History

Watch the TOW anti-tank missile in action in Vietnam

The BGM-71 Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) missile is a mainstay of American ground forces. Even light units, like the 82nd Airborne Division, rely on this missile to give them a fighting chance against enemy tanks.


While it picked up some notoriety in Operation Desert Storm, it actually made its combat debut about two decades earlier, in Vietnam. Given its reputation for jungle warfare, you might think that tank warfare didn't happen in Vietnam — you'd be very wrong.

An early BGM-71 TOW is launched from a M151 Jeep. (US Army photo)

The North Vietnamese relied on tanks to attack American positions, particularly during the 1972 Easter Offensive. The tanks of choice for the Communists were the PT-76 amphibious light tank and the T-54 medium tank. The PT-76 has been in service since 1952, making it about the same age as the B-52 Stratofortress. According to MilitaryFactory.com, it's armed with a 76mm main gun, a 7.62mm machine gun, and can be equipped with a 12.7mm DShK machine gun. The tank has a crew of three.

A Soviet naval infantryman (Marine) stands with an arm on his PT-76 light amphibious tank, on display for visiting Americans. North Vietnam used the PT-76 in the Vietnam War. (US Navy photo)

The T-54 first saw use in 1949, and while it is no longer in Russian service (it's likely still held in reserve), it still is serving with a number of countries around the world. The T-54 has a 100mm main gun, a 12.7mm DShK machine gun, and two 762mm machine guns. It has a crew of four.

The earliest firings of TOW missiles were primarily from helicopters, including the UH-1B Iroquois. The version used in Vietnam, the BGM-71A, had a maximum range of just over a mile and a quarter. The launch system used for the UH-1B was set aside in favor of developing one for the AH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter, which never made it to active service.

Polish T-54 tanks. North Vietnam used the tank against South Vietnamese and American troops. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Z. Chmurzyński)

Today, the TOW is still going strong. In fact, the latest versions are said to pose a threat to Russia's vaunted T-14 Armata main battle tank. Not bad for a missile that's been around for almost half a century. Check out some early footage of the missile in the video below.

 

(Jeff Quitney | YouYube)