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The TOW missile is fired from a mounted tube with optical tracking equipment which tracks the missile's position in relation to the designated target and corrects via impulses through the wires that trail behind the missile - hence the tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided. The missile typically rocks back and forth along the "axis" of the guidance, correcting every time it crosses this "axis" until it reaches its target.

The TOW is a powerful weapon due to the size of its warhead, and is one of the most powerful surface-to-surface anti-tank missiles in current service. It also has an extremely long range, even outside of that of the newer FGM-148 Javelin, and is less vulnerable to jamming or decoying as the weapon uses wires and is actively guided. The downside is that the operator must stay in one location while guiding the missile as movement of the tracking device will cause undesired effects with guidance, while with fire-and-forget type missiles such as the aforementioned Javelin, the operator may move as soon as the weapon has been fired.

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