.: Electromagnetic Launch and Propulsion Technology


The Emergence of Railgun and Coilgun Science and Technology

The use of chemical propellants to launch materials is a mature technology that has served mankind in peace and war for a thousand years. But, the physics and chemistry of combustion limit the ultimate performance of chemical guns and rockets. Electromagnetic energy can be exploited to propel materials without these limitations. In recent years, the science and technology of electromagnetic launch has enabled magnetically levitated trains to reach unprecedented speeds, aircraft to be launched from aircraft carriers, and projectiles to be accelerated to hypervelocities not obtainable with conventional chemical guns with the potential of launching materials to sufficiently high speeds to escape the earth’s gravity and enable the low cost access to space. For example, the low cost launch of nano-satellites to orbit could enable a net of communication satellites to provide cell phone communication over the entire surface of the earth (including oceans).

Research on the use of electromagnetic energy to propel materials to hypervelocity has been seriously pursued in the United States since the early 1980s. A U.S. National research program resulted from a proposal in 1978 by Drs. Harry Fair, T.F. Gora, P.J. Kemmey (U.S.Army), Prof. Peter Mark (Princeton University) and Prof. Henry Kolm (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to establish and demonstrate the feasibility of using electromagnetic energy to accelerate macroscopic objects to high velocity. Following approval by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Dr. Fair was directed to establish and chair a National Department of Defense/Department of Energy/NASA working group and a National Advisory Panel to coordinate and focus U.S. research in hypervelocity physics and electromagnetic launch technology.

Initial success in this endeavor led to the establishment of a U.S. National Program to develop the enabling technologies and explore a broad range of applications of electric propulsion from magnetically levitated trains to numerous military applications to the electromagnetic launch of materials to space. Dr. Fair transferred from the Army to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1980 to manage and direct the National EML Program.

Creation of the Electromagnetic Launch Technology Symposium and the Development of a U.S. National EML Program

To encourage collaboration, information exchange between participating scientists and engineers, and to exploit technological developments from related programs, Dr. Fair created a U.S. Symposium on Electromagnetic Launch Technology. The first EML symposium was held in 1980 and they have since been held every two years. To ensure archival retention and high quality of the research, he arranged with the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) for selected outstanding technical presentations from the symposium to be published in a special issue of the IEEE Transactions on Magnetics. (Further details about the EML Symposium are discussed in a later section).

Initially, DARPA and the Army were the major sources of funds for the research so consequently, most of the research and technology development efforts were focused on future military applications of the technology. Additionally, NASA, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), the Navy and the DOE National Laboratories participated in the National Program. The goals were to demonstrate the feasibility of EML technology and to evaluate a broad range of applications.

The Destruction of Nuclear Ballistic Missiles in Flight

Following President Ronald Regan’s historic “Star Wars” speech on March 23, 1983 and the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), the National EML program focus shifted to assess the potential of electromagnetic launch technology to help intercept intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles in the boost phase of their flight. The intent was to explore and develop technologies to negate the effectiveness of nuclear –tipped ballistic missiles rather than to keep on the path of building ever greater numbers of nuclear warheads.

The Defense Department created the Defensive Technologies Study Team (DTST) of about 50 scientists from universities, National Laboratories and defense agencies to meet during the summer of 1983 to evaluate potential technologies to achieve this objective. Dr. Fair was asked to lead the efforts on electromagnetic guns for the DTST.

Based on the recommendations of the DTST, the Department of Defense decided to initiate a new organization to focus US efforts on developing the technologies for strategic missile defense. Dr. Fair developed and initially led the Kinetic Energy Weapons program for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), but decided to remain at DARPA to further develop the National EML efforts.

At SDIO, constellations of satellites were envisioned with hypervelocity railguns launching guided projectiles at velocities on the order of 10-15 km/s. To survive the high launch acceleration, small, guided projectiles were designed consisting mostly of solid-state electronics and optics and were a small fraction of the size of the guided warhead components employed in conventional missile interceptors.

The hypervelocity impact velocity of these micro-interceptors was sufficiently high that an interceptor as small as several kilograms had sufficient kinetic energy to destroy a nuclear warhead. For example, the G-Resistant EML Interceptor (GREMLIN) was designed to weigh only 2 kg in contrast to the hundreds of kgs required for conventional interceptor final stages.

