TOW Missile in Vietnam

Today, the US designed TOW missile is almost ubiquitous, being used by more countries than you can shake a stick at. It’s also in use by the Free Syrian Army rebels in that nasty little civil war they have going on.

But in 1972, the TOW was brand spanking new. The Army had its eye on the stupendous fleets of Warsaw Pact tanks in Europe, and wanted to get a good idea of just how well TOW would work, particularly mounted on a helicopter.

As it happened, the famous Easter Offensive of the Vietnam War broke out just about the same time that TOW was ready for operational testing. While we generally think of the Vietnam War as one fought by infantry supported by artillery in jungles or rice paddies, there was a shift in the Easter Offensive. The US had spent the years from 1964 to 1972 perfecting counter-insurgency warfare. But the the North Vietnamese Army in 1972 launched an entirely conventional, mechanized, invasion of South Vietnam. Large numbers of tanks, APCs and fleets of trucks supported the invasion. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam was ill equipped to deal with that mechanized threat. Only the prompt and massive application of American airpower staved off the invasion.

And one small part of that was the combat debut of TOW, mounted on UH-1B gunships.



The success of the interim XM-26 TOW armament system would inspire the Army to mount a similar system on its fleet of AH-1 Cobra gunships, which would be the primary attack helicopter in the Army fleet until introduction of the AH-64 Apache and its Hellfire missile in the late 1980s.


12 thoughts on “TOW Missile in Vietnam”

  1. Am I having a senior moment? Wasn’t the TOW used to obliterate some NVA PT-76’s during this offensive?

  2. Goddammit XBrad … you just sent me down an hour-deep rabbit hole researching early MCLOS missiles on Wikipedia. I’ve got writing I need to be doing! I have deadlines, dammit!

    1. You shouldn’t tell me things like this. PLEASE don’t make me go on another archive binge. It’s always fun, but it never ends well for my day at the office. 🙂

  3. That’s a loooooooonnnngggggg time to be hanging out at 2000-3500 AGL if there is any kind of threat to you.

    Love the complete simplicity of the symbology. Lay cross-hairs and fire.

    1. The primary threat was small arms fire. So 2500~3000 made a lot of sense. That took them out of the reach of all but 12.7mm.

      Interestingly, the 72 ground invasion also saw the introduction of the SA-7 MANPADS which pushed helos back down to nap of the earth, though it doesn’t appear the TOW UH-1Bs ever faced that threat.

    2. Tracking like a TOW but I am extrapolating TTPs in Vietnam to Europe (WW III) without telling you… As I watch Apache pilots who trained in Iraq and Afghanistan to support from on high and see them get smoked in a non-permissive environment when they try to fight from 1500 (+) where everybody and their brother can see, and engage, them..

  4. Apologies for what may be a stupid question: the missile apparently jigs quite a bit after launch before seeking the target. Why is that? Is it “looking” for the target?

    1. The missile actually has no seeker. The guidance set steers the missile. There’s a flare on the back of the missile that the guidance set looks for, and sends signals through the wire to steer toward the crosshairs. The first couple seconds of flight, the missile is a tad wobbly for aerodynamic reasons. That means the MGS signals are usually rather large, causing the wobble. After that, it settles down to a more stable flight.

  5. Brad, thanks. Sounds like they went with evolution vice revolution. I could see how the project could have been screwed by insisting on adding a seeker, etc.

    Sounds like they went with the electronic version of OODA with the software applying changes to pitch & yaw to get the observed flare closer to the cross-hair, something the electronics of the time could handle fairly well.

    1. I forgot to also mention, the missile is being fired from a pod offset a good bit to the side, so the very first thing the MGS sees is a major angular error. So it gets a couple of big corrections and overcorrections.

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