The Spike Missile: Has Israel Developed the Ultimate Weapon to Kill Tanks?
On October 6, 1973, over eight hundred tanks from three mechanized infantry divisions poured over the Israeli border into the Golan Heights. The sheer mass of armor inflicted heavy casualties on the defending Israeli forces; the defending Barak Brigade saw every company commander killed in action during the attack. While Israeli forces eventually did triumph, this experience lead some in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to think about ways of stopping massed tank formations. Eventually, with the help of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, they developed the Tamuz missile. This missile is now known outside of Israel as the Spike Non-Line-of-Sight (Spike-NLOS), and is considered to be the first member of the Spike family of missiles. Since then, the Spike family has become one of the premier antitank guided weapons in the world, with great export success: it currently serves in many of the world’s most powerful militaries, including those of the UK, Germany, South Korea and India. But how does the Spike work? And why is the Spike family so successful?
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The original Spike missile, the Spike-NLOS, was a pioneering weapon in its field. While television-guided missiles existed before, for aircraft, the Spike-NLOS was the first fielded surface-to-surface missile to use TV guidance. This was because of its original purpose: to stop massed-armor pushes from almost artillery distances with precision attacks. To achieve this, the Spike-NLOS has a tiny fiber-optic cable linking the launching vehicle with the missile, as well as a camera in the missile itself. Through this datalink, the Spike-NLOS operator sees a view of the battlefield. The operator then proceeds to guide the missile to the target. The view afforded to the operator while the missile is in flight allows each missile to act as reconnaissance. The Spike-NLOS launcher can remain fifteen to thirty kilometers away from the target (depending on the generation of missile) while still delivering a precise attack. The TV guidance allows the missile to retarget in flight, as the operator only needs to steer to a different target. It also doesn’t require a “lock” to launch, the operator only needs to know the rough coordinates of the target, allowing Spike-NLOS to act as precision artillery. In a reflection of this role, Spike-NLOS equipped vehicles are assigned to an elite unit of the IDF’s Artillery Corps. Later versions of Spike-NLOS added true homing capability, making the missile self-guiding while also allowing the operator to remain a “man in the loop” and correct and steer the missile mid-flight. It also gives the missile Lock-On After Launch (LOAL) capability. In Israeli literature, this is called “Fire-and-Observe.” Improved cameras (able to see in infrared channels) and laser homing are also included in the latest Israeli versions of Spike-NLOS. They also have the ability to tie into the Israeli command-and-control network, so that data from other sources such as counterbattery radars and drones can help direct the Spike-NLOS to its target.
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Operationally, Spike-NLOS has been a great success. It saw significant use in recent intifadas and the Second Lebanon War, as a tool to neutralize artillery positions. The precise nature of the missile proved useful in areas with many civilians. For this reason, the Spike-NLOS has seen significant export success, with the UK buying it under the name Exactor and deploying it successfully in Afghanistan and Iraq in a similar role. The success of Spike-NLOS in the counterbattery role also resulted in South Korea buying it following the 2010 Yeonpyeong attack as a mean to neutralize North Korean artillery positions.
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The success of the Spike is not limited to the NLOS missile. In the 1990s, trials were undertaken to adapt the Spike missile technology as a smaller weapon, as the IDF needed a new ATGM to replace the aging American M47 Dragon ATGMs currently in use. According to Jane’s Infantry Weapons, the first test firings of this system took place in 1992. First fielded was the Gill missile, known as Spike-MR to the international market. This was a fire-and-forget missile that lacks the command guidance of the Spike-NLOS in exchange for a far lighter launching platform and missile. This version also achieved significant export success, winning Finnish ATGM trials and an order in 2000. This version was also quickly adopted by Singapore and the Netherlands. The Spike-MR can be considered to be a competitor to the American Javelin system, as both consist of similar components and technology. Both have a Command-Launch Unit (CLU) with an integrated Thermal Sight on the launch platform, and both missiles use an electro-optical sensor to home in on their targets. The Spike-MR recently beat out the Javelin in a competition for a large Indian contract.
Rafael has continued to develop the Spike family of missiles. The Spike-LR version reintroduces some of the Spike-NLOS functionality into the smaller Spike missiles, with the same fiber-optic data-link technology that allows the operator to see what the missile sees. This version entered IDF service around the same time as the Spike-MR, and also achieved significant export success, winning large European contracts, including with Germany and Poland. It is popular as a vehicle-mounted ATGM, replacing the Milan in German use as the primary ATGW for the German Infantry Fighting Vehicle. It also has options to be integrated onto helicopters. Recently, the IDF placed orders for the upgraded Spike-LR2. The newer missile comes with more lethal warheads, and the ability for the new CLU to receive data from other sources.
Continuing development, Rafael released the Spike-SR in 2012: a small disposable version meant for squad-level use. Unlike the Spike-MR, where the soldier uses the CLU to acquire the target, which then feeds the data to the Spike missile, a soldier uses the missile seeker itself to acquire the target with the Spike-SR. The Spike-SR also achieved export success in 2016. The final member of the Spike family is the Spike-ER, which is similar to the Spike-LR with additional range and some other features. It has been used by Israel on their Apache helicopters, as well as by the Finns on a ground mount for coastal defense.
But what makes the Spike so successful at export? The commendable performance of the missile in trials and advanced fire-and-observe features are no doubt part of it. But the largest part is probably Rafael’s willingness to license production of the Spike to the countries that adopt it. When Poland adopted the Spike-LR, the Polish Spike’s rocket engines, warheads and launch tubes were made by ZM Mesko, a Polish company. Similar licensing is happening with the Indian adoption of the Spike-MR.
Overall, the Spike missile series is a testament to the ability of the Israeli defense complex to produce novel solutions to diverse threats. It is one of the most successful export and licensing stories of ATGW to this day, with thousands of licensed Spikes being produced around the globe.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.