The TOW Missile: The One Weapon That Could Make Russia's Super Armata Tank Obsolete?
Yes, you heard that last part right, the TOW has been sold all over the world—but America’s starry eyes of antitank love have wandered to greener pastures. Ever since the United States military began deploying the top-attack Javelin missile in the mid-1990s, it’s been handing them out like alcopops at a bachelorette party to its frontline troops—nearly every infantry squad has a few it can call its own.
On the other hand, new kids aren’t allowed to the Javelin party. Ukraine has been shown the door; Syrian rebels need not apply.
That’s why it’s TOW missiles that are making their way into the hands of Syrian FSA rebels from a not-very-mysterious benefactor. The TOW still has another thing going for it: it has roughly 50 percent greater range than the basic Javelin—though a new version of the Javelin will soon change that. For now, however, you can sit back and enjoy the fresh air on a mountain top with your TOW missile, drinking in the panoramic view while you shoot those videos you keep putting up on YouTube.
So how does the aging TOW fare against the T-14 Armata, the mysterious new Russian super-tank, rumored to secretly be a Transformer robot with powers of flight? Let’s compare the TOW’s characteristics with the Armata’s defensive capabilities and see what sparks they throw together.
The BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) missile is America's venerable long-range antitank missile, first deployed in 1970 and now available in many flavors: wireless, tandem charge, top-attack, bunker buster. There’s something to cater to every taste. Let’s dispense with the first generation types (sorry ITOW!), and focus on two current models: the TOW-2A and TOW-2B.
The TOW-2A still uses the weapon’s signature wire-guidance system. When a TOW missile shoots out from the launch tube using a booster rocket, a wire connecting the missile to the launcher unspools behind it, allowing the launch unit to send commands up the wire while the missile soars ahead. The TOW uses a Semi-Automatic Command Line-Of-Sight (SACLOS) system—which is to say, the firer guides the missile by keeping an optical scope trained on the target, and the system automatically corrects the missile’s course inflight. The TOW-2A can hit targets up to 3,750 meters away—though it will take its time getting there. Flying at an average of 180 meters a second, that adds up to twenty-one seconds to hit a target at maximum range, giving an alert tank crew a chance to take evasive action…if they notice it coming.
The wire-guidance system has the advantage of being immune to most forms of jamming. However, it requires the firer to remain in place, aiming the missile for its entire flight time until it hits the target. Countermeasures that make the target hard to see—such as plain old-fashioned smoke—can mess up the firer’s aim.
Once it hits the tank, the TOW-2A detonates a High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead, also known as a shaped charge or chemical penetrator. Conventional projectiles rely on kinetic energy—a combination of speed and mass—to pierce armor. But kinetic penetrators require heavy guns that produce tremendous recoil, and lose power over longer distances. A HEAT shell instead blasts a stream of metal particles at high velocity upon impact; larger HEAT shells can penetrate more armor, but the speed of the shell or missile doesn’t affect penetration. A long barrel and heavy frame to absorb recoil is unnecessary, and that’s why most missiles use HEAT warheads. The TOW-2A’s six-inch shaped charge is supposedly capable of piercing 900 millimeters of Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) equivalent.
Starting in the 1980s, however, designers started making tanks that were especially resistant to HEAT warheads. Western tanks employed Chobham composite armor. Soviet antitank missiles had as much effect on new Abrams and Challenger tanks in the Gulf War as spitballs on a hippo. Russian designs, on the other hand, employed Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA)— bricks of explosives that detonate at a missile’s approach, tripping the HEAT warhead’s jet before it gets close enough to the tank. ERA is a bit more finicky than Chobham armor, but cheaper and lighter weight.
ERA had the potential to ruin the TOW’s whole schtick. Thus, the TOW-2A has a “tandem charge”: two warheads, one in front to prematurely detonate the explosive reactive armor, and a second to follow through the hole and actually pierce the tank armor. Most of the deadlier infantry antitank weapons today, like the RPG-29, the AT-14 and the Javelin, employ a tandem charge.