GREMLIN and it successor, the Low Exo -Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP) made such a revolutionary advance in reducing size and increasing rugged reliability of interceptors, that this technology has been integrated by the U.S. Navy for missile launch and is the basis for the first successful intercept of an intercontinental ballistic missile warhead in space.

USSR Versus NATO Capabilities in Ground Warfare

But just a short time later, a new threat was introduced to the Washington landscape. An important Defense Science Board (DSB) study comparing East versus West Capabilities in Armor and Armaments led by four-star General Donn Starry and Dr. Joseph Braddock in 1985 concluded that a tactical technology advance implemented by the Soviet Union with their forward deployed forces in East Germany provided them a tactical advantage that had Strategic Nuclear implications for NATO forces.

The critical new technology was a new type of armor called explosive reactive armor (ERA) that when added to the surface of Soviet tanks ( see the “ERA boxes” in figure) negated a decade of investment by NATO forces in man-portable anti-tank weapons. NATO did not have sufficient numbers of tanks to counter the Soviet threat and was dependent on the advanced technology in these anti-tank missiles to hold off an advance. The only alternative to withstand a Soviet advance would have been to employ NATO Tactical Nuclear Weapons!

The Secretary of Defense directed DARPA, the Army and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) to develop an immediate program to redress the imbalance and a longer-term program to provide the technology and military capability for NATO forces to survive.

Dr. Fair had participated on the Armor-Anti/Armor DSB study for DARPA and was tasked by the Secretary of Defense to develop and lead a broad-based Joint DARPA/Army/ USMC program and Joint Program Office with an annual budget of $100M/year for five years. The Armor-Anti/Armor Program included efforts in advanced armor, chemical energy warheads and improved shaped-charge weapons, novel materials, kinetic energy warheads, advanced hypervelocity kinetic energy penetrators and a mobile ground –based electromagnetic gun capable of defeating future threat armored combat vehicles.

Dr. Fair established Red, White and Blue Teams with a mix of immediate and longer term goals. The Red Team served as a surrogate Soviet Design Bureau and provided intelligence and all types of surrogate armor-anti/armor hardware for testing against the U.S. designed and produced hardware by multiple Blue industrial teams. Los Alamos National Laboratory was chosen as the White Team to provide independent experimental test and validation of the performance of the new military capabilities.

Much of the hardware developed in this program was demonstrated so successfully just a few years later by U.S. forces in actual combat in Desert Storm in Iraq.

The Institute for Advance Technology Created at the University of Texas

The technical challenges to implement railgun technology for mobile combat systems were huge and the Army decided to create a new university-based organization to provide the scientific underpinning of hypervelocity physics and electromagnetic launch technology and resolve technological issues through the development of critical theories, computational techniques and experimental validation. Dr. Fair left DARPA at the end of 1987 to create the Institute for Advanced Technology (IAT) at the University of Texas in Austin, TX.

The IAT became the Army’s first University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) and became the world leader in hypervelocity physics, advanced penetrator design and development, and electromagnetic launch technology. Critical issues of railgun lifetime, armature design, hypervelocity impact physics, novel hypervelocity penetrators, electromagnetic signatures, and others yielded to the focused application of electromagnetic and hypervelocity theory, advanced computational techniques and innovative experiments.

Hypervelocity projectiles were conceived, manufactured and tested to demonstrate their ability to defeat even the most advanced threat armors.

Concepts to guide and control hypervelocity projectiles were also developed. DARPA funded the IAT to develop the electronics and other critical components to withstand the high acceleration of electromagnetic launch and to develop a concept for extremely long range guided projectiles ( 500km versus the conventional 40km ) that had sufficient kinetic energy at the target to eliminate the need for hazardous explosive warheads. This helped lay the foundation for the Navy to evaluate railguns for Naval surface weapons applications.

An Electromagnetic Railgun on a Ground Combat Vehicle

The Army wanted technologies that would be compatible with mobile, transportable systems. A concept for a revolutionary ground combat system protected by passive and active electromagnetic armor and a hypervelocity electromagnetic cannon capable of defeating the most advanced threat armor was envisioned.

The effort was led by the Army Armaments R & D Center and primarily focused on a new form of pulsed alternator as the most promising technology to meet the severe constraints on the size and weight of the power source for a mobile combat system. They funded several successful attempts to design and demonstrate high energy density pulsed alternators with different industrial partners teamed with the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas.

