San Diego’s General Atomics Reveals Railgun Technology, Developed Through Internal R&D

San Diego’s General Atomics, one of the region’s leading defense contractors, said today that it has been participating in efforts to develop an electromagnetic railgun, which uses high-powered electromagnets instead of gunpowder to launch artillery-like projectiles. The private government contractor says it successfully test-fired aerodynamic rounds from a prototype electromagnetic railgun three months ago at Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds.

General Atomics says the projectiles, developed for supersonic speeds by Boeing’s “Phantom Works” unit in St. Charles, MO, were launched by its “Blitzer” railgun prototype at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. The test was conducted in September under a contract with the Office of Naval Research.

General Atomics, or GA, has gained extensive expertise in electromagnetics systems in recent decades, stemming chiefly from its work during the 1990s with ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) a multi-nation project to develop fusion energy. GA helped develop electromagnets powerful enough to contain the superhot plasma needed to sustain nuclear fusion. Since then, the company also began developing advanced electromagnetic technology for launching aircraft from naval aircraft carriers and mag-lev technology for public transit systems.

Blitzer Railgun Test

Blitzer Railgun Test

While efforts to develop railgun technology have been underway for decades, the Navy’s revived initiative became front-page news in 2008, when the Office of Naval Research set a new record by using an unprecedented pulse of energy (10.6 megajoules) to fire a seven-pound slug at Mach 7. With such technology, a railgun-equipped warship off the coast of San Diego could fire a projectile more than 200 miles, or almost two-thirds the distance to Phoenix. A projectile traveling at such speeds does not require explosives to destroy its target, leading some to describe the system as a kinetic weapon.

A GA spokeswoman says Blitzer works on the same principles as the Navy’s railgun, but GA developed its design for Naval warship self-defense on internal research and development funds. The company used a similar “build on spec” approach during the early 1990s to develop the highly successful Predator family of unmanned aircraft.

Railgun projectile in flight

Railgun projectile in flight

In its statement today, GA says the railgun projectiles, which are technically known as sabots, were repeatedly launched by the Blitzer system with acceleration levels exceeding 60,000 g. The sabot packages separated as designed and the sabots flew stable trajectories.

A railgun consists of two parallel rails that are highly conductive. One rail carries a positive electric current, the other a negative current. The sabot is mounted on a conductive device that bridges the two rails, completing the electric circuit. This allows the current to flow, which creates a magnetic field and a force that propels the sabot at tremendous velocity.

GA says its Blitzer technology offers a leap-ahead, multi-mission capability for both naval and land-based military use. A single system could provide a defensive capability against a number of advanced naval threats from both aircraft and surface vessels. It also could provide a standoff strike capability against land- and sea-based targets, with the promise of increased range at a muzzle velocity that’s more than twice that of conventional gun systems.

In a statement released by the company, GA Advanced Weapon Launcher Systems Director Tom Hurn says, “The tested systems performed flawlessly, and were consistent with performance expectations.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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