Israel Turns Ballistic Missile Surrogate Into Air Launched Bunker-Busting Missile
The fast-flying weapon can hit regular targets above and hardened below ground and do so even if its GPS is jammed.
Israeli firm Rafael has unveiled what appears to be a new air-launched ballistic missile, which has features in common with both an existing family of precision-guided bombs and a ballistic missile defense target. The company says the weapon will be able to find its target even in the midst of an enemy jamming its GPS-enabled navigation system, a threat that is already very real.
The 'Rocks' missile first appeared at the Aero India 2019 aerospace and defense exposition, which began on Feb. 20, 2019. Gideon Weiss, the Deputy General Manager for Business Development, Marketing, and Strategy for Rafael's Air & C4ISR Division, told Jane’s that the company had already certified an Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa test aircraft to carry the weapon and had carried out a number of trials using the jet as a launch platform.
“Rocks provides a cutting-edge and cost-effective solution that combines several combat-proven technologies inherited from our latest-generation SPICE system,” Said Yuval Miller, the Executive Vice-President and General Manager of the Air & C4ISR Systems Division, told Airforces Monthly in a separate interview. “Rocks effectively answers a growing demand for long range, GPS-independent air-to-ground precision-strike capability.”
Miller was referring to Rafael’s Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective (SPICE) family of precision-guided bombs. These bombs use a GPS-enabled Inertial Guidance System (INS) navigation system to direct them to the general target area before switching over to an imaging infrared seeker for the terminal stage of flight.
Though we don't yet know the exact specifics about Rocks' guidance capabilities, SPICE can operate in an autonomous mode, using an image recognition algorithm to spot the target and home in on it. It can also be manually directed through a so-called “man-in-the-loop” functionality, a hallmark of Israel's precision-guided missiles and bombs.
This means that the crew in the aircraft that releases the bomb and maneuver it right until it hits the target. This allows for extreme accuracy, even against moving targets, and allows the operator to quickly shift the bomb away from the target if a better one appears or if it becomes apparent that the strike would put innocent bystanders at undue risk. The added precision makes it more viable to pursue the target even in densely packed areas full of innocent civilians, as well. It also means that the weapon can hit targets that have fled from their original position. Traditionally, the launch aircraft carries a data-link pod for these operations.
It is not clear if Rocks actually has the same level of man-in-the-loop functionality. But with the SPICE-based guidance package and its automated image matching functionality, it wouldn't necessarily need to rely on the GPS/INS guidance system during the terminal approach to its target actually hit it with pinpoint accuracy.
Rafael has not yet disclosed the range of Rocks, either. The company has said the missile has "a very significant standoff range" and "a high-velocity trajectory towards the target," according to Airforces Monthly.
However, judging by its external design, the weapon appears to be a hybrid of the SPICE guidance package and a missile body derived from the company’s Black Sparrow. This latter system is an air-launched target intended to simulate the characteristics of a short-range ballistic missile. Israel has utilized these in the testing of its Arrow family of ballistic missile defense systems in the past.
There is scant information on the Black Sparrow’s range and flight envelope, but it is supposed to mimic Soviet Scuds and derivatives, the longest range examples of which can hit targets out to around 430 miles. However, the surrogate ballistic missile wouldn’t necessarily need to have anywhere near this range to stand in for a Scud for test purposes.
In addition, though Israel is not a formal member of the Missile Technology Control Regime arms control bloc, it has publicly stated that it follows those parameters. The MTCR places severe restrictions on the export of missiles that can carry payloads of more than 1,100 pounds to distances of more than 190 miles. If Rafael hoped to export Rocks, these parameters could be the very upper limits of the missile’s potential capabilities.
The use of the Black Sparrow design as a starting point also strongly suggests that Rocks operates like an air-launched ballistic missile. As such, the missile would be the latest example of a growing worldwide trend toward the development of this class of weapons. In 2018, Israeli Military Industries (IMI) Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) unveiled their own air-launched ballistic missile, called Rampage, derived from the EXTRA ground-launched guided artillery rocket.
