Despite recent problems with quality control and target missiles that failed, the U.S. recently gave L-3 Coleman another order for $73 million worth of target missiles. These are special missiles that release a warhead that plunges earthward just like a real ICBM warhead. These are used to test American anti-missile systems. Coleman uses target missiles that are rolled out the back of a C-17, then launch upwards and eventually send a realistic missile warhead earthwards for the anti-missile system to intercept. Coleman has been at this since 1999, often using retired rocket motors from Minuteman missiles for their air launched target systems. Coleman keeps getting business because the only competing systems are foreign and the Department of Defense has a very difficult time buying foreign weapons or military equipment, even if that stuff is cheaper and/or better.
There are some cheaper and better competitors out there. For example an Israeli firm is offering its own line of “Sparrow” ballistic missile targets. These targets are missiles carried to a high altitude by an F-16, F-15 or a transport. When launched, the missiles fly higher and then plunge earthward at a speed and trajectory nearly identical to that of a ballistic missile. This provides an accurate target for testing anti-missile systems. All these Sparrow systems are basically air-to-surface missiles equipped to carry electronics reporting all flight characteristics, as well as some explosives so that the missile can be quickly destroyed in the air if it has problems and heads for a populated area. Sparrow is cheaper than the L-3 one that use an actual ballistic missile to test anti-missile systems.
All three models of Sparrow are about eight meters (twenty-six feet) long and look like large missiles with a reentry type warhead that has the shape of an object designed to survive the heat from a high speed plunge back to earth. That is simulated by using the rocket to using a rocket to accelerate the warhead as it heads down. To a radar that speed makes it look like a ballistic missile warhead reentering the atmosphere. These warheads come in at different speeds depending on the range of the missile. Longer range missiles have a higher re-entry speed and that higher speed makes the warhead harder to track and hit with an anti-missile missile.
The first of the three different models of the Sparrow system appeared in the 1990s to help test the new Arrow anti-missile system. That 1.4 ton Black Sparrow simulated earlier models of the Russian SCUD short range (about three-hundred kilometers) ballistic missile. The 1.8 ton Blue Sparrow simulates later, longer range (up to a thousand kilometers) models of the SCUD type missiles. The 3.2 ton Silver Sparrow simulates a ballistic missile with a range of up to two-thousand kilometers (like the Iranian Shahab 3).
Sometimes these target systems can cause problems all by themselves. In September 2013 two Sparrows were used over the Mediterranean for another Arrow test. A Russian electronic monitoring and radar tracking ship (a “spy ship”) was off the Syrian coast to keep an eye on NATO warships in the area (for the Assad government) and spotted the Sparrows. The Russians reported the use of ballistic missiles and the Israelis quickly revealed that these were Sparrows, not ballistic missiles.