The BGM-71 TOW (“Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided”) is an American anti-tank missile. First produced in 1970, the TOW is one of the most widely used anti-tank guided missiles.
Design and development
A U.S. Army soldier in 1964, with the first concept mock-up of Redstone Arsenal’s proposed future HAW system (Heavy Antitank Weapon). The HAW ultimately resulted in the modern-day TOW.
Initially developed by Hughes Aircraft between 1963 and 1968, the XBGM-71A was designed for both ground and heli-borne applications. In 1997, Raytheon Co. purchased Hughes Electronics from General Motors Corporation, so development and production of TOW systems now comes under the Raytheon brand.
The weapon is used in anti-armor, anti-bunker, anti-fortification and anti-amphibious landing roles. The TOW is in service with over 45 militaries and is integrated on over 15,000 ground, vehicle and helicopter platforms worldwide.
In its basic infantry form, the system comprises a missile in a sealed tube which is clipped to a launch tube prior to use. When required, the missile tube is attached to the rear of the launch tube, the target sighted and the missile fired. The launch motor (also called “kick” motor or booster) ejects the missile from the launch tube, at which point four wings indexed at 45 degrees just forward of the booster nozzles spring open forwards, four tail control surfaces flip open rearwards, and sustained propulsion is subsequently provided by the flight motor (sustainer) which fires through lateral nozzles amidships and propels the missile to the target. An optical sensor on the sight continuously monitors the position of a light source on the missile relative to the line-of-sight, and then corrects the trajectory of the missile by generating electrical signals that are passed down two wires to command the control surface actuators.
After launch, the operator simply has to keep the cross-hairs of his sight pointing at the target, and the guidance system will automatically transmit corrective commands to the missile through the wire.
The TOW missile was continually upgraded, with an improved TOW missile (ITOW) appearing in 1978 that had a new warhead triggered by a long probe, which was extended after launch, that gave a stand-off distance of 15 in (380 mm) for improved armor penetration. The 1983 TOW 2 featured a larger 5.9 kg (13 lb) warhead with a 21.25 in (540 mm) extensible probe, improved guidance and a motor that provided around 30% more thrust. This was followed by the TOW 2A/B which appeared in 1987.
Hughes developed a TOW missile with a wireless data link in 1989, referred to as TOW-2N, but this weapon was not adopted for use by the U.S. military. Raytheon continued to develop improvements to the TOW line, but its FOTT (Follow-On To TOW) program was canceled in 1998, and its TOW-FF (TOW-Fire and Forget) program was cut short on 30 November 2001 because of funding limitations. In 2001 and 2002, Raytheon and the U.S. Army worked together on an extended range TOW 2B variant, initially referred to as TOW-2B (ER), but now called TOW-2B Aero which has a special nose cap that increases range to 4.5 km. Although this missile has been in production since 2004, no U.S. Army designation has yet been assigned. Also, a wireless version of the TOW-2B Aero was developed that uses stealth one way radio link, called TOW-2B Aero RF.
The TOW missile in its current variations is not a fire-and-forget weapon, and like most second generation wire-guided missiles has Semi-Automatic Command Line of Sightguidance. This means that the guidance system is directly linked to the platform, and requires that the target be kept in the shooter’s line of sight until the missile impacts. This has been the major impetus to develop either a fire-and-forget version of the system or to develop a successor with this ability.
In October 2012, Raytheon received a contract to produce 6,676 TOW (wireless-guided) missiles for the U.S. military. Missiles that will be produced include the BGM-71E TOW 2A, the BGM-71F TOW 2B, the TOW 2B Aero, and the BGM-71H TOW Bunker Buster. By 2013, the U.S. Marine Corps had retired the air-launched TOW missile.
The TOW is designated as a BGM by the U.S. military: a multiple launch environment (B) surface attack (G) guided missile (M). The B launch environment prefix is used only when the system can be used essentially unmodified when launched from a variety of launch platforms.
The M151 and M220 launchers are used by infantry, but can also be mounted on a number of vehicles, including the M151 jeep, theM113 APC, the M966 HMMWV and the M1045 HMMWV (which replaced the M966). These launchers are theoretically man-portable, but are quite bulky. The updated M151 launcher was upgraded to include thermal optics to allow night time usage, and had been simplified to reduce weight. The M220 was specifically developed to handle the TOW-2 series.
