Firing from Bradley Fighting Vehicles, HMMWVs, helicopters, and dismounted tripods; tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided TOW anti-tank missiles have been destroying armor for decades.
TOWing the Line
Beginning with its first combat use in Vietnam, the TOW missile has appeared in virtually every major conflict up until the war in Ukraine, including the Persian Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and many others throughout the years.
The TOW missile is now the most widely used anti-tank missile in the world and is currently in use with more than 45 countries.
There are many variants and, according to Military Today, as many as 650,000 have been made. The weapon began production in the 1950s with Hughes Aircraft Company, a firm that went on to be acquired by Raytheon.
Despite emerging in the 1950s, the TOW missile continues to prove relevant and impactful today and has even been used effectively in the Russia-Ukraine war. The missile calls upon interesting technology, some of which has evolved in recent years. The article in Military Today says the TOW missile has semi-automatic guidance, which, unlike a fire-and-forget weapon, requires the shooter to maintain line-of-sight-connectivity with the target until the missile strikes.
“The sensor corrects the trajectory of the missile by sending electrical signals that are passed on by two wires. The communication by wires with the missile can not be jammed by the enemy,” the Military Today article states.
TOW in Action
While beginning as a wire-guided missile, upgrades in 2006 and 2007 integrated a “wireless” guidance system into the TOW. The weapon can penetrate armor and can fire at ranges of 3000m, which is just under two miles.
The TOW is still very much a relevant and important weapon, and additional upgrades to the range, warhead, or guidance systems are likely to emerge in the future. However, as a 1950s-era weapon, the TOW missile cannot match the U.S. Army’s upgraded Javelin anti-tank missile, which has continued to decimate Russian tanks in Ukraine. It may not be clear which variants of the Javelin are being used by Ukraine, yet the U.S. Army is vastly improving the range, targeting sites, and explosive technology for its Javelins.
Raytheon and Lockheed have upgraded the Javelin’s targeting, range, and lethality with software upgrades and innovations of great consequence. Raytheon has engineered a new Lightweight Command Launch Unit (CLU) over the last several years that actually doubles the range. Several years ago, Army officials with the Javelin Product Office, Program Executive Office Missiles and Space told 19FortyFive that the new Lightweight CLU reduces weight by 30 percent, and Raytheon developers said the CLU has a constant zoom targeting technology able to pinpoint targets from much greater distances.
Other Javelin upgrades include the introduction of “fast-lock” targeting technology, which improves the ability to lock on and destroy a moving target. As for explosives, Raytheon and the Army have also been developing new warheads for the Javelin.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.