Can't Kill Tanks? America's Famous TOW Missile May Be in Trouble

Charlie Gao

Key point: The TOW missile has been the backbone of anti-tank weapons but enemy's defenses are getting better too.

America’s TOW anti-tank missile has been one of the most enduring anti-armor weapons in the U.S. Arsenal.

First used to bust North Vietnamese tanks during the Vietnam war, the BGM-71 TOW has since served admirably in U.S. and foreign service. It’s the staple anti-tank guided missile of any U.S. mechanized formation, being mounted on the Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and a myriad of dedicated TOW missile carriers, such as the Marines’ LAV-AT.

But as the technology behind enemy armor advances, is the TOW keeping up?

Today’s TOW is a fairly far cry from the original missiles that served in Vietnam, featuring radio guidance (changing the “W” part of the original designation, from wire-guided to wireless-guided), tandem warheads, and ever more sophisticated firing posts. But even with all these upgrades, could the TOW be nearing obsolescence?

The way the TOW works is fairly simple. As a second generation, Semi-Automatic Command Line of Sight (SACLOS) anti-tank missile, the gunner simply keeps crosshairs on the target and the missile guides itself onto the target.

It accomplishes this by means of an optical tracking (which is O in TOW) system. An infrared flare or two in the rear of the missile is tracked by the missile’s launching post, which references the position of the missile relative to the gunner’s aim point. Then, commands are sent through wire or radio link to the missile to correct it if necessary.

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