Written by Fenrir170; The author served for about ten years in one of the EU armies and did multiple deployments to Afghanistan.
Most individuals in the military community will see Spike as a good ATGM system after reading its features. Spike has a top-down attack capability, multiple modes of firing, tandem warhead and supposedly, an excellent missile that can be corrected or assigned a new target even during mid-flight. Unfortunately, some serious issues were discovered the moment these systems were put to the test in combat conditions in Afghanistan by the Dutch forces subsequent to procurement testing by the German forces.
To those who are unfamiliar with this type of anti-tank guided missile: there are some basics that you must know before we continue to discuss the system’s issues. When this missile is fired, it flies upwards to the sky to position itself for a top-down attack. It can then strike the top part of the tank’s armor, which is universally recognized as the least armored part of a tank. However, by flying upwards the missile temporary loses line of sight with its optics, and needs to re-acquire a target to lock on when it points its nose downwards again in its “fire-and-forget” mode.
The Spike ATGM comes in several different versions. For brevity’s sake, vehicle-mounted versions of the Spike will not be considered. Instead we will focus on the “MR” [medium range] and “LR” [long range]. The biggest difference is that the MR version is not controlled by its operator when launched, while the LR allows for in-flight correction by its operator by way of a data-link wire.
In Europe, armies of various nations had negative experiences with Spike when this system was used in uncontrolled environments or in extensive operations in warzones.
In Germany, during its testing phase, the Spike LR was put through various trials prior to a demonstration of its capabilities to government officials. During the trials, it was discovered that when Spike reaches its top-down attack mode, if there are multiple identical heat sources near the target object, the missile selects the first targets its sensors find, ignoring the target selected by the operator.
The missile seems to get confused and does one of two things. The missile fails to follow the specified heat source/optical target or it acquires a wrong launch trajectory which cannot be corrected during the flight. As a result, the missile just harmlessly slams into the ground between targets. After two additional attempts with different launch position, the missile yielded identical results, with one of the missiles nearly hitting a nearby heated target which was not its primary target. Spike could not locate the original target that it was supposed to hit. It encountered multiple identical heat sources/dummy targets in its top-down attack trajectory and during testing it rarely re-acquired its original target. It was like rolling the dice, to see which target the missile detects and strikes.
The only way to ensure accuracy of the Spike LR is by having an operator guide the missile every step of the way with its fiber-optic data link. During testing in front of government officials all heat sources were removed to show that the missile was operating “as promised” without its operator meticulously trying to correct its in-flight course all the way until impact. Removal of all other heated targets occurred under the direct command of the on-site military officer who was responsible for field testing. He ensured that the missile had just one single heated target in its firing range. Government officials came and watched the weapon working as intended. The government officials were sold. Meanwhile, troops that were present during testing were of the opinion that this weapon belongs in the trash and thought that alternative ATGM’s should have been tested. Sarcastically, they stated that they would rather take their chances with the short-range Panzerfaust 3 systems to take out heavy armored vehicles than to take their chances with the Spike and hope that it destroys the target intended, based on nothing short of pure luck.
For a long time, weapon procurement for European militaries was overshadowed and undermined by corruption and political favors, for both high-ranking officers and government officials involved. It no longer mattered if a weapon was cost-effective, combat-effective or practical. Germany is certainly not the only nation where this problem actively undermines the military combat potential of the NATO force.
There are rumors in the German Army that officials never check if the weapon is good or not. They just check the rubber-stamp and make their purchase as quickly as possible. This rumor was circulated after two German Companies, Rheinmetall Defense and Diehl BGT got into a partnership contract with the Israeli defense company Rafael, for the sale of Spike missiles to European countries. If your own country does not use Spike, surely another country should not buy it from your sub-contractor. Same happened to the Dutch, where Thales and ERCAS act as sub-contractors for Rafael and likely influenced objectivity during testing and subsequent purchase of the Spike for the Dutch Armed Forces.
In this regard, Spike’s popularity is comparable to that of the F-35 program. It is promoted as the holy grail or as the next generation in warfare by parties that are self-interested in selling the weapon. While everyone who is involved with its testing or operation knows that it is much worse than the predecessor it is meant to replace. Not every weapon in NATO is useless, there are some recent exciting additions to NATO’s arsenal that performed above expectations, but Spike is certainly is not one of them.
Let’s examine the Dutch example that illustrates Spike’s underlying issues.
