Armor: November 3, 2004


In service with the U.S. Army, and 40 other militaries, for nearly 35 years, the TOW (tube launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missile system is in the process of going through two major upgrades in the next few years. The TOW 2B Aero will start production next year. It is designed to hit tanks at ranges out to 4.5 kilometers through the simple changes of adding more command-line wire for the increased distance, and aerodynamically streamlining the nose. Around 970 missiles are to be delivered to the U.S. Army by the end of 2006 and the Marine Corps is buying them as well. 

TOW 2B Aero is currently being tested with a radio data link to replace the wire-guidance system, a long overdue upgrade. While the wire-guided system is very jam-resistant, the wires themselves introduce some problems. Since the wires are big antennas, large amounts of wire in water tend to short out the guidance system at longer ranges, limiting the range of TOW over water to around 1100 to 1500 meters. Further, if the TOW metal wires cross electrical power lines, significant damage to the guidance equipment and the operators are likely to result. The radio link will incorporate a transmitter into the missile case with a receiver in the missile body, so the "TOW RF" missile can drop directly into an existing launcher without modifications. TOW RF will also likely have extended range and higher flight speed to targets since it will no longer need to carry around 4.5 kilometers of wire and pay it out behind the missile.

TOW is in service on over 15,000 ground, vehicle, and helicopter platforms worldwide. The baseline TOW has a maximum range of 3750 meters, with a launcher weight of 205 pounds and a missile weight of around 47 to 49 pounds, depending on the version. The TOW 2A version flies a direct attack (straight) flight path and uses a tandem warhead to defeat so-called "reactive" armor, using a small charge to trigger the explosives in the reactive armor before firing the main charge to penetrate the underlying and now exposed armor plate. TOW 2B replaces the dual shaped charge in TOW 2A with a pair of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) and uses a fly-over top-attack flight path. As the missile flies over the tank, both EFPs detonate. Each EFP uses an explosive charge to hurl a dense metal slug through the top of the tank. Since the armor at the top of the tank is thinner, the pair of EFPs will end up punching through the tank and destroying it. The fly-over profile means the missile can be used to attack targets protected by berms or terrain. Doug Mohney




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