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Hughes / Raytheon BGM-71 TOW / TOW-2

Heavy Anti-Tank (AT) Weapon System

The BGM-71 TOW series of anti-tank missile systems is a widely-used anti-tank system around the world.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Edited: 6/7/2019
National Flag Graphic


Year: 1970
Manufacturer(s): Hughes Aircraft / Raytheon - USA
Roles: Anti-Tank/Anti-Material/Breaching; Vehicle Mount;
Action: Tube-launched; optically-tracked; wire-guided
Caliber(s): 127 mm / 152 mm
Sights: Integrated Optics.
Overall Length: 2,210 mm (87.01 in)
Weight (Unloaded): 205.03 lb (93.00 kg)
Rate-of-Fire: 2 rounds-per-minute
Effective Range: 12,303 ft (3,750 m; 4,101 yd)
Operators: Argentina; Bahrain; Botswana; Cameroon; Canada; Chile; Chad; Colombia; Denmark; Egypt; Ethiopia; Finland; Germany; Greece; Hungary; Iran; Iraq; Israel; Italy; Japan; Jordan; Kenya; Kuwait; Lithuania; Lebanon; Luxembourg; Morocco; Norway; Oman; Pakistan; Portugal; Saudi Arabia; Somalia; South Korea; Spain; Sweden; Swaziland; Switzerland; Taiwan; Thailand; Tunisia; Turkey; United Arab Emirates; United Kingdom; United States; Vietnam; Yemen
The BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile weapon system was developed in the latter half of the 1960s to become the primary anti-armor weapon system of the United States and its allies during the Cold War. Despite its Cold War origins, the TOW missile system is still deployed in large numbers today and has been evolved into more lethal forms with each passing decade. Despite its line-of-sight requirement and inherently bulky nature, the TOW enjoys a healthy reach on the modern battlefields of today, being successfully utilized in several ongoing conflicts to date. The TOW missile was the weapon of choice when it was used to kill Saddam Hussein sons Uday and Qusay in 2003 following the American invasion of Iraq.

Development of the TOW system stemmed from 1963 to 1968 under the leadership of the Hughes Aircraft Company and initially known under its developmental designation "XBGM-71". The "TOW" name stemmed from the abbreviation covering the description "Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire command data link, guided missile" which specifically described its function. Similarly, the "BGM" designation awkwardly abbreviated its "Multiple Environment / Surface Attack / Missile" design (US Army nomenclature). After a period of testing and evaluation, the TOW was officially accepted into serial production in 1968 and formally entered service in 1970. Since then, the weapon type has gone on to become one of the most widely-accepted anti-tank missile systems ever developed with several dozen operators across the globe to her name. While Hughes designed, developed and produced the original TOW missiles, defense powerhouse Raytheon has gradually taken over their production in today's market.

Upon inception, the TOW missile was quick to replace outmoded anti-tank missile and recoilless rifle weapons then in service with the United States Army. Early US Army anti-tank missile weapons were notably European in nature and the TOW represented the first such indigenous design. Her first operational use occurred during the American involvement in the Vietnam War where the TOW was fitted to the XM26 helicopter mount (for the Bell UH-1 Huey series) for operational evaluation in the conflict. The weapon was successfully fired against NVC tanks on May 2nd, 1972 and, all told, the debut of the TOW in the war proved its effectiveness in combat and laid the foundation for increased production and usage for decades to come. In recent years, the TOW has developed into a more finely-tuned weapon system capable of engaging all manner of targets beyond simply armored combat vehicles and now includes fortification destruction.

At its core, the TOW missile system consists of the launch tube, fire control/optics, support assembly (or launch mount) and missile system. The missile itself is of a conventional aerodynamic shape characterized by a well-contoured body with a short nose cone. Four spring-loaded fins are mounted at amidships and aft to help stabilize the missile during flight, extended out immediately after launch. The warhead is contained in the forward portion of the missile as is the guidance center while the motor and fuel store is to the rear. The TOW is rated for armor penetration from 430mm in thickness to approximately 630mm in thickness depending on the production model (newer forms proving more lethal).