In Afghanistan, the Dutch brought their Spike MR systems at the onset of their deployment in the area, around 2006. The missile was put to field testing for the first time when the Dutch military command sought to utilize this weapon for surgical strikes against Taliban-held structures. At the time, the Dutch did not want to rely on the costly and scarce AH-64 gunship, fixed wing support or ordnance of artillery or aircraft for surgically striking the structures. The Spike, in theory, would grant them the ability to strike buildings with an anti-tank missile, the infantry equivalent of a hellfire while having the ability to use the system by their own infantry units in the field.
The Dutch first tested the Spike, by putting a large shipping container within its firing rage on one of their FOB’s in Afgranistan, to try the missile out in combat conditions. Similar to the Germans, they ran into issues with Spike as well. The missile did not always go after its intended target when launched in fire-and-forget mode.
As it turned out, in daylight Desert conditions, where the natural environment’s temperature is close to the Spike’s target’s temperature, Spike is unable to keep track or to re-acquire its target in-flight, no matter how you fire it. When the Dutch selected the shipping container as the target and fired, the missile, as it came down, could not re-acquire the target and came down to the ground a few meters beside it.
The Dutch reviewed the firing procedures and tried to hit the shipping container again. On their second attempt the optical tracking failed. The Spike operator noticed the optical sensor of Spike [the same missile sensor the operator uses for targeting prior to launch] could not effectively handle the brightness of the Afghanistan’s desert environment, the clear sky and the sun.
The Dutch tried for a third time, this time at dusk. They targeted the shipping container and fired. This time, they had different results. When the mssile came down, again, it did not re-acquire the shipping container target. However, this time, it went for a nearby vehicle wreck that was radiating a moderate amount of heat. The wreck was previously used as a target to calibrate the heavy weapons of Dutch IFV’s. Impact of weapons caused subsequent heating. The Spike scored a direct hit on the wreckage but this raised more concerns than satisfaction to Spike’s operators. The wreckage was not the missile’s intended target. Considering the Spike’s daylight fails, the system was not yielding good results.
After testing 5 missiles in different firing modes and conditions the testing was stopped and the Dutch defense contractors, ERCAS and Thales, were notified that the system’s guidance does not work in bright environments or on fixed targets that do not radiate enough heat or optical signature in contrast with their surroundings. In other conditions, the missile does not go for its intended target in flight.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch forces in Afghanistan discontinued their use of Spike in combat operations. The manufacturer Rafael, along with ERCAS and Thales could not come up with a credible explanation as to why this missile is so prone to missing its target when battlefield conditions are less than optimal. The official version was a faulty factory batch and that the manufacturer was working to resolve the problem. Later, Rafael said that the Dutch damaged the missiles themselves through incorrect transportation or handling. Which of course, it is disturbing to know that the missiles are easily damaged in transport let alone combat conditions, especially when they are factory fresh and recently purchased.
Dutch Spike operators used the missiles in the firing ranges of Germany and wondered how Rafael sold anti-tank weapons that originate in Israel but cannot handle desert conditions, easily lose track of their targets, or the ridiculous suggestion made by Rafael that the Dutch themselves damaged the missiles in transport.
Spike is no longer used as a weapon in Afghanistan, the Dutch commanders do not trust it after the series of failed combat tests. Ambushes with Taliban often resulted in Dutch IFV’s being within a few dozen meters away from Taliban fortifications and positions. If Spike was fired at a Taliban structure with a Dutch IFV happened to be nearby, with its hot engine, weapons firing and buildup of heat during an exchange of fire, the Spike might just go for the single heated IFV target instead of the targeted building with ambient heat it was intended to hit. This was a “what-if” nightmare scenario the Dutch wanted to avoid. Instead, they went back to using their trusted AH-64’s for surgical fire support with laser-guided Hellfire’s that where proven to be effective and safe by their own forces.
Just like that, the Spike’s days in Afghanistan ended, as fast as they began. The Dutch where allowed to use the control unit with its heat sensitive clip-on optic for a short while and for night-time observation only, no more. After two months Spike was taken fully out of the Dutch Force’s armament in Afghanistan.
One cannot help to speculate and assume that what the Germans encountered during procurement testing, is the same problem that the Dutch faced in Afghanistan. That Spike’s targeting software and the quality of its optics are far below the standard claimed by its manufacturer. This is also the reason why India faced similar issues during their testing and decided to walk away from this system.