USN Fire-Control Interwar II


The Navy’s complete fire-control system, as it emerged in the years immediately after World War I and installed on its most modern battleships, the 16-inch-gunned Colorado class, was the most sophisticated in the world. The various elements of the system—the Ford rangekeeper, the stable vertical, reconfigurable connections, data-transmission systems, and a standard vocabulary—had come together to form a cohesive whole that dramatically increased the effectiveness of the officers and men responsible for bringing the guns onto the target. This had several important implications for the development of tactical doctrine in the interwar period.

The system enabled the “very rapid postwar development of U.S. naval gunnery,” which increasingly emphasized long-range gunfire using aerial spotting. It triggered the development of more sophisticated battle tactics designed to seize the initiative from opponents and keep them off balance. The system also provided a solid foundation for future investment; alone among the world’s major navies, the U.S. Navy emerged from World War I satisfied with its fire-control system. This meant that future research and development could focus on enhancing it while other navies struggled to bring their systems up to the new standard.

Wartime experience illustrated that seizing the initiative in a modern naval battle could be decisive. The Navy hoped that it could use aggressive offensive action and accurate long-range gunfire at the start of an engagement to control its pace and gain an advantage over the enemy. The War Instructions of 1923 clearly made this point, stressing that victory could best be obtained through the “assumption of the offensive, which confers the advantage of the initiative and enables us to impose our plan on the enemy.” By opening fire at extreme range, the Navy hoped to force an enemy formation to maneuver, possibly disrupting its transition from approach to battle formation. This would put the enemy on the defensive and prevent him from executing his plans. Having obtained the initiative from the outset, the Navy expected to be able to fight a decisive battle and secure victory.

A second advantage of firing at long-range was the increased likelihood of scoring a hit on the deck of an enemy ship. This had important implications. First, it increased the probability that a hit would penetrate vital areas—like machinery spaces or magazines—of the target. Second, the chances of a penetrating hit would be the same regardless of the target angle presented by the enemy (the firing ship’s relative bearing from the enemy). At closer ranges, hits would strike the hull and be less likely to penetrate at certain angles.

Finally, as Norman Friedman’s numerous design studies have shown, the Navy’s battleships enjoyed a relatively high level of protection against “plunging fire.” Beginning with the ships of the Nevada class, authorized in 1911 and designed under the new General Board process, all of the Navy’s battleships had featured the “all-or-nothing” armor scheme. Employing only the heaviest armor over the most vital portions of the ship and only light plating elsewhere, “all or nothing” was the first battleship armor scheme specifically intended to protect the ship in combat beyond ten thousand yards. The Navy’s twelve most modern battleships featured this scheme. The battleships of other navies had been designed with “incremental” armor schemes, patchworks of varied thicknesses with much less deck protection, designed for battle at significantly shorter ranges.

Long-range fire introduced a challenge for spotting. To make corrections effectively, spotters had to be able to see the impact of shells that missed the target. They had to be able to observe the target’s waterline and thereby gauge the distance between the target ship’s hull and the splashes of missing shells. At longer ranges, when the target’s hull was below the horizon, it was nearly impossible to adjust the fire-control solution accurately. This effectively limited the maximum range of battleship gunfire to between 22,000 and 26,000 yards. The only way to increase this distance was to increase the height of the spotting position. Masts could only be built so high; aircraft proved an ideal solution.

On 17 February 1919, the battleship Texas conducted a long-range firing exercise using aerial spotting. Radio was used to relay spotting data back to Texas, and observations from the plane proved much more effective than spotting from the masts of the ship. Lt. Cdr. Kenneth Whiting, in testimony before the General Board, estimated the increase in effectiveness to be as large as 200 percent. The Navy embraced aerial spotting as the key to long-range gunfire. Gunnery lectures and war games at the Naval War College reflected assumptions about its effectiveness, and as early as 1922, the Bureau of Aeronautics was advocating increased elevation for battleship guns (to allow firing at longer range) because of the greater accuracy aerial spotting made possible.

