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A fire-control system is a number of components working together, usually a gun data computer, a director, and radar, which is designed to assist a weapon system in hitting its target. It performs the same task as a human gunner firing a weapon, but attempts to do so faster and more accurately.
The original fire-control systems were developed for ships. When gunnery ranges increased dramatically in the late 19th century it was no longer a simple matter of calculating the proper aim point, given the flight times of the shells. Increasingly sophisticated mechanical calculators were employed for proper gunlaying, typically with various spotters and distance measures being sent to a central plotting station deep within the ship. There the fire direction teams fed in the location, speed and direction of the ship and its target, as well as various adjustments for Coriolis effect, weather effects on the air, and other adjustments. The resulting directions, known as a firing solution, would then be fed back out to the turrets for laying. If the rounds missed, an observer could work out how far they missed by and in which direction, and this information could be fed back into the computer along with any changes in the rest of the information and another shot attempted.
Submarines were also equipped with fire control computers for the same reasons, but their problem was even more pronounced; in a typical "shot", the torpedo would take one to two minutes to reach its target. Calculating the proper "lead" given the relative motion of the two vessels was very difficult, and torpedo data computers were added to dramatically improve the speed of these calculations.
The Dreyer Table fire control system was already fitted to British capital ships by mid-1916. It was claimed to have been plagiarised from earlier work by Arthur Pollen, but given the differences between the two designs this is now disputed. Pollen's final "clock" (computer), the Argo Mark V, was installed on ships of the Imperial Russian Navy. An improved development the "Admiralty Fire Control Table" was in use in 1927.
By the start of World War II, aircraft altitude performance had increased so much that anti-aircraft guns had similar predictive problems, and were increasingly equipped with fire-control computers. The main difference between these systems and the ones on ships was size and speed. The early versions of the High Angle Control System, or HACS, of Britain's Royal Navy were examples of a system that predicted based upon the assumption that target speed, direction, and altitude would remain constant during the prediction cycle, which consisted of the time to fuze the shell and the time of flight of the shell to the target. The USN Mk 37 system made similar assumptions except that it could predict assuming a constant rate of altitude change. The Kerrison Predictor is an example of a system that was built to solve laying in "real time", simply by pointing the director at the target and then aiming the gun at a pointer it directed. It was also deliberately designed to be small and light, in order to allow it to be easily moved along with the guns it served.
Simple systems, known as lead computing sights, also made their appearance as gyro gunsights inside aircraft late in the war. These devices used a gyroscope to measure turn rates, and moved the gunsight's aim-point to take this into account. The only manual "input" to the sight was the target distance, which was typically handled by dialing in the size of the target's wing span at some known range. Small radar units were added in the post-war period to automate even this input, but it was some time before they were fast enough to make the pilots completely satisfied.
Modern fire-control computers, like all high-performance computers, are digital. The added performance allows basically any input to be added, from air density and wind, to wear on the barrels and distortion due to heating. These sorts of effects are noticeable for any sort of gun, and fire-control computers have started appearing on smaller and smaller platforms. Tanks were one early use that automated gun laying using a laser rangefinder and a barrel-distortion meter. Fire-control computers are not just useful for large cannons. They can be used to aim machine guns, small cannons, guided missiles, rifles, grenades, rockets — any kind of weapon that can have its launch or firing parameters varied. They are typically installed on ships, submarines, aircraft, tanks and even on some small arms, for example the grenade launcher developed for use on the Fabrique Nationale F2000 bullpup assault rifle. Fire-control computers have gone through all the stages of technology that computers have, with some designs based upon analogue technology and later vacuum tubes which were later replaced with transistors.
