In 1968, a contract for full-scale production was awarded to Hughes, and by 1970 the system was being fielded by the U.S. Army. When adopted, the BGM-71 series replaced the M40 106 mm recoilless rifle and the MGM-32 ENTAC missile system then in service. The missile also replaced the AGM-22B then in service as a heli-borne anti-tank weapon.
Vietnam: first combat use of TOW anti-armor missile
On 24 April 1972, the U.S. 1st Combat Aerial TOW Team arrived in South Vietnam; the team's mission was to test the new anti-armor missile under combat conditions. The team consisted of three crews, technical representatives from Bell Helicopter and Hughes Aircraft, members of the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, and two UH-1B helicopters; each mounting the XM26 TOW weapons system, which had been taken from storage. After displacing to the Central Highlands for aerial gunnery, the unit commenced daily searches for enemy armor. On 2 May 1972, U.S. Army UH-1 Huey helicopters firing TOWs destroyed North Vietnamese tanks near An Loc. This was heralded as the first time a U.S. unit neutralized enemy armor using American-designed and built guided missiles (in this case against an American-made M-41). On 9 May, elements of the North Vietnamese Army's 203rd Armored Regiment assaulted Ben Het Camp held by Army of the Republic of Vietnam Rangers . The Rangers destroyed the first three PT-76 amphibious light tanks of the 203rd, thereby breaking up the attack. During the battle for the city of Kontum, the TOW missile had proven to be a significant weapon in disrupting enemy tank attacks within the region. By the end of May, BGM-71 TOW missiles had accumulated 24 confirmed kills of both PT-76 light and T-54 main battle tanks.
On 19 August, the South Vietnamese 5th Infantry Regiment abandoned Firebase Ross in the Que Son Valley, 30 miles southwest of Da Nang, to the North Vietnamese 711th Division. A dozen TOW missiles were left with abandoned equipment and fell into Communist hands.
1982 Lebanon War
The Israel Defense Forces used TOW missiles during the 1982 Lebanon War. On 11 July Israeli anti-tank teams armed with the TOW ambushed Syrian armored forces and destroyed 11 Syrian Soviet-made T-72 tanks. This was probably the first encounter of the American anti-tank missile with the newer Soviet tank.
1985 Iran–Iraq War
In the Iran–Iraq War, the Islamic Republic of Iran Army used TOW missiles purchased before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, as well as those purchased during the Iran–Contra affair.
Of the 202 AH-1J Internationals (export variant of the AH-1J SeaCobra) that Iran purchased from the USA, 62 were TOW-capable. Iranian AH-1Js managed to slow down advances of Iraqi tanks into Iran. During the "dogfights" between Iranian SeaCobras and Iraqi Mil Mi-24s, Iranians achieved several "kills", usually using TOW missiles.
1991 Gulf War
The TOW was used in multiple engagements during Operation Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf War. During the war, both the M2 Bradley Infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and the M3 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle (CFV) carried TOW missiles. The M2 can also carry an additional 7 rounds, while the M3 can carry an additional 12 rounds. Both M2 and M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles destroyed more Iraqi tanks during the war, than M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks did.
The British Army also deployed TOW-armed, Westland Lynx helicopters to the conflict, where they were used to attack Iraqi armoured vehicles. This was the first recorded use of the missile from a British helicopter.
On June 5, 24 Pakistani soldiers were slaughtered by members of Mohamed Farrah Aidid's Habr Gdir militia; some were skinned. Subsequently, the United Nations called for the arrest of those responsible. Weeks later they would formally place the blame on Aidid, leader of the Habr Gidr clan. Ever since, U.N. troops had been hunting Aidid. There had been worsening incidents, with fighting back and forth. On 12 July, three months prior to the Battle of Mogadishu, the United Nations and United States attempted to defeat Aidid's organization by attacking a strategy meeting of his native Habr Gidr clan under Operation Michigan. The Washington Post described the event as a "slaughter" in which a "half-dozen" AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters fired 16 TOW missiles and 2,000 rounds from their 20 mm cannons into the meeting of the elders, intellectuals, poets, religious leaders, and senior combat commanders. The first TOW missile destroyed the stairs, preventing escape. In the aftermath, it was revealed that Aidid was not in the meeting. The Red Cross claimed that 54 people had been killed, as against Admiral Jonathan T. Howe who report that 20 had died, and Aidid’s SNA, which produced a list of 73 people whom they claimed had been killed. The reference originates from a New Left Review source, associated with the World Peace Foundation
2003 Iraq War
10 Humvee-mounted TOW missiles were used by U.S. forces in Iraq, in the 22 July 2003 assault that killed Uday and Qusay Hussein. Although the T0W missiles are used against tanks, these missles were used on the house the two men were in.
2011 Syrian Civil War
The weapon was spotted as early as April 2014 in at least two videos that surfaced showing Syrian opposition forces in the Syrian Civil War using BGM-71 TOWs, a weapon previously not seen in use by the opposition. Such a video, showing a BGM-71E-3B with the serial number removed, can be seen in a 27 May 2014 episode of the PBS series Frontline.
In February 2015, The Carter Center listed 23 groups within the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army that have been documented using US supplied TOWs.
A sudden influx of TOWs were supplied in May 2015, mostly to Free Syrian Army affiliated factions, but also independent Islamist battalions; as a requirement of being provided TOWs, these Syrian opposition groups are required to document the use of the missiles by filming their use, and are also required to save the spent missile casings. Groups provided with TOWs include the Hazzm Movement, the 13th Division, 1st Coastal Division, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Yarmouk Army, Knights of Justice Brigade, and the 101st Division. Free Syrian Army battalions widely and decisively used TOWs in the 2015 Jisr al-Shughur offensive.