He was wrong. Though their X-ray laser had flopped, Wood and Hyde soon returned with a new missile defense scheme, which they called ”Brilliant Pebbles.” The idea was to orbit thousands of tiny rockets packed with electronics, along with thousands of space-based sensors. If the sensors detected anything not cleared for space travel, the nearest Pebble would smash into it.
”Lowell Wood is a brilliant salesman,” concedes Lenard. ”He and I went toe-to-toe” on Brilliant Pebbles, he added, and Lenard lost. According to news accounts at the time, Teller, a personal friend of Reagan’s, lobbied hard for the project, and in July 1988 Reagan agreed to back Brilliant Pebbles. In a report to Congress, the head of SDIO said that the space-based network could be ready in five years and cost less than $25 billion.
Funding for Lenard’s D-2 and LEAP programs, meanwhile, was eliminated. Sometime later, Navy researchers resurrected LEAP and combined it with its existing Standard Missile technology to create a new version of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, for defeating short- to intermediate-range missiles.
But the EM gun community didn’t lose out entirely under Brilliant Pebbles: in 1988 and 1989 SDIO funded a $3 million study to launch Pebble components into space using EM guns as well as light-gas guns, which use hydrogen or helium to propel projectiles to hypervelocities. The proposal never made it past the paper-study phase, though. (Brilliant Pebbles was quietly canceled after Bill Clinton became president in 1993.)
Meanwhile, a strong critic of electromagnetic launch had emerged. A review panel was set up to investigate the status of Fair’s DARPAArmy program, which in contrast to the SDIO efforts, was focused on building compact, lower-velocity EM guns for the battlefield. William C. McCorkle Jr., technical director of the Army Missile Command, was on the panel, and he didn’t like what he saw. McCorkle found many technical quibbles with the research, but his main beef was that after five years and half a billion dollars, no gun had yet bested Marshall’s 1977 record. It was time to pull the plug, he said, on ”electric gun fraud.”
McCorkle swayed the panel: in 1990 SDIO terminated its EML programs, two years later DARPA followed suit, and in 1994 the Army drastically cut its EML support to about $4 million a year. Projects were abruptly halted midway through, experiments were canceled, and researchers fled the field in droves.
As funding prospects waned, Harry Fair decided to leave DARPA and move to the University of Texas at Austin. There, he formed the Institute for Advanced Technology and kept a remnant of EML work going. Marshall and other zealous advocates took refuge at IAT, and together, on a shoestring budget of $1 million per year, they set about trying to convince the Army that McCorkle was wrong.
For McCorkle continued to attack even the trickle of electric gun funding at IAT. In a letter to Fair, he charged that ”EM guns are far from matching or even approaching conventional gun performance in the most distant foreseeable future” [emphasis in original]. Another IAT researcher recalls that in meetings McCorkle would pull out a calculator, ostensibly to produce numbers that proved EML’s inefficacy; but those numbers, the researcher contends, were ”by and large, quite incorrect. In every issue raised, he has been rebutted by real calculations or a more sober statement of facts.”
McCorkle now acknowledges making mistakes. ”The calculations are really much too complex to do by hand,” he told Spectrum in an interview last year, adding that the errors still don’t affect his conclusions. ”There are some simple relationships, for example, between the number of megajoules required and the ratio of input power to output power.” He argued that the waste heat produced by the guns in itself is enough of a problem to make rapid-fire EM guns impossible. He also charged that the researchers ”abuse classification” to hide their failures.
Much of the work on EM guns in the United States is indeed classified, admits Ian McNab, an expert on pulsed power sources at IAT. But, he points out, ”we don’t classify anything; the Army classifies them. The Army has this idea that we should be doing this research for them, not the Chinese.” He counters McCorkle’s other contentions by saying, simply: ”We’ve built these things, and they work.”
One of McCorkle’s arguments, though, seemed valid: if EM guns were so great, why was there so little research going on elsewhere? The British program, he argued, was an artifact of an EM gun given to them by the U.S. Defense Department. ”I have also talked to the Germans and discovered their interest was based upon their belief that the U.S. somehow had a ’secret breakthrough’
otherwise it made no sense to them,” he wrote in his letter to Fair.
Had McCorkle looked further afield, he might have run across Wang Ying of the Ordnance Engineering College, in China’s Hebei province. Back in 1981, Ying had come across the proceedings of Fair’s first symposium on EM launch and decided to make the subject his life’s work. At first, he found few takers for his ideas, but in the last decade, he and his former students have established electromagnetic launch R&D programs at 22 academic and military institutions in China. With Richard Marshall, he also coauthored two textbooks on the subject.
Indeed, Marshall and Fair were both delighted to find like-minded colleagues in China. In September 2004, Fair’s keynote speech at the China EM Launch Symposium, at Dalian University of Technology, drew a standing ovation. Afterward, the head of Dalian’s electrical engineering department gave him a tour of their coilgun test facility. Today China is arguably the largest center of electromagnetic gun research outside the United States. At the 13th International EML Symposium, held in May 2006 in Potsdam, Germany, the Chinese accounted for 52 papers, second only to the United States, which had 72.
One intriguing Chinese project is the coilgun-based armor under development at Harbin Institute of Technology. Tank armor today consists of a thin layer of high explosive sandwiched between two metal plates; when hit, it erupts, thereby destroying conventional weapons such as shaped charges.
The Chinese armor would be one step ahead of such reactive armor. It uses a sensor to detect incoming shells, and then a coilgun flings a plate of armor to break up the shell before it hits the tank. One problem with this approach is that the projectile must be made of something other than iron, because the coilgun’s magnetic pulse would end up heating the iron rather than accelerating it. Harbin researchers have tried other materials such as aluminum but found it melts easily and is too weak for use as armor. In their experiments where steel armor was married to an aluminum coil, ”the thrust force [of the incoming shell] not only didn’t decrease but increased a little,” according to a recent paper. [For other electric gun projects, see sidebar, ”Electromagnetic Launch Takes Off.”]
Comparable U.S. efforts in electric armor are classified, so it’s noteworthy that even this much is known about the Chinese program. But for whatever reason, Fair notes, Chinese researchers are surprisingly open about their work.