As the TOW is an optically tracked, line-of-sight (LoS) weapon and visual engagement of a target is an important quality to consider when the missile is launched. The operator must have the target in sight during the entire flight time of the missile proper for the attached guidance cable feeds corrective information to the flight path after launch. Therefore, the operator must keep the target within his view during the entire flight of the missile after launch (as opposed to a homing or self-guided missile weapon system such as the Hellfire - termed a "Fire and Forget" weapon). If the missile reaches the full length of the guidance cable, the cable is severed and the missile continues on its current flight path. A wireless version has only recently appeared that utilizes a one-way radio data link.

The TOW missile system is not a small nor light weapon and requires the use of a tripod or vehicle-mounted launcher unit for operation. The M151 launch mount was initially developed for the early-form TOW missiles while the M220 series appeared in conjunction with the TOW-2 developments. As such, the TOW has been fitted to a variety of military vehicles including JEEPs, Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and high-mobility vehicles such as the ubiquitous HUMVEE. Beyond the ground-based operational scope, the TOW has also been accepted into airborne launch systems for use by attack helicopters including the Bell AH-1 Cobra series (M65 mount system). While the TOW is considered a "man portable" weapon system, it is cumbersome to field in such a manner and is most always relegated to vehicle-mounted use.

There have been a plethora of ever-improved TOW forms to date beginning with the initial XBGM-71A developmental model. This was copied over in the initial BGM-71A production design. The BGM-71B was based on the A-model series but featured increased operating ranges. The BGM-71C (Improved TOW, ITOW) followed the B-series model and brought about a new shaped-charge warhead with an extending probe fitted to the nose cone to help improve armor penetration values. The BGM-71D (TOW-2) was next in line and based on the BGM-71C production model. The motor function was improved, as was guidance, and the warhead was enlarged for greater armor penetration effect. The BGM-71E (TOW-2A) was based on the preceding BGM-71D model but revised with a tandem warhead fitting to content with Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) panels beginning to be used in larger numbers on armored vehicles worldwide. The BGM-71F (TOW-2B) was also based on the BGM-71D production model and reworked to attack armored vehicles along their more vulnerable top facings utilizing explosively-formed penetrators. The BGM-71G was a proposed TOW variant based on the BGM-71F model to feature a new Armor Piercing (AP) warhead though never selected for serial production. The BGM-71H was developed from the BGM-71E model for use against fortified structures - ala a "Bunker Buster" munition. An extended range version of the TOW 2B was developed into the TOW-2B "Aero" which has been further evolved into a wireless form known as the TOW-2B "Aero RF".

Beyond the United States, operators of the TOW and TOW-2 derivative have included Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and Yemen (among others). In Iran, a one-time US-ally, the TOW was reverse engineered as the "Toophan" and is currently in production though may be of suspect quality and capability than the true American production form - nearly always the case with reverse-engineered products. Conversely, Egypt produces the TOW locally under a legal license for the Egyptian Army. TOW systems in service with the United Kingdom are reserved solely for helicopter use. The Pakistani Army took delivery of some 3,300 TOW-2A missile unit examples sometime in 2006 to further strengthen its anti-armor capabilities.

Program Updates

June 2019 - Taiwan has requested the purchase of 1,240 TOW-2 Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) systems from the United States to help bolster its ground capabilities.

Variants / Models

• XBGM-71A - Developmental Designation
• BGM-71A - Initial Production Model.
• BGM-71B - Based on the A-model with improved effective range.
• BGM-71C - Based on the B-model; revised shaped-charge warhead.
• BGM-71D - TOW-2; based on the C-model; bigger warhead capacity; revised motor system and improved sensor guidance.
• BGM-71E - TOW-2A; based on the D-model; tandem warhead structure; defeats reactive armor.
• BGM-71F - TOW-2B; based on the D-model; formed penetrator warhead; top-down attack angle.
• BGM-71G - Based on the F-model; differing munition warhead type; never produced.
• BGM-71H - Specialized TOW for use against hardened structures.
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