Hill To Navy: Hurry Up On Rail Guns, Lasers

May 5, 2015

Breaking Defense:

WASHINGTON: Rail gun bullets move seven times the speed of sound. Laser beams fire at the speed of light. But Pentagon procurement? Not so fast. But with both Congress and theNavy Secretary expressing impatience, the Navy is accelerating its efforts to move bothlasers and rail guns from the test phase into the fleet.

“We’ve got a laser weapon now in the Arabian Gulf, we’ve got a rail gun under development,” Sec. Ray Mabus said Thursday at the National Press Club. “We’ve got some gee-whiz scientific stuff going on. Part of my job, part of our job, is to get those from the lab to the warfighter quicker….That rail gun, we’ve been working on that since the eighties; we’re gonna put it on a ship and test it next year,” with operational deployment sometime in the future. That timeline, Mabus said, is “way too long.”

Congress agrees. Just hours before, the House Armed Services Committee had passed its draft of the annual defense policy bill. Included: a provision that “directs the Secretary of the Navy” — that’s Mabus — “to develop a plan for fielding electric weapon systems” — meaning both lasers and rail guns, which rely on electric power rather than gunpowder — “and to provide a briefing on the results of this plan to the House Committee on Armed Services by March 1, 2016.”

“I like the legislation,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies senior fellow Mark Gunzinger told me today. “It says, ‘let’s move to actually establishing programs to deliver these capabilities instead of keeping them in the S&T world.’” (Science and Technology is the Pentagon term of art for research not tied to a specific piece of equipment the military plans to buy). Currently, he said, “they’re all S&T projects, [and]we need to transition them into the acquisition process.”

“Within two to three years, we could actually have operational directed energy weapons [i.e. lasers] on ships, at our forward bases, even perhaps ones that would accompany our maneuver forces in the fieldif there was funding,” Gunzinger said. (A rail gun, he said, is more like 10 years away). At roughly $500 million a year across the defense Department for multiple S&T projects, “there’s been adequate funding for what they’ve done,” he said. “There’s been inadequate funding for testing these technologies,” let alone fielding them…

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