Proximity fuze

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Proximity fuze MK53 fuze removed from shell. Circa 1950s

A proximity fuze is a fuze that detonates an explosive device automatically when the distance to the target becomes smaller than a predetermined value. Proximity fuzes are designed for targets such as planes, missiles, ships at sea and ground forces. They provide a more sophisticated trigger mechanism than the common contact fuze or timed fuze, it is estimated that it increases the lethality by 5 to 10 times, compared to these other fuzes.[1]

British military researchers Sir Samuel Curran and W. A. S. Butement invented a proximity fuze in the early stages of World War II under the name VT, an acronym of "Variable Time fuze".[2] The system was a small, short range, Doppler radar. However, Britain lacked the capacity to develop the fuze, so the design was shown to the United States during the Tizard Mission in late 1940. The fuze needed to be miniaturized, survive the high acceleration of cannon launch, and be reliable.[3] Development was completed under the direction of physicist Merle A. Tuve at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL).[4] Over 2000 American companies were mobilized to build some 20 million shell fuzes.[5]

The proximity fuze was one of the most important technological innovations of the war. It was so important that it was a secret guarded to a similar level as the atom bomb project or D-Day invasion.[6][7][8] Adm. Lewis L. Strauss wrote that, "One of the most original and effective military developments in World War II was the proximity, or 'VT', fuze. It was of incalculable value to both the Army and Navy, and it helped save London from obliteration. While no one invention won the war, the proximity fuze must be listed among the very small group of developments, such as radar, upon which victory very largely depended."[9] The fuze was later found to be able to detonate artillery shells in air bursts, greatly increasing their anti-personnel effects.[10]

The Germans were supposedly also working on proximity fuzes in the 1930s, based on capacitive effects rather than radar. Research and prototype work at Rheinmetall were halted in 1940 to devote available resources to projects deemed more necessary. In the post-World War II era, a number of new proximity fuze systems were developed, including radio, optical and other means. A common form used in modern air-to-air weapons uses a laser as an optical source and time-of-flight for ranging.


Before the proximity fuze's invention, detonation was induced by direct contact, a timer set at launch, or an altimeter. All of these earlier methods have disadvantages. The probability of a direct hit on a small moving target is low; a shell that just misses the target will not explode. A time- or height-triggered fuze requires an accurate prediction; if the setting is wrong, then even accurately aimed shells may explode harmlessly before reaching the target. With a proximity fuze, the shell or missile need only pass close by the target at some time during its trajectory. The proximity fuze makes the problem simpler than the previous methods.

Proximity fuzes are also useful for producing air bursts against ground targets. A contact fuze would explode when it hit the ground; it would not be very effective at scattering shrapnel. A timer fuze can be set to explode a few meters above the ground, but the timing is critical and usually requires observers to provide information for adjusting the timing. Observers may not be practical in many situations, the ground may be uneven, and the practice is slow in any event. Proximity fuzes fitted to such weapons as artillery and mortar shells solve this problem by having a range of pre-set burst heights (e.g. 2, 4 or 10 metres, or about 7, 13, or 33 feet) above ground that are selected by gun crews prior to firing. The shell bursts at the appropriate height above ground.

World War II[edit]

Design in the UK[edit]

In the late 1930s the UK was working on a variety of developments to increase air defence efficiency

...Into this stepped W. A. S. Butement, designer of radar sets CD/CHL and GL, with a proposal on 30 October 1939 for two kinds of radio fuze: (1) a radar set would track the projectile, and the operator would transmit a signal to a radio receiver in the fuze when the range, the difficult quantity for the gunners to determine, was the same as that of the target and (2) a fuze would emit high-frequency radio waves that would interact with the target and produce, as a consequence of the high relative speed of target and projectile, a Doppler-frequency signal sensed in the oscillator.[11]

The first radar proximity fuze was proposed by Butement, Edward S. Shire, and Amherst F.H. Thompson,[2] in a memo to the British Air Defence Establishment in May 1940. A breadboard circuit was constructed by the inventors and the concept was tested in the laboratory by moving a sheet of tin at various distances. Early field testing connected the circuit to a thyratron trigger operating a tower-mounted camera which photographed passing aircraft to determine distance of fuze function.