TOW systems have also been developed for vehicle specific applications on the M2/M3 Bradley IFV/CFV, the LAV-AT, the M1134 Stryker ATGM carrier, and the now obsolete M901 ITV (Improved TOW Vehicle); they are generally referred to as TOW Under Armor(TUA).
In helicopter applications, the M65 system used by the AH-1 series is the primary system deployed, but the XM26 system was developed for the UH-1, and a system was put into development for the later canceled AH-56 helicopter. The TOW has also been used with AH.1 (TOW) and AH.7 variants of Westland Lynx helicopters, with the attachment of 2 pylons, each carrying four missiles.
The M41 TOW improved target acquisition system (ITAS) is a block upgrade to the M220 ground/high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV)-mounted TOW 2 missile system. The TOW ITAS is currently being fielded to airborne, air assault, and light infantry forces throughout the active and reserve components of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps where it is called the SABER. The ITAS, in addition to providing better anti-armor capabilities to antitank units, also has capabilities that make it an integral part of the combined arms team. Even when organized in heavy—light task forces, where the preponderance of antiarmor capabilities traditionally has resided in the heavy elements, TOW ITAS-equipped antitank units can not only destroy threat targets but also provide superior reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), rear area protection, and urban operations capabilities.
The TOW ITAS consists of three new line replaceable units: the target acquisition subsystem (TAS), the fire control subsystem (FCS), and the lithium battery box (LBB); a modified TOW 2 traversing unit; the existing TOW launch tube and tripod; and a TOW Humvee modification kit. The TAS integrates into a single housing the direct view optics, a second-generation forward looking infrared (FLIR) night vision sight (NVS), missile trackers, and a laser rangefinder. TAS electronics provide automatic boresighting for these components, eliminating both tactical collimation and 180-day verification requirements.
In 1968, a contract for full-scale production was awarded to Hughes, and by 1970 the system was being fielded by the U.S. Army. When adopted, the BGM-71 series replaced the M40 106 mm recoilless rifle and theMGM-32 ENTAC missile system then in service. The missile also replaced the AGM-22B then in service as a heli-borne anti-tank weapon.
1972 Vietnam: first combat use
On 24 April 1972, the U.S. 1st Combat Aerial TOW Team arrived in South Vietnam; the team’s mission was to test the new anti-armor missile under combat conditions. The team consisted of three crews, technical representatives from Bell Helicopter and Hughes Aircraft, members of the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, and two UH-1B helicopters; each mounting the XM26 TOW weapons system, which had been taken from storage. After displacing to the Central Highlands for aerial gunnery, the unit commenced daily searches for enemy armor. On 2 May 1972, U.S. Army UH-1 Huey helicopters firing TOWs destroyed North Vietnamese tanks near An Loc. This was heralded as the first time a U.S. unit neutralized enemy armor using American-designed and built guided missiles (in this case against an American-made M-41). On 9 May, elements of the North Vietnamese Army’s 203rd Armored Regiment assaulted Ben Het Camp held by Army of the Republic of Vietnam Rangers . The Rangers destroyed the first three PT-76amphibious light tanks of the 203rd, thereby breaking up the attack. During the battle for the city of Kontum, the TOW missile had proven to be a significant weapon in disrupting enemy tank attacks within the region. By the end of May, BGM-71 TOW missiles had accumulated 24 confirmed kills of both PT-76 light and T-54 main battle tanks.
On 19 August, the South Vietnamese 5th Infantry Regiment abandoned Firebase Ross in the Que Son Valley, 30 miles southwest of Da Nang, to the North Vietnamese 711th Division. A dozen TOW missiles were left with abandoned equipment and fell into Communist hands.
1982 Lebanon War
The Israel Defense Forces used TOW missiles during the 1982 Lebanon War. On 11 July Israeli anti-tank teams armed with the TOW ambushed Syrian armored forces and claiming destroyed 11 Syrian Soviet-madeT-72 tanks. This was probably the first encounter of the American anti-tank missile with the newer Soviet tank.
In the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran Army used TOW missiles purchased before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, as well as those purchased during the Iran–Contra affair.
Of the 202 AH-1J Internationals (export variant of the AH-1J SeaCobra) that Iran purchased from the USA, 62 were TOW-capable. Iranian AH-1Js managed to slow down advances of Iraqi tanks into Iran. During the “dogfights” between Iranian SeaCobras and Iraqi Mil Mi-24s, Iranians achieved several “kills”, usually using TOW missiles.
