October 4, 2019:
The North African Kingdom of Morocco has long bought weapons from the United States and recently placed a billion-dollar order for smart bombs and missiles. About 23 percent of that order was for missiles and bombs for its 48 F-16 fighters. The first of these F-16s arrived in 2011 and another 25 it recently ordered, along with upgrades for the older ones.
Much of the recent orders paid for BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) ATGM (anti-tank guided missile). Morocco bought 400 TOW launchers and 2,400 TOW 2A wireless missiles at a cost of about $100,000 each. Morocco noted its ally Saudi Arabia favors TOW as do many other nations. TOW has been in service since 1970, and over 650,000 missiles 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 pounds) warhead. The latest version (TOW 2B or BGM-71F) weighs 22.7 kg (50 pounds) and has a 6.2 kg (13.5 pounds) warhead that can defeat ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor).
Raytheon (the current manufacturer of TOW) and Thales are investing over $30 million to develop new components for the TOW missile that will keep the system current, more reliable and cheaper to build and maintain. This sort of work has been going on for over three decades and is one reason why TOW is still widely used after all that time.
Despite having been in service since the early 1970s, the TOW missile has turned into another one of those perennials. In other words, a design that is so good it is difficult to replace and the original continues to be useful and in demand. Sort of the like the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the M-16 or AK-47 rifles. There have been many new and improved competitors developed, but the originals (somewhat upgraded) continue in service, production and demand. There are so many TOW launchers and missiles out there that it has become big business to refurbish and upgrade both launchers and missiles. That is a lot cheaper than buying new missiles or missile designs and with TOW you know what you got and are comfortable with it.
The last time TOW destroyed tanks in large numbers was in 2003, during the Iraq invasion, but it was since been used frequently against enemy strongholds in Iraq and Afghanistan. There may have been some recent tank kills in Syria, where the rebels have received some TOW systems from the United States. TOW has gotten high praise from operators throughout its four 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 eliminate the market for new designs.
One thing that distinguishes TOW from later designs is that more recent missiles are wireless. This has not proved to be as critical an innovation as many thought. 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 to the 1980s. 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) and 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.
The thing TOW has going for it is reliability. The wire guidance never became a problem and with the advent of electronic countermeasures against ATGMs, TOW finds itself immune to those countermeasures. TOW gets the job done, with either the wire guided or later wireless models. It is a simple, precise and relatively cheap weapon that has constantly proved useful in combat.
The Kingdom of Morocco has long been on good terms with the United States as well as most Arab nations. Another distinction is that Morocco has had the least problems with Islamic terrorism of any Arab nation. There are several reasons for this. First, there is geography. Morocco is the westernmost (from Arabia) Moslem country and like the easternmost nation (Indonesia) is least affected by the Islamic radicalism that arose in Arabia in the 7th century and has survived there ever since. Then there is the ethnic factor. While Morocco is nominally an Arab country most of the people were originally Berber, the people native to North Africa for over 40,000 years. Many Moroccans are aware of their Berber ancestry and take pride in it. Berbers resisted, often successfully, the initial advance by Arab Moslem armies and while most eventually converted to Islam, they tend to wear their religion lightly and are not considered the best recruits for Islamic terrorist groups. Yet Islamic radicalism and Arab nationalism still appeals to some young Moroccans but not nearly as many as in other Arab countries. Over a thousand Moroccans went to Syria to join rebel groups. Since September 11, 2001 thousands of local Islamic radicals have been arrested in Morocco. Most of these were freed largely because they had decided to abandon and avoid Islamic radicalism and actually did so. That’s easy to do in Morocco because most Moroccans despise Islamic terrorism and its tendency to mainly kill other Moslems.
Then there is the informal, and often secret, relations Morocco has maintained with Israel since 1948. This relationship was mostly about sharing information on Islamic terrorism and the threats other Arab states often posed to Morocco and especially the royal family. Since the 1980s these links have been less secret but still unofficial, despite efforts by two Moroccan kings to change that. The main Moroccan antidote to Islamic terrorism is an ancient monarchy that follows the moderate Malikite form of Sunni Islam. Most North Africans are nominally Malikite but outside of Morocco a greater number are tempted to sample the much more radical Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia. In Morocco, the ancient monarchy was always at the center of Malikite worship. The last two kings (Hasan II 1961-99 and Mohammed VI from 1999 to the present) have encouraged democracy and good government as well as adherence to the moderate Malikite Islam. For example, the current king has had thousands of Malikite religious teachers trained since 2006 and sent them to the 50,000 mosques throughout the country to show local clergy how to better serve their congregations and resist the temptations of Islamic radicalism. This program was in response to radical missionaries sent to Morocco by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the last decade as well as the radical propaganda spread by the Internet and Arab language satellite news channels.
Meanwhile, Morocco helps other North African and Sahel countries deal with Islamic terrorism. Morocco sends religious teachers and is always ready to discuss specific problems that Morocco had already taken care of at home. One problem Morocco has handled well is economics. Without oil, Morocco has prospered by making it easy to start and operate businesses and resisted the temptation to nationalize sectors of the economy. While Morocco does not have the highest per-capita GDP in North Africa it is recognized as having the best quality of life and being one of the safest places in the Arab world for Western tourists.