The Free Syrian Army, for lack of a better term, was recently equipped with BGM-79 TOW missiles for use against Bashar al Assad's Armor, and they're getting creative with their new stand-off precision weaponry. In addition to taking out armored vehicles, they've used the missiles against sniper hides, communications towers, and now, even aircraft.
Syrian Air Force L-39 Albatross jet trainers, of which there are many in Assad's inventory, have been put into service as light attack aircraft over the last few years of the Syrian Civil War. Even ISIS claims to have commandeered some of these aircraft for pilot training and attack duties. So the L-39 force, in whoever's hands, represents a clear and present danger to those moderate anti-Assad forces that Arab countries, and the US, have armed with TOW missiles as of last Spring. And watching the results of their attack, the jet targeted and subsequently struck was fueled and ready to fly.
Although the TOW offers standoff range precision fire capabilities, it's a comparatively simple weapon system in comparison to its much more expensive and automated Hellfire or "fire and forget" Javelin counterparts. It is a $50k man-in-the-loop optically guided missile that receives its flight commands via a thin metal wire that unravels behind it during flight. Hence the name Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided, or TOW.
TOWs have been a beloved weapon by many military platform commanders and soldiers, including those of armored vehicles, recon trucks, and attack helicopters. In fact, the new model of AH-1 Cobra, the Z model, can only fire the much more advanced and expensive AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missile, where as its predecessor, the AH-1W could also fire TOWs. Many Cobra pilots saw the loss of TOW launching capability as a major mark against the new chopper as the TOW allowed the shooter full control over the missile's flight path, and could even make hook turns at the last minute to strike partially obscured targets that were hiding behind barriers and obstacles.
In some ways, the TOW is becoming the FIM-92 Stinger missile of the Syrian conflict. The Stinger, which were supplied to Mujaheddin in Afghanistan to stop the onslaught of Russian attack helicopters in the 1980s, was known to change the tide of that war, and was a symbol of US involvement in the conflict, for better or for worse. The TOW appears to be the Free Syrian Army's symbolic weapon system of choice, and they have been incredibly active in employing it.
One main road in particular has been a virtual gauntlet of TOW missile attacks against Assad's mechanized forces, the Daara Highway:
It will be interesting to see if this still new precision attack and anti-armor capability will make a substantial difference in what has become and increasingly bloody and complicated civil war. Additionally, the Iraqi Kurds, a more stable and known ally of the US than the still questionable Free Syrian Army appears not to have received such "advanced" weaponry as of yet. It would seem that if anyone could use such a capability it is them.
When it comes to battleground Syria, and all the half alliances and temporary truces that lay within it, it is quite likely that as these systems, and others like it, proliferate throughout the country, it is just a matter of time until some TOW wires get crossed, which has the potential to lead to unknown outcomes. One gifted weapon can mean a lot of things two different people allied within the same force. For one fighter it can be a means to regain control of their country from tyrannical forces. For another it can be a way of settling a score with a neighbor. In other words, we may send these types of weapons with the best of intentions, but it seems like there is little oversight as to how they actually end up getting used and that is troubling.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com