Air Weapons: TOW Fades


September 25, 2013: The U.S. Marine Corps retired its air launched TOW missiles this year. These have been used since the 1970s but have since been replaced by more capable missiles like the Hellfire. The TOW is still widely used by armored vehicles. One of the advantages of missiles like the Hellfire was that they were designed for air-to-ground use and laser guidance, which makes them easier to use for aircraft and somewhat more accurate. Another shortcoming of the TOW was its use of a thin wire for guidance. This limited its range to about 3,700 meters. Wireless weapons like Hellfire had at least twice the range. This was critical for air-launched missiles but not as much of a problem for ground launched TOWs.

There have been several wireless versions of TOW. Raytheon's radio controlled TOW was developed for use on AH-1 helicopter gunships, and the Saudis bought over a thousand of these wireless (RF) TOWs for ground use by their National Guard (a tribal militia formed to protect the royal family). There were other wireless TOWs. Work on such missiles dates back three decades. But the U.S. Army never adopted any of them. Israel developed its own wireless version (MAPATS or "Laser TOW") in the 1980s. The Israeli TOW uses a laser designator and still has a range of 4,000 meters. MAPATS weighs 29.6 kg (65 pounds), compared to 22.7 kg (50 pounds) for the latest wire guided version. MPATS evolved into a different missile in the 1990s. The Raytheon wireless TOW was lighter than MAPATS but still had a range of only 4,000 meters.

TOW has been in service since 1970, and over 500,000 have been manufactured. All versions are shipped, and fired from, a sealed launch tube. The 1970 version weighed 19 kg (42 pounds) and had a 3.9 kg (8.6 pound) warhead. The latest version (TOW 2B or BGM-71F) weighs 22.7 kg (50 pounds) and has a 6.2 kg (13.5 pound) warhead that can defeat ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor). The last time TOW destroyed tanks was in 2003, during the Iraq invasion, but it was since used frequently against enemy strongholds in Iraq and Afghanistan. TOW has gotten high praise from operators throughout its 4 decades of use and appears to have a decade or more of life left in it, at least on the ground. In the air TOW has largely been replaced by Hellfire, which came into use in the 1980s and has undergone several improvements. There are also several more recent and smaller missiles that are displacing Hellfire. TOW was innovative for the 1970s but has not been able to evolve fast enough to compete with new designs.





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