- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A miniature missile that features a brain built with off-the-shelf commercial cellphone parts is poised to shake up the munitions industry.

Compact and versatile, the 6-pound missile known as “Spike” was developed and built by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division as part of a push to miniaturize weapons.

The result is a munition that can be fired from a drone, a platform or a shoulder-mounted launcher and can target cars, boats or people with a fraction of the collateral damage inflicted by larger, more expensive munitions.

Although Spike is a few years from mass production, a milestone live-fire test will be conducted in the next few days at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California.

The missile’s range and specific system performance remain classified, but it generally works by capturing high-definition footage through a small mounted camera and sending an image back to its operator. The operator can pick a specific target from the image, and the missile’s targeting system will close in with pinpoint accuracy.

“It updates itself very quickly lots of times per second, so even if something is moving the missile has no problem keeping up with it,” said Greg Wheelock, project leader of the team developing Spike.

Spike is not the first missile system to use a camera to lock onto a target, but the technology driving the targeting system is the same as that employed in common cellphone cameras.

“You look at your cameras and the number of pixels you get on your cameras have been growing exponentially, and we’ve been trying to use that technology and see its applicability to weaponry,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director of the warfare center.

In development for about a decade, the 2-foot-long missile will cost $20,000 to $25,000 apiece once it officially hits the market, Mr. O’Neil said.

The relatively low price tag is partly the result of commercial technology. By comparison, the Pentagon’s popular laser-guided, air-to-ground Hellfire missile costs about $104,000 apiece, Air Force Capt. Erika Yepsen said.

Hellfire missiles are commonly used by the Pentagon’s medium-altitude MQ-1 Predator drone, a hunter-killer drone frequently associated with the U.S. military’s mission in Afghanistan. Drone deployment has created controversy in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen because of civilian casualties associated with the strikes.

The Spike missile doesn’t carry the same firepower as the 100-pound Hellfire but is far more accurate.

“Larger weapons like Hellfire are very effective against a wide range of targets. But, in situations requiring engagement of the target with little to no collateral effect, a miniaturized weapon might provide an alternate solution,” said Renee Hatcher, spokeswoman of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.

Because Spike is based on rapidly advancing commercial technology, designers are constantly upgrading its systems.

The development team is working to make Spike’s targeting system even more precise with a target seeker that will enhance the types of images it receives. That target seeker will be tested in September, Mr. Wheelock said.

“You get to insert the technology faster, but you also have some recurring engineering. What we’re trying to do is minimize the amount of recurring engineering,” he said.

Developers also plan to upgrade the missile’s launch platform within the next year, Mr. Wheelock said. Spike currently is launched from the ground into the air with a rail-type structure. Next year, Spike will be shot out of a tube, much like a cannon ball is shot out of a cannon, he said.

For air-to-ground targets, Spike missiles currently can be launched only by small craft such as the Navy’s MQ-8 Fire Scout drone and the Air Force’s Tigershark fighter jet, Mr. Wheelock said.

Warfare center officials think the missile eventually could be outfitted for medium-altitude drones. Because the missiles are small, drones could carry more of them on missions.

“Miniaturized weapons may provide a significant increase in the number of weapons carried as compared to larger-size weapons,” Ms. Hatcher said. “In many situations, the accuracy of the weapon and increased number available to use may reduce the need for a larger weapon.”

The missile has been tested successfully 10 times, most recently in February when it tracked and targeted small boats — including swarms — and performed well in exercises targeting airborne drones.

Officials at the warfare center said the upcoming test will be based on land against a remote-controlled truck.

Despite what he calls the missile’s “evolution,” Mr. Wheelock said, the day-to-day push toward full functionality is the priority.

“We think it is just a matter of a few years for us to get Spike to a configuration that’s operational,” he said.

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