Fire-control systems are often interfaced with sensors (such as sonar, radar, infra-red search and track, laser range-finders, anemometers, wind vanes, thermometers, etc.) in order to cut down or eliminate the amount of information that must be manually entered in order to calculate an effective solution. Sonar, radar, IRST and range-finders can give the system the direction to and/or distance of the target. Alternatively, an optical sight can be provided that an operator can simply point at the target, which is easier than having someone input the range using other methods and gives the target less warning that it is being tracked. Typically, weapons fired over long ranges need environmental information — the farther a munition travels, the more the wind, temperature, etc. will affect its trajectory, so having accurate information is essential for a good solution. Sometimes, for very long-range rockets, environmental data has to be obtained at high altitudes or in between the launching point and the target. Often, satellites or balloons are used to gather this information.
Once the firing solution is calculated, many modern fire-control systems are also able to aim and fire the weapon(s). Once again, this is in the interest of speed and accuracy, and in the case of a vehicle like an aircraft or tank, in order to allow the pilot/gunner/etc. to perform other actions simultaneously, such as tracking the target or flying the aircraft. Even if the system is unable to aim the weapon itself, for example the fixed cannon on an aircraft, it is able to give the operator cues on how to aim. Typically, the cannon points straight ahead and the pilot must maneuver the aircraft so that it oriented correctly before firing. In most aircraft the aiming cue takes the form of a "pipper" which is projected on the heads-up display (HUD). The pipper shows the pilot where the target must be relative to the aircraft in order to hit it. Once the pilot maneuvers the aircraft so that the target and pipper are superimposed, he or she fires the weapon, or on some aircraft the weapon will fire automatically at this point, in order to overcome the delay of the pilot. In the case of a missile launch, the fire-control computer may give the pilot feedback about whether the target is in range of the missile and how likely the missile is to hit if launched at any particular moment. The pilot will then wait until the probability reading is satisfactorily high before launching the weapon.
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The situation for naval fire control was more complex due of the need to control the firing of several guns at once. In naval engagements both the firing guns and target are moving, and the variables are compounded by the greater distances and times involved. Naval gun fire control potentially involves three levels of complexity. Local control originated with primitive gun installations aimed by the individual gun crews. Director control aims all guns on the ship at a single target. Coordinated gunfire from a formation of ships at a single target was a focus of battleship fleet operations. Corrections are made for surface wind velocity, firing ship roll and pitch, powder magazine temperature, drift of rifled projectiles, individual gun bore diameter adjusted for shot-to-shot enlargement, and rate of change of range with additional modifications to the firing solution based upon the observation of preceding shots.
The UK built their first system before World War I. At the heart was an analogue computer designed by Commander (later Admiral Sir) Frederic Charles Dreyer that calculated rate of change of range. The Dreyer Table was to be improved and served into the interwar period at which point it was superseded in new and reconstructed ships by the Admiralty Fire Control Table.
The use of director-controlled firing, together with the fire control computer, removed the control of the gun laying from the individual turrets to a central position; although individual gun mounts and multi-gun turrets would retain a local control option for use when battle damage limited director information transfer (these would be simpler versions called "turret tables" in the Royal Navy). Guns could then be fired in planned salvos, with each gun giving a slightly different trajectory. Dispersion of shot caused by differences in individual guns, individual projectiles, powder ignition sequences, and transient distortion of ship structure was undesirably large at typical naval engagement ranges. Directors high on the superstructure had a better view of the enemy than a turret mounted sight, and the crew operating them were distant from the sound and shock of the guns. Gun directors were topmost, and the ends of their optical rangefinders protruded from their sides, giving them a distinctive appearance.
Unmeasured and uncontrollable ballistic factors, like high altitude temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind direction and velocity, required final adjustment through observation of the fall of shot. Visual range measurement (of both target and shell splashes) was difficult prior to availability of Radar. The British favoured coincident rangefinders while the Germans favored the stereoscopic type. The former were less able to range on an indistinct target but easier on the operator over a long period of use, the latter the reverse.
In a typical World War II British ship the fire control system connected the individual gun turrets to the director tower (where the sighting instruments were located) and the analogue computer in the heart of the ship. In the director tower, operators trained their telescopes on the target; one telescope measured elevation and the other bearing. Rangefinder telescopes on a separate mounting measured the distance to the target. These measurements were converted by the Fire Control Table into the bearings and elevations for the guns to fire upon. In the turrets, the gunlayers adjusted the elevation of their guns to match an indicator for the elevation transmitted from the Fire Control table — a turret layer did the same for bearing. When the guns were on target they were centrally fired.
