When we imagine missiles, we usually picture out those 30-feet ballistic missiles or maybe the cruise type one that’s around 20 feet, and they are at that size for a reason: they had to be huge and powerful enough to be effectively used against an enemy with a formidable air defense system. If the Pentagon relied on drones to perform precision attacks, that would also mean that smaller munitions would be needed. Instead of designing a drone that could be used on the already-existing large weapons, the Navy decided to counterflow by designing a five-pound, 25-inch mini-munition weapon called “Spike.” As they say, “big things come in small packages.”

Responding to the Operational Needs

As a result of the operational needs encountered during encounters against asymmetric opponents, the Navy decided to develop Spike. For instance, the AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles fired from the plane and the FGM-148 Javelin utilized by the Infantry units were disadvantaged, if not entirely ineffective, against the insurgents in the urban areas. These $100,000-worth missiles were designed to take down slow-moving and heavily armored vehicles like tanks. However, during the war in Iraq, they were launched against troops and fast-moving unarmored cars. Add the fact that these missiles are armed with warheads that could cause unnecessary collateral damage, the need to design something small that the infantry soldiers could use with a shoulder-fired guided “fire-and-forget” missile system with lighter weight and cheaper cost became really apparent.

Spike missile flight control section electronics axial cutaway. (Steven Felix, NAWCWD-China Lake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Spike Design

With the assistance of RDS Technologies, the US Navy worked on turning Spike into a reality. Initially, Spike was supposed to be carried by US Marines, with up to three missiles and the launcher small enough to fit in a standard backpack. It only weighs 5.4 pounds, is 25 inches long, and 2.25 inches in diameter— a size that is unbelievably small compared to its preceding missiles. Its warhead is about 1 pound only and employs the Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP) effect designed to penetrate the target before detonating. This smaller warhead allowed lethality on the target while maintaining a lesser chance of collateral damage.

Spike missile loaded on a fixed launcher. (US. Naval Air Systems Command, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The main power comes from a small rocket motor that gives the Spike a spike in the range: exceeding 2 miles. It is guided to its target by either an electro-optical or semi-active laser seeker, a camera technology similar to cellphone cameras. It also comes with a 1-megapixel video camera that enables the shooter to select the area to attack in a fire-and-forget manner. What’s cool about it is that the operator doesn’t need to lock on the target before shooting as its third targeting mode is inertial, so he could just “snap and shoot” from a 200 meters distance. The Spike’s lightweight also enabled the users to easily fit it onto vehicles like cars, aircraft, and even small boats. This was not something that you could do with the 100 pounds Hellfire. It is also cheaper at $50,000 per piece, a significant amount that enables the Navy to produce more missiles available and ready to be used against the swarming target.

As Navy Weapons Division technical lead Greg Wheelock said, “What we lack in warhead size is compensated for in accuracy, and we have the ability to put that charge where it will have the most effect… We own the technical drawing package. We own all the intellectual property. We have the capability to develop it, take it out on the range, test it, come back and tweak it, and go back to test it and do limited rate production right in our own backyard.”

Promising Performance

In an article published on Navair’s website in 2017, they wrote that their ongoing Spike efforts finally paid off in a successful fire. They wrote:

From its first guided shot just over a decade ago to a 2015 folding fin demonstration, the homegrown Spike missile program at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division continues to use in-house developments and warfighter input to make improvements to get the missile into the hands of Sailors and Marines in the face of growing unmanned aerial vehicle concerns.

During a December 2016 test at China Lake, the Spike team, twice, demonstrated the capability of the missile to shoot down an Outlaw UAV with one shot.

“The team worked really hard to get us to the point where everything was smooth,” said Spike project manager Gavin Swanson. “Come test day, there wasn’t anything in our way.”