Rafael is working to increase the range of its helicopter-launched Spike Non-Line of Sight (NLOS) missile to 27nm (50km), an increase of about 10nm over the air-to-ground weapon’s current capability.
To stretch the reach of the missile, Rafael is developing a trajectory for firing the winged, rocket-powered weapon from 5,000ft in altitude. The extra height will give the missile a glide slope that boosts range.
In March, the US Army validated Spike NLOS as an interim long-range precision weapon for its Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter by hitting a target with the missile at 17.3nm. The service envisions the Apache firing the missile while flying low to the ground, a tactic that is designed to keep the attack helicopter within the radar shadow of mountains and valleys, and out of the sight of short-range air defences, such as the Russian-made Pantsir-S1 missile and gun battery.
Firing Spike NLOS at 5,000ft would force a change in tactics for operators from launching the missile from covered positions to doing so from stand-off ranges. According to Boeing, the AH-64 has a maximum climb rate of about 2,800ft per minute – meaning launching Spike NLOS at 5,000ft might expose the helicopter to nearby anti-aircraft weapons for several minutes during ascent, firing and descent.
To take advantage of the longer-range shots, a helicopter launching Spike NLOS would have to operate from a safe area, says Gal Papier, vice-president of business development at Rafael USA, the US subsidiary of the Israeli company.
“Our advantage here is you’re not threatened, or less threatened from MANPADS, so you can fly high,” he says, referring to shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. “We’re changing a bit the concept of deployment here.”
Rafael has already successfully demonstrated the Spike NLOS hitting a target at 21.6nm in an internal test, Papier says. Rafael plans to attempt a 27nm shot within two years, he says.
The US Army is interested in acquiring new long-range weapons to out-gun advanced anti-aircraft weapons fielded by foes such as Russia and China. It is planning to replace its air-to-ground Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles with the Long Range Precision Munition. The Hellfire’s range is limited to 4.3nm.
The service had planned to hold a shoot-off demonstration in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022 for Long Range Precision Munition candidate weapons. The US Army reportedly purchased 170 examples of the Spike NLOS in fiscal year 2020 as an interim solution. US-based Lockheed serves as the weapon type’s prime contractor for the service. Rafael and Lockheed are putting forward Spike NLOS for the Long Range Precision Munition programme as well.
The US Army wants longer-range air-launched weapons to keep its rotorcraft out of the reach of adversaries’ surface-to-air weapons. The Long Range Precision Munition would also be carried aboard the forthcoming Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA).
FARA is the US Army’s replacement for the Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter that was retired in 2017. Bell’s 360 Invictus winged helicopter is competing against Sikorsky’s Raider X, a co-axial helicopter with a pusher propeller, for a production contract from the service. The US Army wants to field the new rotorcraft by 2030.
The US Army has said it wants the next-generation scout helicopter to play a leading role in the suppression of enemy short-range air defences. After that it has said it plans for FARA to attack command and control vehicles, and then long-range fires, such as artillery and ballistic missile systems.
The service wants the next-generation scout to use air-launched effects and long-range air-to-ground missiles to hit targets while outside the reach of enemy weapons. Air-launched effects are a sort of multi-purpose unmanned air vehicle (UAV) designed to act as extensions of rotorcraft, performing missions such as reconnaissance, electronic warfare and loitering munition strikes.
The Spike NLOS could be directed toward a target using strike coordinates gathered by an air-launched effect, says Papier. The missile uses an electro-optical camera, infrared seeker or semi-active laser guidance system to hit its target.
The weapon uses an inertial measurement unit, instead of a GPS receiver, to navigate to a target. The missile has a radio frequency datalink to transmit a video feed back to its launch helicopter, allowing a pilot to steer the weapon into a target manually.
“The missile flies closer and closer to the target; the operator can see more and more details, and then all he needs to do is put the cursor on the target and lock the tracker,” Papier says. “We call it mid-course navigation.”
The electro-optical camera can guide a missile to within centimeters of a mark, he says. “We put a Coca Cola can on the target and take it out from 32km,” says Papier.
The video feed of the outbound missile can also be shared with other helicopters using Rafael’s BNET datalink. That might allow a commander to fire a lead missile and then use his weapon’s video feed to point out nearby targets to other attack helicopters, whose missiles could be launched on a slight delay, says Papier. Such a salvo tactic might be useful for ambushing a convoy of tanks, he says.
The Apache can carry eight Spike NLOS missiles at once. Papier says there is not yet a way to automate and consolidate the salvo concept onto a single helicopter. He declines to say if Rafael is developing technology to facilitate the tactic. “Part of our roadmap is to maximise the effectiveness of the helicopter,” says Papier.
The US Army plans to operate its Apaches and FARA in coordination with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs. It is experimenting with ways to retrofit the MQ-1C so that it can fly just beyond the reach of enemy missiles, using powerful sensors and air-launched effects to peer into and attack enemy territory. The Extended Range variant of the Gray Eagle, which can fly for up to 40h, can operate at a maximum altitude of 29,000ft.
An aircraft operating at tens of thousands of feet in altitude could give Spike NLOS an even longer glide slope. Papier declines to comment directly on arming the MQ-1C. “Let’s say it like this: we’re receiving interest for Spike NLOS for fixed-wing,” he says.