Rafael has also said that the missile will be able to carry a penetrating type warhead capable of striking at hardened, sub-surface targets, as well as a blast-fragmentation design for engaging opponents in the open. We don’t know the specifics of the design of either payload or their weight classes.
The different warhead options suggest that the weapon’s payload section might be modular to some degree. It could be that the missile can accept any standardized warhead in certain weight classes, as is the case with SPICE bombs. There are readily available 2,000-pound class bunker buster and blast-fragmentation warheads for instance. Due to the ballistic nature of its flight, its high velocity during the terminal stages of flight would greatly help it penetrate deeper into a target, as well.
“We have completed full-scale development and testing – including airborne and homing – but we have not yet completed the qualification of the missile,” Rafael’s Weiss also told Jane’s. “This will be the final part of the development process, which will be completed according to our customer requirements.”
He did not say who this customer or customers might be. But given the certification of the weapon on an Israeli Air Force F-16I, which can carry up to four Rocks at once, it seems very likely that Israel is among them. The Israeli Air Force's F-15s, many of which are specifically configured as long-range strike aircraft, would be able to carry these missiles, too.
For Israel, having a standoff, hardened-target penetrating weapon, could be especially valuable. The country faces a number of opponents in the region who rely heavily on bunkers and other hardened structures, as well as tunnels underground, to try and reduce their vulnerability to Israeli air strikes. This includes Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and various adversaries in Syria, including Iranian and Iranian-backed forces. These targets are often in built-up areas full of civilians, where the added precision of the SPICE-based guidance package would be invaluable.
The stand-off range of Rocks would help reduce the launching platform’s vulnerability to advanced air defenses, as well. Israeli jets already routinely launch missiles and bombs from Lebanese airspace along the Syrian border to minimize the time they spend exposed to hostile forces.
Depending on the range of the launch aircraft to threats on the ground or in the air, this method doesn't entirely eliminate risk, particularly to non-stealthy fourth generation combat jets. With this in mind, Rocks adds an entirely new level of capability to these existing aircraft, even in the face of the proliferation of ever more threatening enemy air defenses.
As such, there could also be a role for barrages of Rocks against more strategic targets, such as elements of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, many of which are underground and protected by long-range surface-to-air missiles. An air-launched ballistic missile with a maximum range at the edge of the MTCR restrictions would allow the launch platform to stay outside the engagement range of virtually all current air defense systems. At the same time, its speed would make it hard, if not impossible to for an opponent to intercept the incoming threat with higher-end point defense systems.
Some of these systems, such as the Russian-built Pantsir S1, are touted as capable of shooting down slower-moving cruise missiles and glide bombs. The high-supersonic speed and steep trajectory of a ballistic-type missile makes intercepting them with short-range air defenses all but impossible. And these types of defenses, often placed near high value target areas, are increasingly popular among Israel's most notable enemies.
Beyond busting bunkers and fortified structures, as well as other fixed targets, Rocks will be especially well suited to neutralizing enemy air defenses. It's ability to give 4th generation fighters the ability to rapidly engage threatening air defense sites over long distances, and in a way that is hard to counter once the missile is in the air, means destruction of enemy air defenses can be provided without putting the launch platform at great risk. The fact that it can even continue its attack as mobile SAM systems flee makes it all that much more relevant.
Hardened targets in heavily protected areas and the threat of increasingly advanced air defense systems are hardly limited to Israel's opponents, either. Depending on its exact capabilities, Rocks could be appealing to export customers, as well. By using so many well-established components from existing systems, the unique missile might turn out to be comparatively low-cost.
It’s not the first time the company has mated a SPICE-based guidance package with another weapon system to produce a relatively cheap guided munition, either. In May 2018, the Israeli defense contractor revealed the Electro-Optical Precision Integration Kit (EPIK), a bolt-on guidance kit derived from SPICE that would work with the popular 122mm artillery rocket.
If Israel is indeed the launch customer for Rocks, it may not be long before it employs those weapons against various regional opponents. If the missile proves successful, it could help Rafael pitch it abroad, if the company hasn’t lined up other buyers already.
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