Air Weapons: Rampage Rocks


March 19, 2019: Israeli defense firm Rafael combined two of its air-launched weapons to produce Rocks which, when launched from an F-16 or F-35, uses a solid fuel rocket motor to send it on an upward trajectory so that the missile descends on the target at the speed of a ballistic missile. This makes Rocks very difficult to intercept. Rocks uses GPS/INS to reach the vicinity of its target where its terminal guidance system, also used by Israeli Spice smart bombs takes over. Spice uses a guidance sensor (camera) and computer and can store up to a hundred images of potential targets as well as instructions on what to hit when there are multiple choices. Many of these images are of the same target from different angles and such. The Rocks version of this Spice guidance system is modified to operate for use by missile descending at very high speed. That means the Spice mechanical element (small fins) are built to handle the greater stress of the high-speed descent and shorter time to identify and head for the target. The propulsion system and outer shell of Rocks comes from Israeli 3.2 ton Silver Sparrow ballistic missile target rocket. These  targets are missiles carried to a high altitude by an F-16, F-15 or a transport. When launched, the missiles fly higher and then plunge earthward at a speed and trajectory nearly identical to that of a ballistic missile. This provides an accurate target for testing anti-missile systems, like the Israeli Arrow. There are three Sparrow versions representing ballistic missiles with different ranges. Silver Sparrow emulates a ballistic missile with a range of one or two thousand kilometers (like the Iranian Shahab 3). Sparrow missiles electronics report all flight characteristics. Sparrows also carry some explosives so that the missile can be quickly destroyed in the air if it has problems and heads for a populated area. Sparrow is cheaper than a similar system the Americans were using.

All three models of Sparrow are about eight meters (twenty-six feet) long and look like large missiles with a reentry type warhead that has the shape of an object designed to survive the heat from a high-speed plunge back to earth. That is simulated by using the rocket to speed up the warhead as it heads down. To a radar that speed makes it look like a ballistic missile warhead reentering the atmosphere. These warheads come in at different speeds depending on the range of the missile being impersonated. Longer range missiles have a higher re-entry speed and that higher speed makes the warhead harder to track and hit with an anti-missile missile.

Sparrow is a mature system. The Silver Sparrow appeared in the 1990s to help test the new Arrow anti-missile system. That 1.4 ton Black Sparrow simulated earlier models of the Russian SCUD short range (about three-hundred kilometers) ballistic missile. The 1.8 ton Blue Sparrow simulates later, longer range (up to a thousand kilometers) models of the SCUD type missiles. Sparrow is used over the Mediterranean where the aircraft launches it towards an imaginary target off the coast. The Arrow radar is pointed in that direction and detects the incoming warhead and the Arrow interceptor missile launches to go after the warhead. Shipping and aircraft are warned to avoid the target area during the test but once, in 2013, a Russian electronic monitoring and radar tracking ship (a “spy ship”) was off the Syrian coast to keep an eye on NATO warships in the area (for the Assad government) and spotted the Sparrows plunging earthward. The Russians reported the mysterious use of ballistic missiles and the Israelis quickly revealed that these were Sparrows, not ballistic missiles.

The Rocks guidance system comes from the Israeli Spice smart bombs. While Israel still buys GPS JDAM smart bombs from the United States that is because they are the cheapest available. Meanwhile, Rafael developed a variation on the JDAM called SPICE (Stand-Off Precision Guidance Munition) that entered service in 2005. SPICE adds a camera in the nose, and the capability to store several digital photos of the target (a building, radar antennae, or a moving target, like a missile transporter) in the bomb. When SPICE gets close enough to see what's down there, the guidance camera compares what it sees in front of it with what is stored in its memory. If it gets a match, it heads right for it. If no target can be found, SPICE hits a specific GPS location or just self-destructs.

SPICE equipped bombs have small wings so that SPICE can be dropped up to 100 kilometers from the target and those wings enable the bomb to glide long distances. SPICE costs about twice as much as JDAM kits and is similar to earlier (pre-JDAM), and much more expensive, U.S. smart bomb designs like Paveway. The latest version of SPICE has a much improved guidance sensor (camera) and computer and can store up to a hundred images of potential targets as well as instructions on what to hit when there are multiple choices. The SPICE 1000 kit is for the 453 kg (1,000 pound) dumb bomb.

In 2016 Israel equipped more of its F-16C fighters to use the SPICE 1000 guided bomb. Israel has 434 F-16s and until this upgrade only the most capable F-16s, the F-16I types (23 percent of the F-16 fleet) were so equipped. The F-16Cs are 31 percent of the fleet. In addition the 25 Israeli F-15Es can handle SPICE 1000 as do the F-35s that entered service at the end 0f 2017. Rocks is designed to be carried by F-16s, F-15s and F-35s.

Rocks is the second weapon of this type developed by an Israeli firm. The first one was IAI’s Rampage, which is an air-launched version of the IMI’s EXTRA (EXTended Range Artillery) GPS guided rocket. This is a 570 kg (1,254 pounds) 306mm weapon that has a max range of 150 kilometers and was entered service in 2016. An additional bonus is that when launched from the air a ground based rocket has a much longer range, especially when launched at a high (over 3,000 meters) altitude. In addition an air-launched artillery rocket comes at the target at very high speed compared to smart bombs and cruise missiles. The only modifications needed to turn EXTRA into Rampage were a reinforced midsection and the addition of attachment hardware so it could be carried by a fighter-bomber just like the long used bombs of the same weight and shape long used. Aircraft using Rampage must have their fire control systems modified so the pilot can change the target coordinates for Rampage. A lighter warhead (100 kg) is used for Rampage to achieve the same weight as half ton bombs. The air-launched Rampage and its range has not been revealed yet but it is probably at least 200, and possibly more than 400 kilometers. Israel has successfully tested Rampage but did not reveal the ranges at which Rampage worked. It is quite possible that Rampage is effective at more than 500 kilometers but keeping potential enemies guessing for as long as possible is a military advantage. Rampage will be used in Syria if Syria is still a combat zone for Israel in 2019 when the Israeli Air Force will have production model Rampage missiles. It was also noted that Rampage could add a laser homing system that would enable it to hit moving or very small targets. The designating laser could be provided by a UAV or someone on the ground. Rampage and Rocks will both enter service in 2019 as both have completed their tests and after that only minor fixes are required to prepare for mass production. Rocks has already been shown at the Indian Aero Air Show, where local and foreign manufacturers show off aircraft and accessories (like smart bombs and missiles) for prospective Indian customers.

Both Rocks and Rampage come with either ground penetrating or surface burst warheads. Rocks is heavier and more capable as it is heavier and comes in at higher speed. This makes a penetrating warhead more effective (it can go deeper). Exact specifications of Rocks and Rampage have not yet been made public but those details will eventually emerge if Rocks is to be sold to the Indian Air Force or either system is used in Syria. Both systems claim a long enough range to keep the launching aircraft out of range to enemy air defense systems. For Russian S300 and S400 air defense systems that means more than 200 kilometers.




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