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A military artillery observer or spotter is responsible for directing artillery and mortar fire, mostly at opportunity targets, and may be a Forward Air Controller (FAC) for close air support and spotter for naval gunfire support. Most commonly observers accompany a tank or infantry manouvre unit. More recently a mission controller for an Army Unmanned Air System (UAS) may also act as an artillery observer and some armies use special artillery patrols behind the enemy's forward elements.
Broadly, there are two very different approaches to artillery observation. Either the observer has command authority and orders fire, including the type and amount of ammunition to be fired, to batteries. Or the observer requests fire from an artillery headquarters at some level, which decides if fire will be provided, by which batteries, and the type and amount of ammunition to be provided. The first is characterised by the British, the second by the United States. In World War II both Germany and the Soviet Union tended towards the British method.
Because artillery is an indirect fire weapon system, the guns are rarely in line-of-sight of their target, often located miles away. The observer serves as the eyes of the guns, by sending target locations and if necessary corrections to the fall of shot, usually by radio.
In the US System the observer sends a request for fire, usually to his battalion or battery Fire Direction Center (FDC). The FDC then decides how much fire to permit and may request additional fire from a higher artillery headquarters. FDC(s) convert the observer's target information into firing data for the battery's weapons.
In the British system the observer sends a fire order to the batteries in support of his maneuver unit, he may in addition request support from additional batteries. Each battery command post converts the fire orders into firing data for its own guns. Until post-World War II the observer would usually order actual firing data to the guns of his own troop, this was enabled by the use of calibrating sights on the guns.
On land, artillery observers are considered high-priority targets by enemy forces, as they control a great amount of firepower, are within visual range of the enemy, and may be located within enemy territory.
In the US Army, a Light, Heavy, or Stryker Infantry company Fire Support Team (FIST) consists of a Fire Support Officer (FSO), a Fire Support Sergeant, three Forward Observers (FO), two Fire Support Specialists and three Radio Telephone Operators (RTO). Armored/Cavalry FIST teams usually consist of just one FSO and three enlisted personnel. Brigade COLT teams operate in groups of three to twelve. Currently in unit training is beginning to incorporate more close air support and close combat attack missions into the field artillery team's mission.
In the US Marine Corps, scout observers also act as naval gunfire spotters and call for, observe and adjust artillery and naval gunfire support, and coordinate fire support assets to include mortars, rockets, artillery, NSFS and CAS/CIFS. FO teams are usually attached to infantry weapons companies to provide indirect fire support to the company's movements.
From the introduction of indirect fire circa 1914 the Battery Commander was the observer for his battery and ordered the guns to fire. However, he also used observing officers from amongst his officers to relieve or assist him. In the 1938 reorganisation of the Royal Artillery Observation Post (OP) officers (captains) were introduced into field, medium and heavy batteries. These officers and their parties could operate as either OPs or accompany the supported arm (infantry or armour) as Forward Observation Officers (FOOs). During World War II it became the practice for close support battery commanders to become part of the tank regiment or infantry battalion headquarters they were supporting. They also started using 'quick fireplans' usually limited to their own regiment, to support fast moving limited battalion actions.
Generally FOOs were assigned to a company or squadron of a battalion or regiment that their battery was supporting. In the British artillery system FOOs were always authorised to order fire commands to their own troop or battery, based on their assessment of the tactical situation and if necessary liaison with the supported arm commander.
From mid World War II some artillery observers were authorised to order fire to all batteries of their regiment, it also became the practice for some observers to be designated 'Commander's Representative' able to order fire to a divisional or corps artillery. Unauthorised officers could request fire from more than their own battery. During that war it also became the practice that FOOs arranged quick fireplans comprising several coordinated targets engaged by guns and mortars to support short offensive actions by the squadron or company they were with.
In World War II OP/FOO parties were normally mounted in an armoured carrier, although those assigned to support armoured brigades usually had a tank. Initially a Stuart but in NW Europe usually a Sherman. Tanks continued to be used by some observers until about 1975. In 2002 the British Army adopted the term Fire Support Team (FST) for its observation parties, including FACs under control of the artillery officer commanding the FST.
A functionally similar title is "MFC" (Mortar Fire Controller). He does the same role of spotting as an FOO but for the mortars. In the British Army the mortars belong to the client regiments, so both the mortar battery and the MFC wear infantry cap-badges. The introduction of FSTs places MFCs under tactical control of the FST commander.
Training, enabled by simulators, allows most soldiers to observe artillery fire, which has long been possible via a FOO.
The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force had been responsible reporting targets and observation of fire in World War I, this role was subsequently called 'Arty/R, but proved difficult from high performance aircraft over hostile territory in World War II. In 1940 it was agreed that RAF AOP squadrons equipped with light aircraft, operating at low altitude over friendly territory and flown by Royal Artillery officers would be formed. These squadrons existed until the formation of the Army Air Corps in 1957.