Prototype fuzes were then constructed in June 1940, and installed in unrotated projectiles, the British cover name for solid fueled rockets, and fired at targets supported by balloons.[2] This had the advantage that the rockets have relatively low acceleration and no spin to create centrifugal force, so the loads on the fuse were relatively benign. It was understood this was not ideal, that the fuse would be useful on all types of artillery and especially anti-aircraft artillery. As early as September 1939, John Cockroft began a development effort at Pye Ltd. to develop tubes capable of withstanding these much greater forces.[12] Pye's research was transferred to the United States as part of the technology package delivered by the Tizard Mission when the United States entered the war.

The British ordered 20,000 special miniature tubes from Western Electric Company and Radio Corporation of America, and an American team under Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Sr. correctly deduced that the tubes were meant for experiments with proximity fuzes.[3] The details of these experiments were passed to the United States Naval Research Laboratory and National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) by the Tizard Mission in September 1940, in accordance with an informal agreement between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to exchange scientific information of potential military value.[2]

Improvement in the US[edit]

Following receipt of details from the British, the experiments were successfully duplicated by Richard B. Roberts, Henry H. Porter, and Robert B. Brode under the direction of NDRC section T chairman Merle Tuve.[2] Lloyd Berkner of Tuve's staff devised an improved fuze using separate tubes (British English: thermionic valves or just "valves") for transmission and reception. In December 1940, Tuve invited Harry Diamond and Wilbur S. Hinman, Jr, of the United States National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to investigate Berkner's improved fuze.[2] The NBS team built six fuzes which were placed in air-dropped bombs and successfully tested over water on 6 May 1941.[2]

While working for a defense contractor in the mid-1940s, Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg stole a working model of an American proximity fuze and delivered it to the Soviet intelligence.[13]

In the USA, NDRC focused on radio fuzes for use with anti-aircraft artillery, where acceleration was up to 20,000 g as opposed to about 100 g for rockets and much less for dropped bombs.[14] In addition to extreme acceleration, artillery shells were spun by the rifling of the gun barrels to close to 30,000 rpm, creating immense centrifugal force. Working with Western Electric Company and Raytheon Company, miniature hearing-aid tubes were modified to withstand this extreme stress. The T-3 fuze had a 52% success against a water target when tested in January, 1942. The United States Navy accepted that failure rate, and batteries aboard cruiser USS Cleveland (CL-55) tested proximity-fuzed ammunition against drone aircraft targets over Chesapeake Bay in August 1942. The tests were so successful that all target drones were destroyed before testing was complete.[2]

A particularly successful application was the 90mm shell with VT fuze with the SCR-584 automatic tracking radar and the M-9 electronic fire control computer. The combination of these three inventions was successful in shooting down many V-1 flying bombs aimed at London and Antwerp, otherwise difficult targets for anti-aircraft guns due to their small size and high speed.

In Germany, more than 30 approaches to proximity fuze development were under way, but none saw service.[3] These included acoustic fuzes triggered by engine sound, one based on electrostatic fields developed by Rheinmetall Borsig AG, and radio fuzes. A German neon lamp tube and a design of a prototype proximity fuze based on capacitive effects was received by British Intelligence in mid November 1939. By the end of the war, only one was actually in production, a complicated radio proximity fuze for rockets and bombs (but not designed to withstand the acceleration of artillery shells).


The Allied fuze used constructive and destructive interference to detect its target.[15] The design had four tubes.[16] One tube was an oscillator connected to an antenna; it functioned as both a transmitter and an autodyne detector (receiver). When the target was far away, it would reflect little of the oscillator's energy back to the fuze and have almost no effect on the circuit. When a target was nearby, it would reflect a significant portion of the oscillator's signal back to the fuze. The amplitude of the reflected signal indicated the closeness of the target.[notes 1] This reflected signal would affect the oscillator depending on the round trip distance from the fuze to the target. If the reflected signal were in phase, the oscillator amplitude would increase and the oscillator's plate current would also increase. If the reflected signal were out of phase, then the plate current would decrease.

The distance between the fuze and the target is not constant but rather constantly changing due to the high speed of the fuze and any motion of the target. When the distance between the fuze and the target changes rapidly, then the phase relationship also changes rapidly. The signals are in-phase one instant and out-of-phase a few hundred microseconds later. The result is a heterodyne beat frequency that indicates the velocity difference. Viewed another way, the received signal frequency is doppler shifted from the oscillator frequency by the relative motion of the fuze and target. Consequently, a low frequency signal corresponding to the frequency difference develops at the oscillator's plate terminal. Two additional amplifiers detected and filtered this low frequency signal. If the amplified beat frequency signal is large enough (indicating a nearby object), then it triggers the 4th tube (a gas-filled thyratron); the thyratron conducts a large current that sets off the electrical detonator. There were many shock hardening techniques including planar electrodes and packing the components in wax and oil to equalize the stresses.