1991 Gulf War
The TOW was used in multiple engagements during Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf War. During the war, both the M2 Bradley Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and the M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle (CFV) carried TOW missiles. The M2 can also carry an additional 7 rounds, while the M3 can carry an additional 12 rounds. Both M2 and M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles destroyed more Iraqi tanks during the war, than M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks did.
The British Army also deployed TOW-armed, Westland Lynx helicopters to the conflict, where they were used to attack Iraqi armoured vehicles. This was the first recorded use of the missile from a British helicopter.
On June 5, 24 Pakistani soldiers were slaughtered by members of Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s Habr Gidr militia; some were skinned. Subsequently, the United Nations called for the arrest of those responsible. Weeks later they would formally place the blame on Aidid, leader of the Habr Gidr clan. Subsequently, U.N. troops hunted Aidid. Incidents between the two sides worsened, with fighting back and forth. On 12 July, three months prior to the Battle of Mogadishu, the United Nations and United States attempted to defeat Aidid’s organization by attacking a strategy meeting of his native Habr Gidr clan under Operation Michigan. The Washington Post described the event as a “slaughter” in which a “half-dozen” AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters fired 16 TOW missiles and 2,000 rounds from their 20 mm cannons into the meeting of the elders, intellectuals, poets, religious leaders, and senior combat commanders. The first TOW missile destroyed the stairs, preventing escape. In the aftermath, it was revealed that Aidid was not in the meeting. TheRed Cross claimed that 54 people had been killed, Admiral Jonathan T. Howe reported that 20 had died, while Aidid’s Somali National Alliance produced a list of 73 people whom they claimed had been killed.
2001 War in Afghanistan
TOW missiles were used during the War in Afghanistan.
2003 Iraq War
10 Humvee-mounted TOW missiles were used by U.S. forces in Iraq during the 22 July 2003 assault that killed Uday and Qusay Hussein. Although TOW missiles are generally used against armored vehicles, these missiles were used on the house the two men were in.
2011 Syrian Civil War
A Free Syrian Army 13th Divisionmilitant firing a BGM-71 TOW at aSyrian Arab Army target in Homs, Syria.
The weapon was spotted as early as April 2014 in at least two videos that surfaced showing Syrian opposition forces in the Syrian Civil War using BGM-71 TOWs, a weapon previously not seen in use by the opposition. Such a video, showing a BGM-71E-3B with the serial number removed, can be seen in a 27 May 2014 episode of the PBSseries Frontline.
In February 2015, The Carter Center listed 23 groups within the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army that have been documented using US supplied TOWs.
A sudden influx of TOWs were supplied in May 2015, mostly to Free Syrian Army affiliated factions, but also independent Islamist battalions; as a requirement of being provided TOWs, these Syrian opposition groups are required to document the use of the missiles by filming their use, and are also required to save the spent missile casings.
Groups provided with TOWs include the Hazzm Movement, the 13th Division, 1st Coastal Division, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Yarmouk Army, Knights of Justice Brigade, and the101st Division. Free Syrian Army battalions widely and decisively used TOWs in the 2015 Jisr al-Shughur offensive.
Russia attempted a rescue operation after a Su-24M was shot down at Syria–Turkey border on 24 November 2015, a video of Free Syrian Army 1st Coastal Division using a TOW missile to destroy a disabled Russian helicopter on the ground after its crew had retreated was posted on YouTube.
In February 2016, a video appeared of FSA rebels using a TOW missile to hit a Russian T-90, despite the tank being equipped with the Shtora soft-kill active protection system. Normally, the Shtora uses an electro-optical disruptor and launches instant smoke screens to disrupt missile tracking, but no countermeasures were observed. This alludes to the possibility that the countermeasures were not engaged or did not detect the threat, but the Russian manufacturer suggests it may have just been switched off. The missile successfully hit the T-90 and impacted the Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor, leaving the tank intact. The tanks manufacturer stated the missile did not penetrate the armor as evidenced by a crew man seen bailing out of the tank
|Place of origin||United States|
|Used by||See Operators|
|Designer||Hughes Aircraft Company|
|Unit cost||£8,500 (1984) 50.000|
|Length||1.16–1.17 m (probe folded) 1.41–1.51 m (probe extended)|
|Warhead weight||3.9–6.14 kg|
|up to 4,200 m|
|Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile|