Even as nuclear-watchers obsess over India and North Korea, it is the U.S. which is about to change the game with a stealth weapon straight out of Hollywood sci-fi.

The murky world of missiles and missile technology was suddenly spotlighted in two significant news events in recent weeks.

First, North Korea's leadership watched in dismay as their April 13 satellite launch via an Unha-3 rocket went spectacularly wrong and collapsed into the sea a minute after blasting off. Second, India on April 19 turned this experience on its head with a highly successful launch of its new intercontinental ballistic missile, Agni V, in a move that drew an irritated reaction from analysts in a now-within-range China.

The irony of these two events was that they came days ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a major international treaty aimed at halting the global proliferation of missile technology.

While MTCR adherents may fret about the Asian churn in their global missile order, the ultimate paradigm-shifter of the missile world, a new weapon straight out of Hollywood science fiction, is actually under development in another country — the United States.

The railgun

Enter the Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG), described by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) as a “long-range” weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. It relies on the use of magnetic fields, which accelerate a sliding metal conductor between two rails to launch projectiles at somewhere between 7,200-8,960 kilometres per hour, more than seven times the speed of sound.

And speed is everything in the game of projectile destructive capacity. According to the ONR, the EMRG is a “true war-fighter game-changer. Wide-area coverage, exceptionally quick response and very deep magazines will extend the reach and lethality of ships armed with this technology.”

So what is the potential magnitude of the EMRG's power? In February, the ONR test-fired the Navy's first industry-built EMRG prototype at a test facility in Dahlgren, Virginia. The launch platform, built by BAE Systems, delivered a 32-mega-joule power-punch, where one mega-joule of energy is equivalent to a one-tonne car hurled at 160 kilometres per hour.

Even in this early phase of development the projected range of the weapon is 100 nautical miles (185.2 km), and it is likely to expand rapidly as the technology grows in sophistication. However the programme has not evaded serious technical challenges, the most important of which is the question of thermal management. The main problem the U.S. Navy has had with implementing an EMRG cannon system is that the massive amounts of heat generated by the electricity and projectile friction can cause thermal expansion of the firing mechanism, leading to problems of melting equipment, decreased personnel safety, and enemy detection. Regardless, the U.S. Navy projects that the weapon will be ready for use by 2017 and integration into naval platforms is likely within a few years after that.

Fitting it into MTCR

Thus the $240-million question is, how does the EMRG fit with the parameters of the MTCR?

A quick glance at the MTCR reveals that its founding goal is to limit the risks of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by controlling exports of goods and technologies that could make a contribution to delivery systems, other than manned aircraft, for such weapons.

In this context, the MTCR says, it “places particular focus on rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km and on equipment, software, and technology for such systems.”

Yet the speed-based power of the EMRG makes comparisons with traditional, chemical explosives-based missile systems more complex. For example one of the fastest cruise missiles in circulation is the India-Russia collaborative, BrahMos. According to reports, this supersonic missile can attain flight speeds of Mach 2.8 or Mach 3, much higher than those of the U.S. Tomahawk and Harpoon, and France's Exocet, all of which are subsonic.

Given that the EMRG projectile travels at Mach 7 in early development and likely faster as the thermal stability of the firing platform is achieved, then, in theory, the payload size that would achieve the total explosive energy level of an MTCR-consistent missile would be less than 500 kg.

While there is no indication yet that this might be possible, if technological innovation were to permit the mounting of a warhead onto the projectile, that could further increase the terminal energy of the EMRG dramatically. What is clear is that solving the thermal management puzzle will also give the EMRG the ability to fire up to 10 projectiles per minute, an inconceivable frequency in the world of the traditional missile.

Moving from questions of physics to international affairs, an argument that could be made to defend the EMR's consistency with the MTCR is that the Regime focuses only on export control among those member-states that already possess qualifying missile technology. There has been no talk so far of trade in the EMRG, given its nascent development.

However similar to other global treaties, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), aimed at containing the spread of technologies to nations that do not possess them, those within the umbrella of the MTCR are under no obligation to halt internal proliferation or, in other words, weapons development.

With absolute opacity surrounding the proliferation potential of the EMRG in the years ahead, this “war-fighter game-changer” could usher in a new era of strategic dominance for the fortunate few nations who happen to possess it. The ONR's codename for the EMRG programme is “Velocitas Eradico,” or “Speed Kills.” Perhaps it is a warning to any nation that is not developing missiles by stealth.

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