The designation VT means variable time. Captain S. R. Shumaker, Director of the Bureau of Ordinance's Research and Development Division, coined the term to be descriptive without hinting at the technology.[17]


The anti-aircraft artillery range at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico was used as the test facility for the proximity fuze. Almost 50,000 test firings were conducted on the range from 1942 to 1945.[18]


First large scale production of tubes for the new fuzes[2] was at a General Electric plant in Cleveland, Ohio formerly used for manufacture of Christmas-tree lamps. Fuze assembly was completed at General Electric plants in Schenectady, New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut.[19]

By 1944 a large proportion of the American electronics industry concentrated on making the fuzes. Procurement contracts increased from $60 million in 1942, to $200 million in 1943, to $300 million in 1944 and were topped by $450 million in 1945. As volume increased, efficiency came into play and the cost per fuze fell from $732 in 1942 to $18 in 1945. This permitted the purchase of over 22 million fuzes for approximately one billion dollars. The main suppliers were Crosley, RCA, Eastman Kodak, McQuay-Norris and Sylvania. There were also over two thousand suppliers and subsuppliers, ranging from powder manufacturers to machine shops.[20][21] It was among the first mass-production applications of printed circuits.[22]


Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during the war, credited the proximity fuze with three significant effects.[23]

  • It was important in defense from Japanese Kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. Bush estimated a sevenfold increase in the effectiveness of 5-inch antiaircraft artillery with this innovation.[24]
  • It was an important part of the radar-controlled antiaircraft batteries that finally neutralized the German V-1 attacks on England.[24]
  • It was used in Europe starting in the Battle of the Bulge where it was very effective in artillery shells fired against German infantry formations, and changed the tactics of land warfare.

At first the fuzes were only used in situations where they could not be captured by the Germans. They were used in land-based artillery in the South Pacific in 1944. Also in 1944, fuzes were allocated to the British Army's Anti-Aircraft Command, that was engaged in defending Britain against the V-1 flying bomb. As most of the British heavy anti-aircraft guns were deployed in a long, thin coastal strip, dud shells fell into the sea, safely out of reach of capture. Over the course of the German V-1 campaign, the proportion of flying bombs flying through the coastal gun belt that were destroyed rose from 17% to 74%, reaching 82% during one day. A minor problem encountered by the British was that the fuses were sensitive enough to detonate the shell if it passed too close to a seagull and a number of seagull "kills" were recorded.[25]

The Pentagon refused to allow the Allied field artillery use of the fuzes in 1944, although the United States Navy fired proximity-fuzed anti-aircraft shells during the July 1943 invasion of Sicily.[26] After General Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded he be allowed to use the fuzes, 200,000 shells with VT fuzes or (code named "POZIT"[27]) were used in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. They made the Allied heavy artillery far more devastating, as all the shells now exploded just before hitting the ground.[28] It decimated German divisions caught in the open. The Germans felt safe from timed fire because they thought that the bad weather would prevent accurate observation. The effectiveness of the new VT fused shells exploding in mid-air, on exposed personnel, caused a minor mutiny when German soldiers started refusing orders to move out of their bunkers during an artillery attack. U.S. General George S. Patton said that the introduction of the proximity fuze required a full revision of the tactics of land warfare.[29]

Proximity fuzes were incorporated into bombs dropped by the USAAF on Japan in 1945.

The Germans started their own independent research in the 1930s but the programme was cut in 1940 likely due to the Führer Directive (Führerbefehl) that, with few exceptions, stipulated all work that could not be put into production within 6 months was to be terminated to increase resources for those projects that could (in order to support Operation Barbarossa). It was at this time that the Germans also abandoned their magnetron and microwave radar development teams and programs. Many other advanced and experimental programs also suffered. Upon resumption of research and testing by Rheinmetall in 1944 the Germans managed to develop and test fire several hundred working prototypes before the war ended.

Sensor types[edit]


Radio frequency sensing is the main sensing principle for artillery shells.

The device described in World War II patent[30] works as follows: The shell contains a micro-transmitter which uses the shell body as an antenna and emits a continuous wave of roughly 180–220 MHz. As the shell approaches a reflecting object, an interference pattern is created. This pattern changes with shrinking distance: every half wavelength in distance (a half wavelength at this frequency is about 0.7 meters), the transmitter is in or out of resonance. This causes a small cycling of the radiated power and consequently the oscillator supply current of about 200–800 Hz, the Doppler frequency. This signal is sent through a band pass filter, amplified, and triggers the detonation when it exceeds a given amplitude.