The capabilities of the Ford rangekeeper created new tactical possibilities. Because it could accurately model continuously changing range rates, the Navy began to consider using maneuver to gain an advantage in battle. Manual plotting approaches, like the Mark II Plotting Board, depended on keeping a steady course with relatively consistent range rates. This is one reason why opposing lines of battleships tended to settle on parallel courses. With the rangekeeper, the Navy had a system that could model the challenging situation of a target steaming on an opposite course. This was a significant potential advantage.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the Navy began to experiment with the concept of fighting on a course reciprocal to that of the enemy, what it called “reverse action.” The evidence suggests that the Navy assumed that the more primitive fire-control systems of the most likely opponent—the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN)—would be unable to deal adequately with the rapidly changing range rates. The enemy would be forced to fight at a disadvantage or to reverse course, a dangerous maneuver in battle. Either way, the Navy expected to gain a tactical advantage.

Accuracy of Battleship Gunfire at Long Ranges

Source: Capt. W. C. Watts, “Lecture on Gunnery for War College Class of 1923,” 22 September 1922, table E, 46, Strategic, box 13.

Immediately after World War I, there was a global emphasis on reducing military expenditures. National governments participated in a treaty system that reduced the sizes of all major navies and restricted the ships they could build. Large wartime budgets evaporated, and critical decisions about how best to invest the limited available funds had to be made. Because the Navy had already developed an effective fire-control system, investment in this area could be kept relatively low. This was a major advantage. The RN, in contrast, had concentrated on a less sophisticated system, the Dryer Table. Substantial investment was made in the development of an entirely new system in the early 1920s. The resulting Admiralty Fire Control Table was extremely capable, but it was large and costly. Insufficient resources were available to install it in all the RN’s battleships before World War II.

The U.S. Navy, having an effective fire-control system already in place, could concentrate on incrementally improving it and applying similar approaches to other areas. More advanced versions of the rangekeeper accounted for more variables and improved accuracy. Automatic remote control of guns and turrets eliminated another source of human error. Sophisticated computing devices for antiaircraft fire control were built to solve the same basic problem in three dimensions. The torpedo data computer gave submarines a fire-control system for their torpedoes. These new developments were ready by World War II and had a profound influence on it.

The emergence of the Navy’s fire-control system had important and long-running effects. It influenced battle tactics and doctrine; it provided a solid basis for improvement; and it allowed future efforts to focus on new features and functions. Specific characteristics of the system ensured that it could meet future needs effectively; the most important of these was its open architecture. This made it possible for new technologies—like the stable vertical and radar—to be integrated relatively easily, so that the capabilities of the system could be upgraded incrementally. In the language of complexity, the system had significant emergent potential.


The development of the Navy’s fire-control system offers insight into effective approaches to learning and innovation. One of the most important of these was the system of learning and feedback that focused attention on a specific objective: accurate gunfire, at long range, in battle. Sims created the initial version of that learning system, by introducing standardized approaches and competitive evaluation of ships and gunners. That system became an enabling constraint that fostered improvements as individual officers and men took it upon themselves to refine their skills and achieve better scores. The system of learning and feedback was augmented by the regular fire-control boards that examined current practices and recommended improvements. This incorporated a second level of feedback into the system; it identified the most effective approaches for further exploitation, eliminated the worst deficiencies, and fostered increasing standardization.

BuOrd sat above both of these feedback loops, taking in recommendations from the boards and the fleet and combining them with its own view as to what was possible. It sought new approaches to address deficiencies, often by farming out the invention of new technologies to specialists. The bureau consistently reserved the responsibility of system integration for itself, ensuring that the system met the Navy’s needs. Ultimately, the new fire-control system emerged from this interplay of individuals, their organizations, and these cycles of feedback.

The seed of the first innovative step came from Sims, triggered by his interaction with Scott and his system of continuous aim. Sims played the role of the reformer. He recognized the value of the new approach and agitated for its introduction. In this effort, Sims had powerful allies. Without the sponsorship of Rear Admiral Taylor, Sims never would have been appointed inspector of target practice. The connections Sims established with President Theodore Roosevelt also served him well, and they ensured protection for his methods and ideas, even when they disrupted existing approaches and institutions.

This was because Roosevelt and Taylor sought institutional realignment; they pushed the Navy toward a new era of professionalism, where evidence and data would trump anecdote and tradition. This contrasts with the traditional view of Sims as the enlightened radical who pushed for innovation against a tide of fierce resistance. Resistance there certainly was, but Sims did not operate alone. He was the willing foil of the president and more senior officers who wanted to bring about a revolutionary transformation.

