Canada Testing Big TOW Missile System On Little MRZR Buggies

Members of the Canadian Army are working to prove a new concept of operations involving heavily armed Polaris MRZR 4×4 all-terrain vehicles, including ones with TOW anti-tank missiles. This effort started late last year and comes as troops in Ukraine have been making use of all-terrain vehicles, buggies, and other very light vehicles as mobile anti-tank platforms for well over a year now.

The Canadian Army highlighted this work after elements of the Canadian Army’s 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, or 3 RCR, put the MRZRs through the paces as part of an exercise called Lethal Weapon. That event took place on May 31 in Petawawa, Ontario, which is where the battalion is stationed.

Canadian soldiers fire a TOW missile from an MRZR all-terrain vehicle during Exercise Lethal Weapon. Canadian Armed Forces

The goal of the exercise was “to prove the new concept of adding anti-armor capabilities to the MRZR,” according to a post on the Canadian Army’s 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group’s official Facebook page. This “represents the latest evolution in 3 RCR’s efforts to increase their agility and lethality on the battlefield that began in November of 2022.”

The 3 RCR is part of the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.

Pictures the Canadian Army has released from the exercise show MRZRs armed with TOW missiles, as well as .50 caliber M2 machine guns and 40mm Heckler & Koch GMG automatic grenade launchers (known as the C16 in Canadian service). The M2s and C16s appear to be fitted with night vision and/or thermal optics.

A Canadian soldier fires a C16 automatic grenade launcher mounted on an MRZR all-terrain vehicle. Canadian Armed Forces

Though the original TOW missile first entered service in the 1970s, significantly improved variants, as well as upgraded launchers to fire them, have been developed in the decades since then. TOW remains a very effective and combat-proven system. In recent years it has become very closely associated with the conflict in Syria after the United States and other countries provided examples to armed groups fighting against the regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad and now ISIS.

The current generation of the TOW launcher has its own built-in day and night optics, including a forward-looking infrared sensor, that also gives it a secondary surveillance and reconnaissance capability.

MRZRs armed with a TOW missile launcher, in front, and a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, in he background, seen during Exercise Lethal Weapon. Canadian Armed Forces

Versions of the MRZR have been in service with armed forces around the world, including units within the U.S. special operations community for years now. However, they are typically employed without mounted weapons of any kind. If they are armed, it is more commonly in the form of lighter 7.62x51mm and 5.56x45mm machine guns on mounts at various points around the vehicle. They have also often been used to carry man-portable anti-tank missile launchers for use by personnel after they dismount.

A rendering of an MRZR with a 7.62x51mm M240B machine gun on a swing arm mount for use by the front passenger. Polaris

That being said, more heavily armed configurations have been demonstrated. This includes one example with a four-shot pod for firing laser-guided 70mm rockets, along with a sensor turret and an onboard launch system for Black Hornet microdrones.

An MRZR with a four-round rocket launcher for 70mm laser-guided rockets, a sensor turret, and a launch system for Balck Hornet microdrones. US Army

One immediate question when it comes to installing heavier weapons on a vehicle like the MRZR is about stability. A lack of stability can negatively impact the accuracy of various weapons.

There are also questions about weight distribution and changing the center of gravity when installing larger weapons onto lighter vehicles. This can have safety implications, especially in terms of the risk of rollover. The TOW system is a large contraption.

Though it’s not immediately clear what lessons were gleaned from Exercise Lethal Weapon, or any other testing done before or afterward, these are exactly the kinds of questions 3 RCR has no doubt been working to answer. The pictures from Exercsie Lethal Weapon do show TOW missiles and the other weapons being fired from the MRZRs without any readily apparent issues.

A TOW missile is seen exiting the launch tube of the launcher mounted on one of 3 RCR’s MRZRs. Canadian Armed Forces

If the various weapons work well with the MRZR platform, especially the TOW missile, this could offer lighter Canadian Army units valuable additional firepower and flexibility. MRZRs are already designed to offer significant off-road mobility and have the benefit, at least in their standard configuration, of being internally transportable inside larger helicopters, such as the CH-47 Chinook.

Mounted weapons have the benefit of not having to be unloaded, setup, and then reloaded onto the vehicle, too. This would better enable troops using these vehicles to utilize shoot-and-scoot tactics. Units with these vehicles could sneak up on enemy tanks and other much more heavily armed and protected threats, potentially via areas where other heavier friendly forces could not go, take their shot, and then quickly withdraw to safety.

Armed MRZRs on the move during Exercise Lethal Weapon. Canadian Armed Forces

As already noted, the sensors on the current generation of TOW launchers mean that an MRZR with that weapon system could act as a more capable scout, day or night, too.

On top of all of this, the MRZR is a relatively low-cost and easy-to-maintain vehicle that would be easier for lighter units to operate and sustain during protracted operations without immediate access to resupply.

Canadian Armed Forces

Why the Canadian Army has chosen now to explore this concept is also not clear. However, since Russia launched its all-out invasion in February 2022, the Ukrainian armed forces have made widespread use of similar all-terrain vehicles, other light vehicles, and even motorcycles as anti-tank missile launch platforms. Improvised armed vehicles like this were a particular feature earlier on in the conflict.

Russian forces have utilized similar vehicle/weapon combinations, too, if to a lesser extent.

It is, of course, worth noting that the idea of combining anti-armor weapons, including anti-tank missiles, with light vehicles to create a highly mobile force with sufficient firepower to at least briefly engage heavier units is hardly new. Mounting the TOW missile and other heavy weapons on the MRZR is particularly reminiscent of experimentation the U.S. Army did during the 1980s using armed Chenowth dune buggies.

US Army Chenowth Fast Attack Vehicles (FAV), one with a TOW missile launcher, seen during an exercise in South Korea during the 1980s. US Army

The U.S. Army ultimately abandoned that idea, in part due to concerns about the vulnerability of these vehicles, especially to higher-end enemy forces with significant artillery capabilities. At the time, proponents had argued, unsuccessfully, that the speed and flexibility of the Chenowth would make the unit difficult for enemy artillery and other heavy forces to pin down.

Chenowths did see limited combat service with U.S. special operations forces, including the U.S. Navy SEALs, and helped pave the way for the acquisition of various similar vehicles, including MRZRs.

SEAL Chenowths in Kuwait in 2002. USN

Debates surrounding vulnerability and survivability remain common when it comes to discussions about the military utility of lighter vehicles. At the same time, the war in Ukraine certainly has provided a new opportunity now to see how effective missile-armed ATVs and similar vehicles can be in actual conventional combat against a more robust opponent.

It remains to be seen how far the Canadian Army will pursue the idea of light units equipped with MRZRs armed with TOW missiles and other heavier weapons, but it’s not hard to see why there might be a burst of renewed interest in the core concept.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.