A warship undergoing retrofitting at a dock in Hubei may offer a clue that the People’s Liberation Army has finally found a way to install a prototype railgun, just as the US abandons its own research efforts.

Photographs taken at the Wuchang Shipyard show a large gun mounted on the Haiyang Shan, a Type 072 tank landing craft, that does not fit the profile of its standard twin 37-millimeter cannons. Military analysts believe it may be a 203mm caliber weapon, the same proportions as a prototype American railgun that is now being mothballed.

Other objects aft of the gun appear to be power modules. It is believed the amphibious vessel, which has been in service with the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet for more than three decades, was chosen to test the gun because it has a large enough deck space to accommodate equipment.

The sheer size of the object makes it unlikely it could be any other type of naval cannon, especially as ship-to-ship and ship-to-air missiles have long since taken over assault and defence roles from shipborne guns.

Wuchang Shipyard is regularly used to test new PLA weapons and it is no secret that China wants to become a leader in electromagnetic technologies. As reported by Asia Times, it is also developing a magnetic propulsion system to launch jets off aircraft carriers.

Railguns use the same sort of energy to launch projectiles, which are guided along rails and then shot through a barrel at hypersonic speeds over longer distances than traditional cannons.They are also able to acquire targets much faster, which allows multiple rapid launches.

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The object (circled) on the Haiyang Shan in Wuchang docks. Photo: Weibo

Sina Military said it believed the range of the weapon, if it did turn out to be a railgun, would be on par with that of a conventional anti-ship missile, giving Chinese ships a significant edge in combat.

The typical range of large-calibre guns is around 20 kilometers, but a railgun can destroy a target more than 100 km away.

Although they don’t use gunpowder or explosive propellants, railguns can achieve a higher destructive force than conventional guns, offering a substantial cost saving. They should also be much safer to use.

Sina said the PLA would be one of the first navies to test-fire a shipborne railgun once the Haiyang Shan set sail down the Yangtze River to the East China Sea.

Analysts say the bulky size of a railgun and its peripheral equipment is one of the biggest hurdles in fitting the weapon on ships, while it is also more vulnerable to wear and tear due to the extreme kinetic forces being experienced. The gun’s accuracy also needs to be improved so it can target ships more than 100 km away.

The US Navy spent $US500 million researching railguns and other electromagnetic technologies but said recently it would be shelving the project. It had decided the weaponry was not likely to be deployed.