Recent photos of a railgun weapon mounted on a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel suggest that China possesses the technological skills required to create an effective railgun weapon. This advancement has the potential to drastically reshape naval combat in the future.
The railgun was mounted on the Haiyang Shan, a Chinese ship assigned to the East Sea Fleet and typically used to launch tanks, at a dockyard in Wuhan. Photos taken at the dockyard show a propaganda banner exhorting workers to “provide a first-class naval weapon to build a first-class global navy” next to the ship. Experts speculate that military officials chose to mount the railgun on this ship because of its large open deck space, a requirement to accommodate the large equipment to power the energy-intensive railgun.
Railguns use electromagnetic force rather than ballistic force from an explosion in order to power their projectiles. An electromagnetic field between two rails, from which the weapon’s name derives, accelerates the projectile to hypersonic speeds, giving it a range equivalent to cruise missiles and the speed and efficiency of use to rival naval cannons. Videos of tests of American railguns showcase their immense destructive power.
An analysis by a former PLAN official indicates that the Chinese Navy, through collaborations with a state-owned aerospace company and the Beijing Institute of Technology, has been working on a railgun project for approximately five years, and photos dating to last year appear to show the railgun undergoing tests on land. The official claims that this timeline aligns with the apparent ongoing preparations for onboard trials.
The mounting of the railgun onboard the ship, while a major accomplishment, does not mean that China possesses functional railgun capabilities. Many challenges remain, such as maintaining the durability of the barrel and finding effective ways to power the weapon. However, if China were able to successfully arm a warship with a railgun, it would provide a massive boost to their capabilities. According to Justin Bronk of the British Royal United Services Institute, no defenses currently exist to protect a ship against a railgun projectile.
Furthermore, while China’s railgun research has accelerated, the United States’ focus has shifted away from installing railguns on vessels to using the railgun’s hypersonic ammunition to improve existing naval guns. While the U.S. Navy remains dominant both technologically and numerically, China’s development of a combat-ready railgun would represent a significant step toward leveling the playing field. A People’s Liberation Army watcher, speaking to Newsweek, described the railgun as part of China’s “great endeavor” to rival the United States in military modernization.