Terminated Weapons: TOW

Here’s another one for the chopping block. The BGM-71, Tube-launched Optically-sighted Wire-guided (TOW) missile. It’s been a classic antitank missile of the United States and its allies since 1972. It is time for it to go.

The TOW was a solid performer in its day. It’s killed plenty of tanks, and its received plenty of upgrades. Current versions have either a tandem-warhead, or a flyover-top-attack flight profile, with explosively formed penetrator warheads. So they’re reasonably capable of dealing with modern tanks with their fancy explosive reactive armor (or tons of composites). All that said, they’re obsolete and it’s time to give them the boot.

The TOW is heavy. Modern versions weigh 22.6 kg (just shy of 50 lbs) and that’s only the missile. You also have to add in the weight of the launch tube, its tripod mount and the sighting unit, which comes to about 93 kilos (204.6 lbs) altogether. So it’s really pushing the term ‘man portable’. Plus, it still uses SACLOS wire guidance. A Javelin missile has a lighter launcher and is fire and forget, so the missile team can move after launching. Which is good, because they’re position is painfully obvious due to the massive cloud of missile exhaust. Even if the team is killed, the Javelin will still track the target; killing a SACLOS missile crew (or even getting them to flinch) by shooting back at them is a great way to spoil their missile shot. Another bonus feature for the Javelin is that it doesn’t have a massive backblast, so it can be fired from enclosed spaces, or if there’s some stuff behind the missile that you’d rather not expose to hot exhaust (dry grass comes to mind). Even though TOW has a range advantage on Javelin, the Javelin is still a much more effective weapon system for the combat infantryman. The range limitations of Javelin are due to limitations of the command launch unit, not the missile itself; we can probably expect Block 2 improvements to rectify this shortcoming. Plus, depending on the theater of operations, long sightlines may not be available for this to become an issue. The Javelin’s range limitations are unlikely to be an issue in cities or in the forests of Central Europe.

The heavy TOW makes a lot more sense on a ground vehicle, where the weight matters a lot less. Here though, it faces stiff competition from Javelin (and Spike). The fire-and-forget capability of these missiles allows them to move after launching, which is nice if you’re shooting from something thin-skinned and an enemy tank has taken notice of the massive launch signature. While guiding a TOW, a launching vehicle is forced to be immobile. First, the TOW tracker isn’t really set up to handle a moving launch platform and a moving missile in its target track. It is designed around a fixed point of reference. While a vehicle could move slowly and not screw up the guidance too badly, this won’t help them live much, and may cause the wire to snag on some obstacle as the missile attempts to correct for launch platform movement and the target track. Breaking the wire gives you a rather slow rocket, which isn’t overly helpful either.

What about on helicopters? Aerial platforms were a very common user of the TOW missile in Vietnam and elsewhere. However, we now have the vastly superior Hellfire missile, which uses either semi-active laser homing or millimeter-wave active radar. The active radar version (‘Longbow Hellfire’) gives us the cool fire-and-forget capability of the Javelin or the Spike, which lets the helicopter switch targets or evade enemy fire. Even the semi-active laser homing version has advantages over the TOW, though. The Hellfire missile has about twice the range of the TOW, travels about half again as fast as the TOW, and even with the SALH version, multiple targets can be engaged very rapidly. Hellfire variants also have alternative warheads, including versions with fragmentation-augmented shaped charge warheads and thermobaric warheads. This means that the Hellfire missile family can engage more types of targets on the battlefield.

For even more ways to kill tanks, we can look to the UK’s Brimstone missile. This missile is roughly Hellfire sized, and can be fired from helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, even fast movers. It distinguishes itself by being able to fly to a designated area and seek out armor using an active radar seeker. From a rotary winged platform, it has almost three times the range of TOW. And, unlike TOW, it can be fired from fixed wing aircraft (for even more range).

So there we go. TOW really doesn’t fit in anymore. It was a good system in the 70s, and upgrades did a good job of keeping it relevant (unlike the Harpoon). But there are contemporaries that fill its roles better now, so it’s time for TOW to tap out.

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