Want to win a war? Build a better gun. Now China appears to have taken a huge stride ahead of the United States with the first experimental deployment of a new 'supergun' aboard a warship.
The first images began circulating on the internet last week.
They showed a Chinese amphibious assault ship — usually used to deploy troops and tanks on a beach — fitted with an enormous cannon on its bows.
Overnight, Beijing's official mouthpiece the People's Daily Online published an article reporting speculation the unusually large single-barrelled weapon was an electromagnetic rail gun.
This is significant.
But they are limited.
The propellant generates heat and pressure. This restricts the practical size, speed and durability of such a weapon. It also requires large, deadly stores of explosives be carried aboard a ship.
But an electromagnetic rail gun does away with many of these negatives.
Instead of explosives, it uses powerful magnets to sling warheads down its barrel and into the air. It is calculated this will enable larger warheads to be fired much faster — and further — than traditional cannons.
Once fully operational, such guns could sink ships, attack land targets — and even destroy aircraft and missiles in flight — at ranges and accuracy normally expected from missiles.
"Though the US has been openly developing electromagnetic guns for years, it doesn't mean that China is far behind in this field, as the latter [usually] keeps quiet about its progress due to secrecy concerns," military commentator Chen Shuoren told the Science and Technology Daily component of the People's Daily.
"If the pictures are confirmed to be true, this would be a milestone for China's electromagnetic weapons research programme, with epoch-making significance."
The Chinese government newspaper encourages speculation that the Type 072 II landing ship named Haiyangshan had been fitted with a rail gun, stating the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation had announced a major breakthrough in electromagnetic research in 2015.
"Railguns use electromagnetic energy to attack targets and are considered an advanced technology that offers greater range and more lethality, while the cost is even cheaper than traditional guns," the report states.
The Chinese newspaper says cutbacks in US funding for rail gun research had allowed Beijing to catch up: "the US Navy demonstrated its rail gun prototypes in 2006 and announced in 2016 that it would test electromagnetic railguns on the joint high-speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3), though no rail gun has ever been seen on any US military vessels ...
"Though the test rail gun is not the final version of the high-tech weapon, its size does fit the 055 destroyer, which would become an invincible vessel once equipped with electromagnetic weapons."
WHAT WE SEE
China's apparently odd choice of an amphibious landing ship to mount such a weapon may be due to its large cargo capacity.
Photos of the ship berthed at a facility at Wuchang Shipyard in Hubei province appear to show three large shipping containers braced on its open deck. These likely house the electrical generators necessary to power the railgun's intense magnetic field. The ship has also had a new control room added, as well as a set of new sensors, above the superstructure.
The gun itself is big. Roughly the same size as a 32-megajoule rail gun the US has been testing.
The US-BAE rail gun is intended to fire a 10kg projectile at Mach 7 (8500km/h) over 150km.
China is believed to have acquired a key technology enabling the development of the electromagnetic weapon after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 when it bought out the British firm Dynex Semiconductor. This led to the production of insulated-gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) chips which are vital for modern energy conversion systems.
Combining this with new integrated electrical propulsion systems in warships enables the use of electromagnetic catapults to launch fighters from carriers without the need for powerful nuclear powerplants.
It also makes fitting electromagnetic railguns viable.
Military technology expert Wang Ping at the Institute of Electrical Engineering under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing told Chinese media the new system meant electricity-hungry launch systems and weapons could now be used on any conventionally powered vessel.
RETURN OF THE BIG GUN?
Enhancing the capability of cannons and their shells has received renewed attention worldwide in recent decades.
Missiles are becoming increasingly expensive and complex to manufacture. They can also be vulnerable to electronic jamming devices as well as radar-guided guns and missiles.
So militaries have been seeking to make them faster by developing a new generation of 'hypervelocity' missiles which travel too fast for interception. But they have also been working on improving the older cannon concept.
The challenge has been to propel a shell faster and further, as well as to add a new dimension of self-guidance to those shells. The success of such a project could eliminate the need for a whole category of expensive medium-range missiles.
Royal United Services Institute researcher Justin Bronk told New Scientist hypervelocity cannons posed a significant threat: "There isn't really a known defence mechanism against a rail gun shot at high mach numbers," Bronk says. "It's too fast and too small for current anti-ship missile and anti-aircraft defence systems."
China is becoming increasingly confident in its enormous strides in military technology.
Last year, Chinese Admiral Ma Weiming told a military university that all his warships would soon be fitted with lasers, railguns and electromagnetically assisted missile launchers.
Such launchers may be similar to the electromagnetic catapults (EMALS) fitted to launch jets from the US Navy's latest $14 billion aircraft carrier, USS Ford.
The US has also been working on highly streamlined cannon shells for its conventional guns. These guided hypervelocity projectiles can fly twice as fast as existing shells — giving them both greater range and accuracy.
"We thought railguns were something we were really going to go after, but it turns out that powder guns firing the same hypervelocity projectiles gets you almost as much as you would get out of the electromagnetic rail gun, but it's something we can do much faster," former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in 2016.
The US has had a troubled time with its electromagnetic propulsion systems.
A new catapult, designed for the carrier USS Ford, was developed under a policy of "concurrency" — similar to that of the F-35 Strike Fighter.
Essentially this means production models were being built even as the design was still being developed. It had been hoped computer simulations would eradicate the need for the practical testing of prototypes.
Since fitted to the USS Ford, the electromagnetic launch catapults (EMALS) have frequently misfired. Under operational circumstances, this could mean the loss of a $100 million jet fighter and its pilot as it plunges into the sea ahead of the ship.
Late last month the US Navy announced it had found a software fix for the problem, but the USS Ford is not expected to be capable of high-intensity operations of combat aircraft until 2019.
"We continue to make great technical progress," Office of Naval Research programme manager Tom Boucher told a defence publication last year.
It had been intended to retrofit the US Navy's latest Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers with railguns in the 2020s. But the advanced conventional guns the three vessels carry at the moment have no ammunition due to its exorbitant cost.
The US plans to use a Spearhead-class fast transport catamaran for at-sea trials of its own prototype rail gun.