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.
Still, a tandem charge isn’t fool-proof—so consider now the TOW-2B and TOW-2B Aero (the latter has a longer range of 4.5 kilometers). These ditch the wired system for wireless-guidance using a stealth frequency—still potentially vulnerable to jamming, but at least the operator isn’t literally tethered to the missile. The TOW-2B can pull off a fancy move, rearing up into the sky as it nears the target so it can blast two explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) downwards into the target. This is highly effective because top armor on tanks is notoriously thin. A wireless version of the TOW-2A is also available.
Where do you find TOW missiles? In the U.S. military they’re used in antitank platoons, often mounted on modified light vehicles (Humvees, Strykers, M113s, LAVs), as well as on M2 and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles and Marine AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. Around thirty other countries field the system as well.
So what of the new T-14 Armata, legendary for surviving the Victory Day Parade Rehearsal of 2015 with only one tank immobilized! If only the notorious F-35 could boast a similar record.
Embarrassing debuts aside, the T-14 looks like it has far superior defensive features compared to its predecessors. Like a Victorian lady, the Armata comes with layers of defensive petticoats designed to ward off unwelcome attention.
First of all, there is the Afganit Active Protection System, which boasts both hard and soft kill capabilities, set in motion by four or five advanced millimeter-wavelength AESA radar panels covering every aspect of the tank, providing warning of approaching projectiles.
‘Soft kill’ defenses seek to coyly misdirect missiles. Four multispectral smoke grenade dischargers can launch counter-measures that not only visually shroud the tank, but also mask the vehicle’s infrared signature and block targeting lasers and radars. The optically-guided TOW doesn’t care about the latter, but if the operator can’t see the tank then there’s a better chance of missing, especially if the tank moves. The countermeasures also work in theory against top-attack missiles, particularly if they aren’t manually guided like the TOW.
Next up, we have the ‘hard kill’ element that swats down impertinent missiles that don’t take no for an answer. The Afganit’s radar system automatically turns the turret turns towards incoming projectiles so that the active-kill system can engage. Five discharge tubes on each side of the turret can shoot rockets aimed at the incoming projectile. The Afganit system is untested in action, but other hard-kill systems such as Trophy have proven effective against missiles in combat.
As for top-attack missiles like TOW-2B, well…the Afganit doesn’t look like it’s designed to shoot upwards.
If the soft and hard kill systems don’t do the trick, then the Armata explodes…that is, it explodes its Relikt explosive reactive armor. The Armata’s radar times the detonation of an reactive-armor brick just before the enemy missile or shell hits, supposedly well enough in advance to neutralize tandem charge warheads. Is that how things would actually work? Only one way find out! Rebels in Syria captured footage of a Syrian T-90 tank appearing to survive the impact of a TOW missile thanks to its older Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor.
What if our stalwart TOW missile manages to evade all of these defenses? Will it manage to pierce its way into the Armata’s armored heart?
In terms of conventional armor, the Armata is still believed to be a slightly less well protected than an M1A2 Abrams or Leopard 2 judging by its weight of around fifty to sixty tons. (For comparison, an M1 weighs seventy tons). A maximum thickness of 1200mm to 1400mm RHA equivalent versus HEAT warheads has been claimed in Russian sources for the ceramic armor plates. That seems effective against the TOW-2A’s 900 millimeters of RHA penetration, but there’s no telling how even the armor protection is across the turret and hull—(there’s some speculation the turret will be notably more vulnerable) and whether those figures are accurate. In any case, the TOW-2B will still likely find the top armor vulnerable.
Finally, we must consider Armata’s unmanned turret. While an unmanned turret poses some difficulties—including the risk of blinding the crew if the sensors are knocked out—it does mean that there’s a good chance that the crew can survive a hit to the turret. Even if the turret is put out of action and the tank needs to withdraw for repairs, keeping flesh-and-blood crew alive is the name of the game for modern, professional militaries. A tank can maximize the chance it will take any hits on the turret by deploying in a hull-down position—that is, with only the turret peeking above the crest of a hill.