Even with as much mechanization of the process, it still required a large human element; the Transmitting Station (the room that housed the Dreyer table) for HMS Hood's main guns housed 27 crew.
For U.S. Navy gun fire control systems, see ship gun fire-control systems.
Directors were largely unprotected from enemy fire. It was difficult to put much weight of armour so high up on the ship, and even if the armour did stop a shot, the impact alone would likely knock the instruments out of alignment. Sufficient armour to protect from smaller shells and fragments from hits to other parts of the ship was the limit.
Early systems made use of multiple observation or base end stations (see Figure 1) to find and track targets attacking American harbors. Data from these stations were then passed to plotting rooms, where analog mechanical devices, such as the plotting board, were used to estimate targets' positions and derive firing data for batteries of coastal guns assigned to interdict them.
U.S. Coast Artillery forts bristled with a variety of armament, ranging from 12-inch coast defense mortars, through 3-inch and 6-inch mid-range artillery, to the larger guns, which included 10-inch and 12-inch barbette and disappearing carriage guns, 14-inch railroad artillery, and 16-inch cannon installed just prior to and up through World War II.
Fire control in the Coast Artillery became more and more sophisticated in terms of correcting firing data for such factors as weather conditions, the condition of powder used, or the Earth's rotation. Provisions were also made for adjusting firing data for the observed fall of shells. As shown in the figure at right, all of these data were fed back to the plotting rooms on a finely tuned schedule controlled by a system of time interval bells that rang throughout each harbor defense system.
It was only later in World War II that electro-mechanical gun data computers, connected to coast defense radars, began to replace optical observation and manual plotting methods in controlling coast artillery. Even then, the manual methods were retained as a back-up through the end of the war.
Once an engagement has begun, it is also possible for a fire control radar to track incoming fire, trace back the trajectories to their source, and produce the coordinates of an enemy unwise enough to fire ballistic rounds. This return-fire capability has been included in some systems since the 1970s. Returning fire to the location of the rounds' origin is known as counter-battery fire.
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An early use of fire-control systems was in bomber aircraft, with the use of computing bombsights that accepted altitude and airspeed information to predict and display the impact point of a bomb released at that time. The best known United States device was the Norden bombsight.
Simple systems, known as lead computing sights also made their appearance inside aircraft late in the war. These devices used a gyroscope to measure turn rates, and moved the gunsight's aim-point to take this into account, with the aim point presented through a reflector sight. The only manual "input" to the sight was the target distance, which was typically handled by dialing in the size of the target's wing span at some known range. Small radar units were added in the post-war period to automate even this input, but it was some time before they were fast enough to make the pilots completely happy with them.
By the start of the Vietnam War, a new computerized bombing predictor, called the Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), began to be integrated into the systems of aircraft equipped to carry nuclear armaments. This new bomb computer was revolutionary in that the release command for the bomb was given by the computer, not the pilot; the pilot designated the target using the radar or other targeting system, then "consented" to release the weapon, and the computer then did so at a calculated "release point" some seconds later. This is very different from previous systems, which, though they had also become computerized, still calculated an "impact point" showing where the bomb would fall if the bomb were released at that moment. The key advantage is that the weapon can be released accurately even when the plane is maneuvering. Most bombsights until this time required that the plane maintain a constant attitude (usually level), though dive-bombing sights were also common.
The LABS system was originally designed to facilitate a tactic called toss bombing, to allow the aircraft to remain out of range of a weapon's blast radius. The principle of calculating the release point, however, was eventually integrated into the fire control computers of later bombers and strike aircraft, allowing level, dive and toss bombing. In addition, as the fire control computer became integrated with ordnance systems, the computer can take the flight characteristics of the weapon to be launched into account.
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