Will Electromagnetism be the Black Powder of the 21st century?

railgun fantasy Analysis Defense | EMP Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons | Artillery

The arrival in Europe of black powder, a highly explosive and exothermic mixture of sulfur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and charcoal, introduced by the Mongols in the 13th century but used in China since the 7th century, led to a rapid and profound upheaval in military technologies, as well as tactics and strategies.

Ballistae and Scorpions were quickly replaced by muskets and bombards, as soldiers traded their crossbows and bows for the first portable firearms, bringing about the end of more than 2,000 years of military technology in just two centuries.

800 years later, gunpowder continues to be at the heart of modern engagements, forming part of almost all combat equipment, ranging from the infantryman's assault rifle or the on-board cannon of combat aircraft, and to artillery systems. , whether naval or land. But the progress made in recent years in the control of electromagnetic force could well prove to be as revolutionary as the arrival of black powder, the internal combustion engine or the first transistor.

Chinese fire hydrant 15th century Analyzes Defense | EMP Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons | Artillery
The arrival of the first mouths or fire in Europe launched a profound upheaval in military strategy and technology.

Electromagnetism is one of the four elementary interactions identified by modern physics, with the strong interaction, which allows matter to exist, the weak interaction, which generates radioactivity and beta rays, and gravity, known from all. It is also one of the most powerful, because if it is 100 times weaker than the strong interaction, it remains 1000 times stronger than the weak interaction, and 10 (power) 36 stronger than gravity.

It is based on the interactions and forces that apply between electrically charged particles. Without going into details, it is this force which is, among other things, at the heart of all electric motors or generators, but also radio waves, light, or the functioning of compasses.

The technological and theoretical progress made in recent years now makes it possible to take a new step, opening the way to new military applications capable of profoundly and lastingly transforming equipment and doctrines.

Electromagnetic Cannons

The principle of the electromagnetic cannon is relatively simple: rather than propelling the projectile by the increase in pressure generated by the combustion of powder in the breech of a cannon, the projectile is accelerated by a very powerful electromagnetic field. There are actually not one, but two electromagnetic cannon technologies:

  • The magnetic cannon , or Gauss cannon, uses the magnetic field created by coils surrounding the cannon to accelerate an electrically charged projectile, either by attraction or repulsion. This technology has been tested since the beginning of the century, but presents numerous constraints. On the other hand, a similar technology is used for the EMALS electromagnetic catapults of the American aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford.
  • The electric gun , or railgun, uses Laplace's law by exploiting the force created by a magnetic field on an electrical conductor. Two rails create opposing magnetic fields, and propel the conductor which closes the circuit between the two circuits. Those who have completed a scientific BAC will remember the force oriented according to the magnetic field and the direction of the current, and represented by the famous "three fingers of the right hand".

It is obviously the electric gun which today concentrates most of the research. Thus, US Navy tests during the 2010s made it possible to achieve a muzzle exit speed greater than Mach 7 to reach a target of 5m2 at 160 km, and engineers estimate that by reaching a speed of Mach 10, it will be possible to reach targets nearly 400 km away. China caused a surprise in 2018 when photos of a railgun mounted on a tank transport ship were leaked.

Later, Beijing confirmed that it was indeed a question of testing its Railgun model, and that the first naval units equipped with this gun, perhaps the second generation of Type 055 cruisers, will enter service in 2025.

Rail gun test prototype in the United States Defense Analysis | EMP Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons | Artillery
The US Navy Railgun prototype

In addition to its significant range, the Railgun also induces a very significant release of kinetic energy on impact, making it possible to create very significant damage on the target without using explosives. On the other hand, its high initial speed makes it a weapon suitable for anti-missile warfare, even to counter hypersonic missiles. However, the technology still has drawbacks.

Firstly, it requires a very large quantity of electrical power, which naturally hinders its use on vectors other than large surface vessels. In addition, it releases a lot of heat, which causes significant structural fatigue of the gun, but also very low discretion, particularly in the face of infrared detectors which are now plentiful.

The Rail Gun tested by the Chinese Navy on an LST 1 assault ship Defense Analysis | EMP Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons | Artillery
The appearance of China's first RailGun in 2018 surprised even the country's top defense specialists

The fact remains that today, the Railgun probably represents the best alternative to increasing the number of missiles on board a combat ship. With significant firepower coupled with great precision and a high ammunition carrying capacity at a lower cost, it constitutes a technological avenue of interest for countering access denial systems. China made no mistake, and is actively developing its own railgun, just like Russia, Turkey and Japan. France associated with Germany is financing a program in this area, without having announced a major effort to acquire all the know-how.

Protective plasmas

A plasma is a fluid (gaseous or liquid) that is highly ionized, and therefore capable of reacting powerfully with another plasma, or with electrically charged particles. It is from this observation that American engineers developed a plasma protection technology, capable of neutralizing the plasma jet composed of molten metal and superheated gases which results from the explosion of a hollow charge, designed to pierce the shields.

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