Sims played the part well. Not satisfied with continuous aim, he sought to introduce a more radical change—an expectation of continual improvement that would provide the basis for the Navy’s advancements in fire control over the next forty years. This was the promise Sims brought when he assumed the role of inspector of target practice in 1902. Upon the introduction of the concept of fire control in 1905, he fulfilled it. Sims proved an able choice and impressed upon a willing generation of like-minded younger officers the need to continually refine and improve their work.

Technical expertise was also required to create the fire-control system. New technologies had to be invented to allow the system to deliver its potential. Sperry’s gyrocompass and his data-transmission systems were essential first steps. Ford’s rangekeeper was vital and became the heart of the new system, but it would not have been as effective without the self-synchronous transmission systems that came soon after.

The Navy recognized that outside expertise was necessary to create the components of the new system. BuOrd effectively harnessed the skills of Sperry, Ford, and their businesses to build a series of new technologies that made the innovative system possible. As the fire-control system developed, additional firms provided components, including General Electric and Arma. The importance of bringing in outside ideas—either of a technical nature, as in this case, or from some other field—should not be underestimated.

Variability played a key role. After the introduction of the constraint—Sims’ competitive system of target practice—and standardized approaches to continuous aim, ships were left to develop their own procedures for improving the accuracy of their fire. The variation in procedures from ship to ship led to multiple, parallel, safe-to-fail experiments as different officers trialed new ideas to enhance their scores. The decentralized climate of experimentation fostered new ideas, such as the range clock and range projector; accelerated overall learning; prevented the Navy from coalescing too rapidly around a single solution; and ultimately led to a more effective system. The fire-control boards tied these lessons together and ensured the whole Navy could learn from them.

Throughout the development of the fire-control system, the Navy remained in control of the overall system and chose to play the role of system integrator. Suppliers like Sperry and Ford contributed to it, but their parts were just components in a broader architecture. Neither vendor could obtain control of the system. That was a critical decision. By maintaining overall responsibility and assuming the role of system architect, BuOrd ensured that the system would perform correctly in battle. A secondary consequence of this decision was the emergence of open architecture; because the Navy contracted for pieces of the solution, the result was loosely coupled through well-defined interfaces. This made it possible to replace the plotting and tracking boards with the rangekeeper quickly and easily. It also made it possible to plug in new technologies, like the stable vertical and the director, as they became available.

The development of the Navy’s fire-control system is an excellent case study of how innovation can occur. There are numerous essential ingredients—a new idea, a champion to drive it, and a fertile environment in which the idea can take root. Most case studies stop with a similar list. What the history of the fire-control system illustrates is that more is needed: a system of feedback. Feedback is required to allow the other members of the organization to pursue actively the end goals established by the champion and his sponsors. Without this, the improvement efforts will not “scale” and grow throughout the organization; they will fade when the champion is not there to drive them. If the system can foster learning and experimentation, as the Navy’s fire-control exercises did, it will be more effective at identifying ideas that will enhance the initial concept.

Technical expertise is a given when discussing innovation. What the Navy’s experience shows, however, is that it is only a narrow aspect of the problem. Technical brilliance must be effectively integrated into a broader system. Ways to use the new technologies must be found; this can entail many challenges, such as new methods of communication, organization, and visualization. To make it all effective, system integration is required, and integration must be achieved with a clear eye to the end goal. For the Navy, this goal was success in battle, and the officers of BuOrd and the fleet focused their work on it; the exercises gave them regular feedback on their progress.

The open architecture was critical. Without the ability to reconfigure the system and improve it incrementally, improved technologies could not have been integrated so rapidly. This would have slowed progress, increased expense, and potentially inhibited innovation. The Navy might have been forced to use less effective solutions longer had the architecture not maintained the emergent potential of the system.

Finally, complexity suggests that the time immediately following a symmetry break can be a turbulent one. The Navy experienced this. The decision was made to move to fire control in 1905, but the existing procedures and equipment were insufficient. The Navy leveraged this uncertainty advantageously by patiently allowing individual experimentation and effective approaches to emerge. The Navy avoided a common problem for organizations pursuing innovation: premature convergence. It did not attempt to identify a “good” approach quickly; instead, it allowed time for an excellent approach to emerge from the collective work of many individuals.


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