But the complicated railgun doesn't even have to work to succeed, as it looks as if Beijing's doing this to embarrass Washington.
The US Navy started work on a railgun in 2005. For years, the Navy struggled to reign in the wild technology that allows a railgun to fire a projectile at such high velocity that it will make a devastating impact without an explosive charge.
Some grounded tests of the Navy's railgun produced fantastic imagery, but it remains far from battle-ready and may never be fielded on a warship.
Citing people with knowledge of a US intelligence report, CNBC reported in June 2018 that China had been working on its railgun for seven years and was just another seven from deploying a working model on a ship.
It's "pretty obvious that China is working towards that goal, and probably faster than the US is," Melodie Ha, who's part of the Center for a New American Security's Asia-Pacific Security Program, told Business Insider.
"It's very possible that they will mount a working railgun on a ship" by 2025, Ha said. But everything is not always as it appears with the Chinese military.
A railgun doesn't even really make sense
Instead of gunpowder, pure electricity powers the railgun's projectiles. But despite the lack of explosives, railgun projectiles still cause fireballs, because the round travels so fast that the air and metal itself combust under the immense friction. This indicates the massive amount of electricity needed to fire the railgun — a big problem for China, or any warship.
The US has proposed putting a railgun on the new Zumwalt class of destroyer. The Chinese are likely to put a railgun on the Type 055 destroyer. The Zumwalt produces twice the electricity of the Type 055, according to Ha.
Additionally, the Chinese would have to clear the same engineering and operational hurdles that have kept the US from mounting the railgun on a ship. Railguns produce a lot of heat and have a short barrel life. After rapid-fire shots, the gun barrel might be susceptible to dangerous warping. And aiming a railgun that can fire at targets as far as 100 miles away — and from a warship that's rocking in the seas — also poses serious challenges.
Strategically, it's also unclear how the railgun fits into naval warfare. The US, China, and Russia all have hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile programs designed to thwart existing defenses, and they generally have higher accuracy and much greater range than the railgun.
And if the railgun's barrel melts after a few shots, why bother?
"As long as the US can launch a second strike, if the Chinese can't knock down the second missile, then what's the point?" Ha said.
China's railgun has a reported range of only 124 miles — so by the time the railgun could strike a target, the Chinese ship would already be in range of US missiles.
The real purpose behind the railgun
The Office of Naval Research Electromagnetic Railgun.(U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)
A railgun doesn't make sense in today's warfighting environment, but it makes perfect sense for another mission of China's navy: embarrassing the US.
"In terms of Chinese maritime grand strategy, it would fit in their entire plan," Ha said, adding that railguns are "next-generation technology" and that China wants to "prove to the US and the entire world that they are technologically advancing."
China's opaque system has shrouded the new railgun prototype in mystery. If China were to place one of these mysterious, next-generation guns in the South China Sea, it would have beaten the US to the punch on a major technological advance and projected a unique kind of power unmatched by the West.
At a time when the US and China are battling to see whose vision of the future can win out, it makes sense that Beijing would try to shame Washington by winning this leg of the arms race.