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The Army Wants to Replace Its Legendary Tank Killer

  • The U.S. Army is planning for a new missile to replace the half-century-old TOW missile.
  • The TOW, the Army’s first heavy anti-tank missile, first saw combat killing tanks in the Vietnam War.
  • The Army wants a new missile with a range at least double that of the TOW.

    The U.S. Army is preparing to say goodbye to an old friend. The Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) anti-tank missile has served the Army for 50 years, tracking and destroying enemy armor in jungles, deserts, and even cities. The service wants a new missile that can travel twice as far, but also kill tanks closer than ever.

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    In the early 1970s, the Army fielded what was then the heaviest, longest-range anti-tank missile in the world. The Army, facing down thousands of Soviet tanks in Europe, needed a weapon system that could kill tanks accurately at long ranges, even beyond the range of tank guns. That missile was the BGM-71 TOW.

    A soldier posing with a mockup of the proposed TOW missile, Redstone Arsenal, 1965.

    U.S. ArmyGetty Images

    The BGM-71 TOW, which was 5 inches in diameter, fit in a large launch tube connected to a command unit. The gunner placed the crosshairs on an enemy tank and fired the missile. The gunner could move the crosshairs to keep them centered on a moving enemy tank, and as the missile sped downrange, it trailed a thin wire that allowed it to receive the gunner’s course adjustments.

    The TOW was revolutionary. It had a hit probability of about 90 percent out to its maximum range of 3,700 meters (2.33 miles). Once the TOW reached its target, its shaped-charge warhead could penetrate the heaviest of enemy armor. The missile was more accurate and deadlier than a tank gun, but it couldn’t match a tank gun’s rate of fire.

    An attack helicopter could carry up to eight TOW missiles. Vehicles like the Armored personnel carriers, the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, dedicated anti-tank vehicles, and the Humvee could also carry the weapon.

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    Although built for the battlefields of western Europe, the TOW’s baptism of fire took place in the skies over Vietnam, with the helicopter-mounted TOWs killing North Vietnamese tanks in the 1972 Easter Offensive. The U.S. then supplied the missiles to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (The Israelis discovered TOW couldn’t fly over salt water—in this case, the Suez Canal, which affected the control wires and caused the missiles to veer off course.) U.S. forces later used TOW missiles in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    qusay and uday hussein killed in raid

    A Humvee with the 101st Airborne Division fires a TOW missile at a house harboring Uday and Qusay Hussein, Iraq, July 2003.

    U.S. ArmyGetty Images

    TOW missiles famously besieged the house where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were holed up, blowing up the building during a joint raid by Delta Force and the 101st Airborne Division.

    The Army has gradually updated the TOW over the years. The missile warhead is now capable of penetrating “reactive armor,” using a tandem charge that first explodes the protective armor tile, and then a second that penetrates the tank’s main armor belt. The Army also replaced the trailing control wire with a wireless connection.

    The missile still has the original mode’s shortcomings, including a relatively slow speed (21 seconds to reach its maximum range of 2.2 miles). While the Army has tried to swap out the TOW before, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the mighty Soviet Army made the replacement a low priority.

    displayed us tow 2 tube launched missile w 6 warhead extensible probe other improvements photo by time life picturesdepartment of defense dodthe life picture collection via getty images

    The Army introduced the TOW 2, the second-generation TOW missile, in the 1980s. The missile featured a pop-out nose probe that allowed it to tackle explosive reactive armor tiles that protected Soviet tanks.

    Time Life Pictures

    Now, as Army Times reports, the Army wants a TOW replacement once more.

    The Close Combat Missile System-Heavy (CCMS-H) will have a range of 10,000 meters, almost three times the range of the TOW, while keeping the same dimensions as the existing missile. This will allow the Army to use it from existing launch systems, including the M2 Bradley and the new Joint Tactical Light Vehicle.

    In addition to range, the Army wants a faster missile. A TOW missile traveling to 10,000 meters (6.21 miles) would take nearly a minute to reach its target. If the gunner comes during that time, it could throw off the soldier’s aim, wasting the missile. More concerning: Russian tanks and armored vehicles, including the T-90M main battle tank, can now fire missiles of their own to ranges of up to 5,000 meters, decisively out-ranging the TOW.

    tow t72b3 tank missile

    Modern Russian tanks, such as this platoon of T-72B3 main battle tanks, can fire anti-tank missiles of their own that can destroy any vehicle equipped with TOW before the American missile can fire back.

    OLGA MALTSEVAGetty Images

    The Army wants the missile to arm at just 100 meters—likely to allow close-range shots during city fights and on small islands. The missile must also survive active protection systems and jammers that would attempt to shoot down or jam them.

    The service would like CCMS-H to have several guidance modes, including the TOW’s command line of sight, a fire-and-forget mode, and a missile capable of being fired first and then accepting targeting data in flight. The Army also wants an autonomous attack capability that would allow the missile to steer itself to a set of coordinates, and then attack any nearby enemy armored vehicle.

    The Army will likely field the TOW’s replacement—either a new missile of an existing one—sometime in the early 2030s. One missile that fits many of the criteria is the Israeli-made Spike ER II, which has the range requirement and several of the launch and targeting modes.

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