(NSFW) TOW Missile Immolates Tank Crew

Footage taken on an unknown battlefield in Ukraine. A Russian tank is purportedly targeted by a TOW anti-tank missile, launched from a location off screen. The tank fires at an unseen target and moments later is struck, resulting in secondary explosions which send flame and smoke brewing up out of the vehicle hatches. One of the crew members tumbles out of the tank, his clothes aflame, and runs to the left before stumbling. The camera pans away.


The BGM-71 TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missile is an old weapon which remains effective against modern tanks. Originally designed in the 1960s, the TOW has received a plethora of upgrades over the years and can be launched from multiple platforms including a tripod-mounted system, a HMMWV, a Bradley IFV, and from a variant of the LAV employed by the U.S. Marine Corps. There are multiple variants available, including missiles with tandem warheads and missiles with a top-down attack capability. The effective range of most variants in use is 65 to 3750 meters, though the BMG-71F and H have ranges of 4500 and 4200 meters, respectively.


Having done my time as an anti-tank platoon commander (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), I had my own love/hate relationship with the TOW missile. The version of the TOW system employed by my Marines in 2003 was archaic and temperamental, with utilizing antiquated sights and dependent on a primitive computer the size of a suitcase boasting the processing power of a pocket calculator from the late 1980s. We were always short of parts, and in the weeks leading up to the start of the war in Iraq, we had serious misgivings regarding the reliability of the TOW-2B (top-down attack variant). Occasionally a missile might plow into the dirt, or fly off into the sun, or explode after leaving the tube, or go “erratic,” make a U-turn, and fly back towards the crew that fired it. But when it worked, it worked spectacularly.


In many ways, hunting tanks with ATGMs felt like being a big game hunter, in that the prey that you are stalking can easily kill you. One of the factors which ATGM crew must consider is range to the target and time of flight, for a missile is much slower than a projectile fired from a tank. The time of flight for a TOW-2A at maximum range was somewhere in the ballpark of twenty seconds, and (in theory), an alert tank crew could spot the launch signature of the missile and fire back at point of origin before being struck. Once the launch vehicle was destroyed, the TOW could then go erratic and miss the tank. In theory. I never saw it happen, but it always made for an interesting mental exercise in those moments after giving the command to fire and hearing your gunner shout “TOW on the wire.”


About the Author

Author's Photo

Cam

Cam served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, deploying to the Horn of Africa and participating in combat operations in Iraq. He currently works in the maritime industry and in the defense sector as an instructor of combined arms planning and operations. An avid sailor, Cam founded and directs Triumph Sailing, a nonprofit that supports veterans and first responders through adventure and fellowship on the water. Triumph Sailing just completed its big yearly event, an offshore race in the Gulf of Mexico with an all veteran crew. You can support the mission and next year's sailing season at Tri-Sail.Org.

Published 3 months ago

Footage taken on an unknown battlefield in Ukraine. A Russian tank is purportedly targeted by a TOW anti-tank missile, launched from a location off screen. The tank fires at an unseen target and moments later is struck, resulting in secondary explosions which send flame and smoke brewing up out of the vehicle hatches. One of the crew members tumbles out of the tank, his clothes aflame, and runs to the left before stumbling. The camera pans away.


The BGM-71 TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missile is an old weapon which remains effective against modern tanks. Originally designed in the 1960s, the TOW has received a plethora of upgrades over the years and can be launched from multiple platforms including a tripod-mounted system, a HMMWV, a Bradley IFV, and from a variant of the LAV employed by the U.S. Marine Corps. There are multiple variants available, including missiles with tandem warheads and missiles with a top-down attack capability. The effective range of most variants in use is 65 to 3750 meters, though the BMG-71F and H have ranges of 4500 and 4200 meters, respectively.


Having done my time as an anti-tank platoon commander (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), I had my own love/hate relationship with the TOW missile. The version of the TOW system employed by my Marines in 2003 was archaic and temperamental, with utilizing antiquated sights and dependent on a primitive computer the size of a suitcase boasting the processing power of a pocket calculator from the late 1980s. We were always short of parts, and in the weeks leading up to the start of the war in Iraq, we had serious misgivings regarding the reliability of the TOW-2B (top-down attack variant). Occasionally a missile might plow into the dirt, or fly off into the sun, or explode after leaving the tube, or go “erratic,” make a U-turn, and fly back towards the crew that fired it. But when it worked, it worked spectacularly.


In many ways, hunting tanks with ATGMs felt like being a big game hunter, in that the prey that you are stalking can easily kill you. One of the factors which ATGM crew must consider is range to the target and time of flight, for a missile is much slower than a projectile fired from a tank. The time of flight for a TOW-2A at maximum range was somewhere in the ballpark of twenty seconds, and (in theory), an alert tank crew could spot the launch signature of the missile and fire back at point of origin before being struck. Once the launch vehicle was destroyed, the TOW could then go erratic and miss the tank. In theory. I never saw it happen, but it always made for an interesting mental exercise in those moments after giving the command to fire and hearing your gunner shout “TOW on the wire.”


About the Author

Author's Photo

Cam

Cam served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, deploying to the Horn of Africa and participating in combat operations in Iraq. He currently works in the maritime industry and in the defense sector as an instructor of combined arms planning and operations. An avid sailor, Cam founded and directs Triumph Sailing, a nonprofit that supports veterans and first responders through adventure and fellowship on the water. Triumph Sailing just completed its big yearly event, an offshore race in the Gulf of Mexico with an all veteran crew. You can support the mission and next year's sailing season at Tri-Sail.Org.

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