Air Weapons: Spike Goes Long With Gamers

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January 24, 2020: The U.S. Army has ordered an unspecified number of Israeli Spike NLOS (Non-Line Of Sight) long-range (25-30 kilometers) missiles for use on their AH-64 helicopter gunships. Israel is already doing this, as is South Korea and several other export customers. Until 2013 Spike NLOS had been a ground-based weapon, but ever since then Israel has been trying to get the Americans to try airborne Spike NLOS themselves. Because of the long-range several export customers operated Spike NLOS from transport helicopters (like the UH-60).

The United States tried to develop a similar weapon, Netfires NLOS-LS, back in 2004, but gave up in 2010 after spending over a billion dollars and failing to get the system to work. Meanwhile, Israel already had Spike NLOS. It’s never too late to try a similar foreign weapon that works, which the U.S. has done increasingly since the 1990s. In mid-2019 the U.S. Army tested Spike NLOS used as a SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) weapon by firing it against a hypothetical mobile Russian air defense system. With Spike NLOS the AH-64 could fire on the Russian system while outside the range of the Russian missiles. Those tests were successful.

Spike NLOS missiles weigh 70kg (155 pounds), about 50 percent more than more popular and less precise Hellfire missile. Spike NLOS can be fired at a target the operator cannot see but someone else, preferably with a laser designator, can see. Better yet Spike NLOS has a vidcam in the nose that enables an operator to find the target, mark it and let the guidance system do the rest. Flight time of Spike NLOS is 60-80 seconds, depending on how far away the target is and the first third of that distance uses GPS, INS or fiber-optic cable to get the missile in the general vicinity of the target. By then the operator, often with years of video game experience, can view what the Spike NLOS vidcam sees and can seek out the target. The operator can change course somewhat and, in practice, there is time to spot the target and mark it so the guidance system can remember it and home in on it.

With Spike NLOS fired from helicopters the missile can be available to hit targets over a much larger area. This is done by using the growing number of systems that can detect targets, like satellites, high-altitude UAVs /manned aircraft, electronic intel and human local sources deep in enemy territory. Any other air (UAV) or ground observer can provide the laser targeting but Spike NLOS is useful mainly because it can be flown in by an operator and use stored images of typical targets to identify and hit the target. Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, mainly laser, and the live video feed can be used for the operator to fly the missile into to the target or simply capture an image of the selected target so the missile can home in by itself (“fire and forget”). The operator can still have Spike NLOS self-destruct or shift to another target. Spike NLOS actually uses a fiber-optic cable out to eight kilometers and after that wireless communications take over. All this extra capability is expensive and each Spike NLOS missile costs about $300,000 each.

The first version of Spike NLOS was a secret weapon code-named Tamuz that entered service in the early 1980s. This version required a highly trained operator to literally fly the missile all the way to the target and for two decades its existence remained a military secret. By 2000 advances in guidance systems, especially “fire and forget” capability, meant Tamuz was no longer so expensive. That was because it took even talented troops a long time to learn how to manually guide the missile on the original system. With improved “fire and forget” tech Tamuz became the highly automated and easier to learn Spike NLOS is, which was then declassified. Israel successfully used Spike NLOS during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in south Lebanon, the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza and several other situations. Now that most of the details of what Spike NLOS is,  where it came from and what it can do have been revealed, it is an increasingly popular export item. That is also because various versions of the missile, first as Tamuz then as Spike NLOS, had been in service since the 1980s. That meant the system was battle-tested and known to be very dependable and effective no matter what tech they used.

The ground version became more mobile as the control system became smaller, lighter and easier to use. As a result of that Spike NLOS missiles and control systems were mounted on infantry armored vehicles and used by British troops in Afghanistan since 2011. Later it was also mounted on unarmored trucks (like hummers). Israel continued to find new ways to use Spike NLOS as a vehicle-based system, especially for special operations (commandos and Special Forces).

Since the 1990s special operations forces have found new lightweight guided missiles a useful addition to the GPS guided rockets (GMLRS), artillery and bombs as well as laser-guided missiles. Situations still arise where not enough missile armed UAVs are available  to support small teams of operators tracking key individuals or small groups in remote areas. These scout teams often have to watch a specific spot for days before the target shows itself and is positively identified. If the target is not fired on quickly, he will likely get away and the search will begin again.

The solution was developed by the Israelis when they merged Spike NLOS missiles with off-road vehicles to produce a version of Spike NLOS that can be quickly mounted on an off-road vehicle, transported by air (small transport or slung under a helicopter) to a remote location and driven further into hostile territory to provide round the clock availability of precision missile fire against small stationery or moving (in a vehicle or on a motorcycle) targets day or night. This mobile Spike NLOS is available in different size pallets that contain four to eight Spike NLOS missiles plus the control equipment and radio. Like other versions of Spike NLOS, it is much easier for troops to become proficient at using computer simulators and a more user-friendly design.

The airmobile Spike NLOS system was first available on the Israeli Tomcar off-road vehicle. This 750 kg four-wheel “dune buggy” design has been around since 2005 and is regularly used along the Israeli southern border with Gaza and Egypt. Tomcar is exported to many other nations for special operations forces or border patrol in rough terrain. The latest version of Tomcar is a two-seater built with a flatbed in the rear to carry cargo. This vehicle can carry eight Spike NLOS weapons plus the control system. Even lighter systems are available carrying only four (or even just two) missiles. U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has long been an avid user of such lightweight cross country vehicles and might eventually try this pallet based version of Spike NLOS.

 


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