that has the potential to change military strategy, foreign policy, and America’s role in foreign affairs in this decade and even this century.
The railgun is seemingly straight out of science fiction: An ultra-powerful electromagnetic gun that shoots rounds more than 100 miles away at several times the speed of sound. The weapon could be used to assault inland targets from the safety of the seas, or help Marines exploit breaches in an assault. Faster and smaller than any air-based weapon, the rail gun’s projectiles would be able to avoid enemy air and sky defenses.
The gun is made up of parallel rails and uses a magnetic field and electric current, instead of chemicals, to generate energy to fire the rounds. Forget flint and powder, even the sparks and small explosions that help a modern gun fire: this railgun will revolutionize weapons, making today’s firearms comparable to crossbows against muskets.
Of course that evolution is still years away. The Navy said Tuesday an industry-built prototype of the gun is being tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia. At this early stage, they're focused on measuring the gun's barrel life and structural integrity because it is capable of firing rounds at up to 5,600 miles per hour, or more than seven times the speed of sound. More R&D is needed to over the next five years to ensure the weapon can cool down and handle repetitive fire. The Navy wants to be able to fire 10 rounds a minute.
An overriding reason for the development of the railgun program is that being able to power the gun electromagnetically is seen as much safer than having to use conventional explosives, CNET reported earlier this year.
The railgun could start servicing Navy ships by 2025. American defense contractor Raytheon scored a $10 million contract to help develop the project.
The Navy isn’t the only branch developing new weaponry. On November 18, the Army ran a field test of a new hypersonic flight weapon, specifically testing for technologies that would boost the vehicle’s speed and help it glide smoother, as well as seeing how well it maneuvers and how precisely it could strike a target. The purpose of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) program is to develop "a first-of-its-kind glide vehicle, designed to fly within the earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed and long range."
The Air Force and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are undertaking similar research that would provide this branch of the military with a similar hypersonic flight weapon.
As PolicyMic foreign policy expert Georgi Ivanov explains, this hypersonic weapon has implications for Pacific and global strategic balances. It can deliver a conventional strike anywhere in the world within an hour. If put fully into use, it puts America in an advantageous position relative to China and Russia, not only in the Pacific, but also globally, in respect to the capacity for global strike capability.
Concerns should also come with any new weapons age. “New weapons will raise the question of a global regulatory regime to prevent stockpiling or the establishment of Mutal Assured Destruction-like doctrines between the major powers,” Ivanov says.
Much like the nuclear age a half century ago, the railgun and hypersonic weapon will change the way war is waged, but also the way diplomacy and foreign policy is constructed among states. Could we see the United Nations step in with an anti-railgun treaty in two decades?
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