Navy engineers have designed a small, low-cost guided missile that
would fit in a backpack. The candidates for this weapon are U.S.
Marines and Navy Seal commandos. The missile also could be launched
from unmanned airplanes.
The fire-and-forget missile, called Spike, has been in development
for three years at the Navy’s air warfare center in China
Lake, Calif. Funding has been sporadic, but the program appears
to be “gaining some steam,” said Spike’s designer,
About five months ago, the project received a $4 million congressional
plus-up, sponsored by China Lake’s Rep. Bill Thomas, in addition
to $500,000 from the U.S. Special Operations Command.
If the program is successful, Spike could become a useful weapon
for light-infantry and special operations forces, Felix said in
Unlike most conventional weapon programs, Spike was not initiated
through the military services’ requirements process. It came
about rather “flukishly,” Felix said.
During the Christmas holidays in 1998, a former China Lake weapon
engineer—who also is a small-arms aficionado—casually
mentioned to Felix that he wished rifles were more accurate, especially
for shooting targets on the move. He wondered whether rifles could
be made more precise. “The first thing that popped in my mind,”
said Felix, “was to make them guided.”
The Spike system consists of a 4-pound guided missile and a 5-pound
launcher. A Marine fire team, Felix said, should be able to carry
a minimum of six rounds (three rounds for the gunner, and one additional
missile for each fire team member). The missile is expected to have
a 2-mile range.
Using a general-purpose electro-optical TV tracker, the shooter
can lock on the target and acquire it, before he launches the missile.
The technology in Spike is not complex, said Felix. The components
are off-the-shelf. “Our emphasis is on packaging and integration,”
he said. “We are starting to transition to subsystem and system
In the big picture of infantry weapons, Spike could be viewed as
a souped-up rifle, or as a low-end man-portable missile. During
the early stages of design, Felix sought input from active-duty
and retired Marines.
For Marines, the most important consideration is ease of use under
stressful combat conditions, said Felix. Marines generally don’t
appreciate being sold “range” weapons — those
that only work on bright sunny days out in the range. They want
a weapon that will be “easy to use when you fear for your
life,” he said.
Felix has shown the system to more than 1,000 enlisted Marines.
“Once they get over the shock of being asked, they will tell
you precisely what is wrong with your design.”
Using a dummy, engineers will test the safety of Spike for human
use. It’s called “launch hazard testing,” said
Felix. They will fire the rocket motor and determine whether the
shooter gets injured in the process.
“With appropriate funding, in about a year, we will put missiles
in the air,” Felix said. “In about two years, we’ll
have guided rounds to hit targets.” Spike will use explosively-formed
The testing phase will include a large number of live firings,
said Felix. “Our missile is so small and so low cost, [that
we can afford to fire] 50-75 rounds.” To test the guided rounds,
about 25-30 missiles will be used.
Felix cautioned that Spike should not be compared to more sophisticated,
man-portable weapons such as Javelin and Stinger.
Unlike the Stinger, the Spike could not shoot down a tactical fighter
aircraft. Unlike the Javelin, it could not punch a hole in a main
battle tank. “All we do is scar the paint,” he said.
Essentially, Spike fills a niche role as a low-cost weapon that
can hit “soft” targets. Armor-less objects constitute
80 percent of all targets on the battlefield, said Felix. Of the
remaining 20 percent, a large number are armored personnel carriers,
which have much less armor than tanks.
“We designed Spike to hit lower-end targets, with little
or no armor, so you can save the high-end weapons” for the
so-called “high-value” targets, he said.
Compared to other small arms, the advantage of Spike is its range
of about 2 miles, Felix explained. Grenade launchers generally have
a range of 150 yards. Assault rifles have a range of 400 yards.
A .50 caliber machine gun has a range of close to 1,200 yards. “To
hit them [the enemy] with unguided systems, you have to get too
close,” he said. “We would like to stay outside their
line of fire.”
Even though there are no formal plans to test Spike on an unmanned
air vehicle (UAV), Felix sees it as a natural fit, given that the
Spike launcher has a TV set with a communications link. “The
UAV already has a communications link and a command link, so we
could clip the missile on, use the existing electronics and arm
the UAV.” The platform would have to be a small, slow-flying
tactical UAV, operating from an altitude of about 3,000 feet. “For
our missile, it’s actually easier to be flying than to be
launched from a stationary launcher,” Felix said.
China Lake engineers are not as worried about the missile’s
functionality as they are about meeting a cost goal of $4,000 per
missile. “A general officer told me that Spike is a great
idea if we can meet the $4,000 cost goal,” Felix said. “If
it ends up costing $40,000, it is a terrible idea.”
Felix estimated that the components alone run about $1,500. Using
standard Pentagon cost accounting formulas, he pegged the cost of
each missile at $4,000.
Eventually, said Felix, there could be a competition for companies
to bid for a production contract. “We get calls [from industry]
on a weekly basis,” he said. “Some people want to build
the missile, but more people call wanting to interface it to their
‘widget of the day.’”
The Navy and the Coast Guard, meanwhile, have shown interest in
Spike as a ship self-defense weapon.