Update: TOW 2A anti-tank guided weapons in Syria

Sam Baartz

Almost a year ago, ARES reported on the appearance of US-made TOW 2A anti-tank guided weapons (ATGW)  in Syria. In service with several anti-government groups, the TOW systems were primarily documented in the hands of the so-called ‘moderate Syrian rebels’. Since then, there have been dozens of appearances of these systems. The TOW series of ATGWs were originally designed by United States’ Hughes Aircraft Company in the 1960s, and variants are still being produced in the US by Raytheon, today. “TOW” stands for “Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided”, with typical TOW systems being semi-automatic command to line-of-sight (SACLOS) principle weapons, which require the weapon’s operator to keep his target in the weapon sight until the missile has impacted. When the missile is fired, a sensor in the sighting system tracks a flare in the tail of the missile. The targeting computer attached to the firing post transmits flight corrections to the missile by way of two extremely thin wires which unravel during the course of the munition’s flight. The TOW missile model seen in Syria, as identified by markings visible in this video, is a BGM-71E-3B, or TOW 2A. The TOW 2A was the first TOW family production missile to introduce a tandem warhead, designed to defeat explosive reactive armour (ERA). No other TOW models have yet been identified in Syria, to ARES’ knowledge.

Some of the examples most recently documented, shown above, surfaced in early march of 2015. With TOW systems and copies known to be in service or with several Middle Eastern and North African countries, the specific channels through which Syrian fighters acquired them is difficult to ascertain. In many instances, it has been assumed that such appearances are indicative of Western backed support. According to one confidential US government source who spoke with ARES, the TOW 2A systems were supplied by a Gulf state.

In this instance these weapons were believed to have been distributed to Harakat Hazzm, a group which was widely identified as one through which lethal aid could be funnelled to moderate opposition fighters. Harakat Hazzm has now lost  its influence in the north of Syria. It was reported in early March that Harakat Hazzm collapsed, with Jabhat al-Nusra continuing its offensive against the group. The decline of Hazzm has led to the appearance of TOW missile systems and other weapons in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, as seen on social media. There have been some claims that the pictured missile tubes were in fact empty, and that no TOW missiles were seized by Jabhat al-Nusra, although these have not been verified.

This occurrence serves as a reminder of the challenges associated with supplying weapons to any conflict area, with the risk that they may be captured, stockpiled, transferred, or put to use beyond their initial intended purpose.

With thanks to N.R. Jenzen-Jones & Jonathan Ferguson. Pictures taken from Twitter here.