But in 2009, after a series of highly orchestrated, extremely negative reviews of the program by the Army Science and Technology leadership, JASONs, Board on Army Science and Technology, DARPA and Congressional staff, the Army was forced to declare the technology for mobile vehicles unfeasible.

The Navy takes the US lead in implementing EML Technology

The Navy had developed an interest in long range fire support and in the 2000s initiated a well-organized and implemented railgun program. The Office of Naval Research initiated the Innovative Naval Prototype program and selected a ship-based long range railgun as their first innovative prototype.

They developed a strong demonstration program based at the Naval Surface Weapons Center, Dahlgren, Va with hardware provided by several competing industrial firms. The IAT transferred its technology to the Navy to assist in resolving rail life and projectile design issues. ONR has continued to contract with industry to develop full-scale railguns and has successfully tested them at Dahlgren and validated their performance. These efforts are now at the forefront of EML technology and when integrated on a combat vessel, will provide revolutionary new combat capabilities for the Navy.

The US EML Symposium becomes an International Symposium and the Principal International Forum for Electromagnetic Launch Technology

The U.S. EML Symposium, initiated in 1980, has been held biennially and serves as the principal forum for the discussion, interchange, and presentation of research on critical technologies for accelerating macroscopic objects or projectiles to hypervelocities using electromagnetic forces. Affiliation and publication in the IEEE Transactions assures that the research is of high quality and archival.

In the mid 1980s, the European EML Society was formed and in 1998, the U.S. EML and the European EML announced their decision to consolidate their symposia to form the International EML Symposium. Successive symposia have been held alternately in Europe or the United States and attended by approximately 200 scientists and engineers from about 16 Countries. To continue to ensure high quality of the technical presentations and archival retention of the technical information, papers presented at the International EML symposia are peer reviewed in accordance with the standard procedures of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and have been published as the January issue of the International IEEE journal, "Transactions in Magnetics". Beginning with the 15th EML proceedings in 2010 and for following EML Symposia, selected technical papers are published as special issues of the “IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science”. The proceedings are the major archival source of published information in this field.

The Symposia are organized and governed by an International Permanent Organizing Committee, chaired by the Symposia founder, Dr. Fair. Dr Fair serves as the guest editor for the IEEE publication of proceedings for all of the EML symposia. The Permanent Organizing Committee includes the chairman of the European Electromagnetic Launch Society and other internationally recognized expert scientists and engineers who have made significant technical contributions to the development of EML technology.

The 16th International Symposium on Electromagnetic Launch (EML) Technology was held at the China National Convention Center in Beijing, China, May 15-19, 2012. The Symposium was co-hosted by the US Institute for Strategic and Innovative Technologies (ISIT) and the China Electrotechnical Society (CES) under the sponsorship of IEEE’s Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society. This was the first time the International EML Symposium was held in China. In addition to agreeing to hold the 16th Symposium in Beijing, the International Permanent Committee agreed that China should be welcomed as a permanent member of the International EML Symposia. An agreement was signed at the symposium by Dr. Emil Spahn (President, European EML Society), Dr. Jun Li (President, EML Technology Committee of China Electrotechnical Society), Dr. Gennady Shvetsov (Associate Director, Russian Lavrentyev Institute of Hydrodynamics) and Dr. Harry Fair (Chairman, International EML Permanent Committee).

The 17th Electromagnetic Launch Technology Symposium will be held May 26-30, 2014, at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines in San Diego, California. The Institute for Strategic and Innovative Technologies will host this event under the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and IEEE's Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society.

China Emerges as a Major Leader in the International EML Community

There had been no serious Chinese participation in the EML Symposia until the 9th symposium in 1998 When Prof. Wang Ying attended with a few students and colleagues. His graduate student, Jun Li won the first Peter Kemmey Scholarship to attend the symposium. Since this initial participation, the Chinese EML program has grown to be one of the largest and most significant in the International community. Dr. Jun Li has been elected President of the EML Technology Committee of the China Electrotechnical Society and leads the EML research efforts in China. The following are taken from his keynote presentation At the 16th EML symposium in Beijing.

The Chinese were excellent hosts and demonstrated their growing and significant role in the international EML community by the large number of technical papers presented.

This leadership has continued as shown in the number of abstracts accepted for the 17 International EML symposium. There were 345 abstracts received with 240 of them from China. Over 300 were accepted for presentation.

It is anticipated that the 17th Symposium will be a historic event with record participation and demonstration of the EML technology. Further details may be found at emlsymposium.org.