Chinese naval scientists claim they have developed a smart shell for kinetic energy weapons in what could come as a shocker and a setback for the United States. But here’s a catch: it is similar to an abandoned “dream shell” concept of the US Navy.
This shell flies across the sky at an incredible hypersonic speed of Mach 7, thanks to a powerful electromagnetic gun, and has been designed to deliver precision strikes.
This shell can also consistently modify its flight course and steadily receive signals from the BeiDou satellite navigation system during this dramatic process. It can sustain an error of less than 15 meters (49 feet) until it reaches its destination, South China Morning Post claimed.
The shell can travel 2,500 meters or around 8,200 feet in one second, and achieving that level of precision at that speed may not always be possible. Its precision may still be insufficient for small moving targets like tanks, but it is more than competent for larger targets like warships or ports.
Although the development of this shell is seen as spectacular, it may not be an original Chinese idea. The concept of this so-called “dream shell” was proposed by the US Navy in 2012.
Originally, the idea was that it would be fired by electromagnetic rail guns or coil guns and fly at the hypersonic speed of Mach 5 while being guided by GPS signals.
Although the West may have gotten a head start on the study, the Chinese team said they got no assistance from them. The team that has reportedly developed the shell, led by Feng Junhong from the National Key Laboratory of Electromagnetic Energy at the Naval University of Engineering, stated in a paper published in the Journal of Naval University of Engineering in November that “we had no guidance, not even a cursory introduction to guided missile navigation systems, especially the satellite navigation component.”
This is not the first time that such claims have surfaced. Last month, a team of engineers from the Chinese Navy claimed to have created an electromagnetic rail gun that can discharge a large number of rounds quickly and damage-free. They claimed that the weapon maintained an impressive degree of shooting accuracy even under continuous fire.
At the time, the reports quoted the engineers as saying that any target within a range of 100 to 200 kilometers would be within the barrel’s firing range because the rounds shoot out at a speed of 2 kilometers per second. Similar reports about electromagnetic railgun projectiles surfaced in 2019 and September 2023 as well.
Although claims made by Chinese scientists about cutting-edge military technology are often viewed with suspicion by military experts and officials in the West, the development and deployment of any such shell by the Chinese PLA Navy could pose a big threat to the United States.
The association of the United States Navy with electromagnetic railguns (EMRG) goes back to 2005. The original plan was to use it as a naval surface fire support (NSFS) weapon to help friendly forces on the ground, including the Marines. The Navy’s interest in developing EMRG was also temporarily bolstered as it realized that EMRG could be used for air and missile defense.
According to a previously published report, as the Navy was developing EMRG, it discovered that the guided projectile could also be fired from powder guns, such as the Army and Marine Corps’ 155 mm artillery cannons and the Navy’s 5-inch guns on cruisers and destroyers.
The US military intended to create the shell and conduct tests in five years. But the deadline passed by. As per certain media sources from the United States, research on the shell was continued in 2017. The US military abandoned the electromagnetic cannon program by 2021, and the GPS-guided shell project’s status remains unknown.
The development of a similar projectile that works on electromagnetic railgun could come as a surprise to the United States. For one, if these projectiles are indeed installed on Chinese carriers and destroyers, it may give the PLA Navy an edge in combat. It may be unsettling for its counterparts in the US because any conflict involving the two states is predicted to be fought on the seas.
China’s Electromagnetic Railgun Shell
On the battlefield, electromagnetic launch weapons have the potential to be revolutionary. They promise to deliver a flurry of reasonably priced rounds while preserving the missiles’ long range and accuracy.
But these missiles create a powerful electromagnetic field after launch, which can seriously damage sensitive electronic parts like chips and antennae. Moreover, contrary to their ability to filter electromagnetic radiation, these “smart” shells also need to be able to receive weak satellite signals.
Scientists and engineers around the world, including those in China, have been vexed by this problem. So, Feng and associates presented a unique antenna design that can both receive and withstand intense electromagnetic radiation from the BeiDou military frequency range while providing high-precision locating signals.
Additionally, they gave thorough details about the unique internal design of the BeiDou signal receiver. According to Feng, when a shell is launched, this receiver experiences a force greater than 25,000 times Earth’s gravity. This essentially means that any malfunction in its design, like disconnected cable interfaces, could cause the shell to go astray.
In addition, friction creates a great deal of heat as the shell hurtles through the air. In response, the Chinese scientists employed an affordable, mass-produced aerogel—an awe-inspiring engineering achievement—as a thermal barrier.
Another major obstacle was the weapon’s navigation software. The paper explained that shells swirl and wobble erratically during flight, especially when changing routes in varied air densities, in contrast to the consistent course a vehicle travels on the road.
To address this problem, the group developed a simple yet effective algorithm that guarantees satellite communication would continue during the shell’s journey.
The technology has, thus, been projected to be very promising. However, Chinese military scientists submit their work for rigorous security assessments before it is published in open academic journals. The decision to reveal this development at this particular moment is intriguing.