As the military relies more and more on unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out pinpoint strikes, the services need smaller munitions to arm them.
And that's where Spike comes in. Weighing 5 pounds, this mini-missile developed by the Navy is many, many times lighter than the 100-pound Hellfires typically carried by UAVs — but still packs a precision punch. Scott O'Neil, who is overseeing its development, calls Spike "the world's smallest guided missile."
"Most of our weapons are fairly large because they're taking out very big targets," O'Neil, the executive director of Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, told Navy Times in a Feb. 12 phone interview. "We've started looking at, with miniaturization of electronics, what does that mean to weaponry? How small can we make weapons and keep them effective against the targets that we're talking about?"
Spike is an in-house project, completely developed and funded by NAVAIR at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. For now, it's a cool toy to help train NAWCWD engineers on miniature munitions systems, O'Neil said, but it's up for grabs if the services are interested in fielding it.
"Fleet Forces [Command] and different elements of the Navy and other services are aware, they're interested, it's just a matter of the budgets where they are," O'Neil said. "If somebody wanted to pick this up and make it a program, we stand ready to support that."
The missile measures 2 ½ inches in diameter and costs about $50,000 with off-the-shelf parts.
"One of the real issues with weapons systems is that they're really, really expensive," project lead Greg Wheelock saidin the phone interview. "And so we've taken an alternative with this one: by using commercial technology, we can keep the cost per unit really down low so this becomes a very affordable system for the services."
O'Neil added that if the project went into production, NAWCWD would be able to use its proprietary design to strike a deal with companies that build cellphone components, for instance, at a high volume and lower cost. (To be sure, the Navy-built Spike is of no relation to the anti-tank missile made by the Israeli defense firm Rafael and sold under the brand name Spike.)
Everyone from the Marine Corps, Naval Special Warfare and the special operations forces community to intelligence agencies and Defense Department-affiliated civilian organizations have expressed interest in Spike, O'Neil said, a weapon that could be ship-mounted for use against small boat swarms or shoulder-fired on the battlefield.
Guided by tiny camera
Spike is designed to fire at stationary or moving soft targets like people, lightly armored vehicles, structures, boats and small aircraft, while minimizing the chances for collateral damage, Wheelock said.
"It gives a person a guided missile that's going to take out the target without blowing up the rest of the neighborhood," he said.
It's guided by the same technology as a cellphone camera, O'Neil said. A camera on the missile takes an image of what it sees. The person shooting can then enlarge the picture and pick a target, putting a box around the person or boat or airplane, and Spike will track it.
"It goes really fast for a long way," Wheelock said, but its speed and range are classified. O'Neil added that the limit on Spike's range is the camera it's equipped with. As camera technology evolves, they can use more high-definition cameras to get a more detailed image from farther away.
"It's also designed to be launched from a variety of platforms," Wheelock said. "From the ground, on kind of a stationary launcher. From the air we've launched it from a UAV, and also we're designing it to be shoulder-launched."
The counter-unmanned airborne systems capability is of particular interest to the Army, which hosted a successful test launch last summer at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
"The system isn't necessarily ready to go to the fleet right now, but what we've done is, we've demonstrated that we can launch this and control the weapon and hit a target from launching it from an air platform. And then we've launched it from ground platforms against moving targets," O'Neil said.
Following the test, Wheelock said, the team is redesigning the cellphone camera seeker to get a more detailed image. They're also looking at designing a variant with collapsible wings, which are more suited to a tube launcher fired from the shoulder.
The team will continue to tweak the design and use Spike to train its engineers on miniature weapons systems, O'Neil said, but the cost of fielding Spike is beyond what his organization can cover.
"There's a lot of what we call qualification work that has to be done, to make sure you know the designs can be produced and what's produced is reliable," he said. "That's work that would have to be done by one of the services if they decide to move this to an operational capability."