Anti-tank missiles are surface-to-surface or air-to-surface missiles optimized to defeat the most heavily armored of battlefield vehicles, tanks. They range in size from easily portable shoulder-fired missiles [[e.g., FGM-148 Javelin) to larger weapons fired from purpose-built vehicles or aircraft (e.g., BGM-71 TOW). TOW is an abbreviation for the defining characteristic of a generation of medium to heavy anti-tank missiles: tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided. Newer missiles in this class have more autonomous guidance.
There are also anti-tank missiles that can be fired from the shoulder of a single soldier, which previously had been the province of unguided rockets with warheads optimized for armor damages. The unguided versions included the Second World War U.S. bazooka, German Panzerfaust, and Soviet RPG; the next generation, more lethal, included an upgraded 3.5" bazooka, the 66mm light antitank weapon (LAW) and the AT-4. Representative of a modern antitank guided missile is the U.S. FGM-148 Javelin.
On virtually all tanks, the armor is thinnest, and thus most vulnerable, on top of the turret. Further, the tank commander, and quite likely most of the crew, are likely to be in the turret, so a top attack can disable the crew and score a mission kill.
Some armored vehicles have a protective measure, seemingly counterintuitive, of reactive armor: sheets of explosive that will detonate outwards when hit, which can interfere with explosively formed projectiles used in antitank warheads.
Fire and forget
Light to medium, shoulder-fired or fired from portable mount
- Soviet 9M14M Malutka (Tiny or Little Baby)/NATO: AT-3 SAGGER
- U.S. M47 Dragon, fired from portable tripod; replaced by FGM-148 Javelin
Medium to heavy, fired from mount
The larger anti-tank missiles may variously be fired from a mount on an armored or unarmored vehicle, from helicopters, and sometimes from fixed-wing aircraft.
- French Euromissile HOT (French: haut subsonique optiquement téléguidé tiré d’un tube, or high-subsonic, optically teleguided, tube-fired)
- French MILAN (French: missile d’infanterie léger antichar or light infantry antitank missile)
- Soviet AT-5/SPANDREL and AT-6/SPIRAL
- U.K. Swingfire
- U.S. BGM-71 TOW