The Buzz

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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