April 22, 2014 | Policy Brief

American Missiles in Syria

April 22, 2014 | Policy Brief

American Missiles in Syria

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, the secular-leaning Free Syrian Army has repeatedly called for arms from the United States to help level the playing field against Bashar al-Assad’s better-equipped military. New video indicates that the opposition is finally getting their request.

In two new videos posted on YouTube (here and here), rebels are clearly seen firing American-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). TOW missiles, or Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided missiles, are designed to reach out and accurately destroy hardened targets as far as 4,500 meters (2.8 miles) away. Newer variants are wireless, though the systems the rebels appear to be using are not.

According to Raytheon, the company that manufactures the TOW, the system is used by 40 militaries around the globe and has been deployed in multiple conflicts since first being introduced in 1970.

With the weapon now in the hands of Syrian rebels, Assad’s tanks could become extremely vulnerable. However, the TOW suffers from some tactical disadvantages that may render them less than ideal for Syria’s rebels.

In short, the weapon is clunky. It is not a shoulder-fired system that a user can easily move from cover to quickly aim and fire, then move back to cover before the adversary returns fire. TOW missiles weigh more than 50 pounds each and require a cumbersome launcher mounted on a tripod or vehicle. The TOW’s size and guidance system requires the user to set up the launcher, acquire a target, and then keep the sight on target to guide the missile while in flight. This involved process is a major handicap for a light agile force like the opposition.

Smaller systems such as the Javelin, also a Raytheon product, may have been a better alternative. They are shoulder-launched with the same level of accuracy. However, their range is about half that of the TOW. It is possible that their advantages in mobility and accuracy contributed to Washington’s reluctance to supply them to a war zone infested with al Qaeda-linked militants.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the TOWs are being supplied via a joint US and Saudi pilot program to bolster the moderate rebel groups that have lost ground in recent months. But it is unclear if this program will provide enough firepower to make a measurable difference. Indeed, some opposition supporters have already been providing the rebels with advanced ATGMs since at least last year, with no indication of a strategic shift in the rebels’ favor.

Patrick Megahan manages MilitaryEdge.org, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.