Optical sensing was developed in 1935, and patented in Great Britain in 1936, by a Swedish inventor, probably Edward W. Brandt, using a petoscope. It was first tested as a part of a detonation device for bombs that were to be dropped over bomber aircraft, part of the UK's Air Ministry's "bombs on bombers" concept. It was considered (and later patented by Brandt) for use with anti-aircraft missiles fired from the ground. It used then a toroidal lens, that concentrated all light from a plane perpendicular to the missile's main axis onto a photo cell. When the cell current changed a certain amount in a certain time interval, the detonation was triggered.

Some modern air-to-air missiles (e.g. the ASRAAM and AA-12 Adder) use lasers to trigger detonation. They project narrow beams of laser light perpendicular to the flight of the missile. As the missile cruises towards its target the laser energy simply beams out into space. As the missile passes its target some of the energy strikes the target and is reflected back to the missile, where detectors sense it and detonate the warhead.


Acoustic sensing used a microphone in a missile. The characteristic frequency of an aircraft engine is filtered and triggers the detonation. This principle was applied in British experiments with bombs, anti-aircraft missiles, and airburst shells (circa 1939). Later it was applied in German anti-aircraft missiles, which were mostly still in development when the war ended.

The British used a Rochelle salt microphone and a piezoelectric device to trigger a relay to detonate the projectile or bomb's explosive.

Naval mines can also use acoustic sensing, with modern versions able to be programmed to "listen" for the signature of a specific ship.


German World War II magnetic mine that landed on the ground instead of the water.

Magnetic sensing can only be applied to detect huge masses of iron such as ships. It is used in mines and torpedoes. Fuzes of this type can be defeated by degaussing, using non-metal hulls for ships (especially minesweepers) or by magnetic induction loops fitted to aircraft or towed buoys.


Some naval mines are able to detect the pressure wave of a ship passing overhead.

VT and "Variable Time"[edit]

The designation "VT" is often said to refer to "variable time". Fuzed munitions before this invention were set to explode at a given time after firing, and an incorrect estimation of the flight time would result in the munition exploding too soon or too late. The VT fuze could be relied upon to explode at the right time—which might vary from that estimated.

One theory is that "VT" was coined simply because Section "V" of the Bureau of Ordnance was in charge of the programme and they allocated it the code-letter "T".[31] This would mean that the initials also standing for "variable time" was a happy coincidence that was supported as an intelligence smoke screen by the allies in World War II to hide its true mechanism.

An alternative is that it was deliberately coined from the existing "VD" (Variable Delay) terminology by one of the designers.[32]

Developed by the US Navy, development and early production was outsourced to the Wurlitzer company, at their barrel organ factory in North Tonawanda, New York.[33]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The return signal is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the distance.


  1. ^ Hinman, Wilbur S (1957). "Portrait of Harry Diamond". IEEE Joural: 443. Retrieved 18 December 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Brennen, James W. (September 1968), The Proximity Fuze Whose Brainchild?, United States Naval Institute Proceedings. 
  3. ^ a b c Baxter 1968, p. 222
  4. ^ Brown, Louis (July 1993), "The Proximity Fuze", IEEE AES Systems Magazine 
  5. ^ Klein, Maury (2013), A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II, New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, pp. 651–2, 838n8, ISBN 978-1-59691-607-4 
  6. ^ Thompson, Harry C.; Mayo, Lida (1960), The Ordnance Department: Procurement and Supply, Washington, D.C., pp. 123–4 
  7. ^ Woodbury, David (1948), Battlefronts of Industry: Westinghouse in World War II, New York, NY, pp. 244–8 
  8. ^ Parker, Dana T. (2013), Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, Cypress, California, p. 127, ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4 
  9. ^ Baldwin 1980, p. 4
  10. ^ Baldwin 1980, pp. xxxi, 279
  11. ^ Brown, Louis (1999), A Radar History of World War II, section 4.4.: Inst. of Physics Publishing 
  12. ^ Anti-Aircraft Radio Proximity Fuze (1939 - 1942) (conceptual and prototype design work)
  13. ^ Haynes, John Earl; Klehr, Harvey, Venona, Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, p. 303 
  14. ^ Baxter 1968, p. 224
  15. ^ Bureau of Ordnance 1946, pp. 32–37
  16. ^ Bureau of Ordnance 1946, p. 36 shows a fifth tube, a diode, used for a low trajectory wave suppression feature (WSF).
  17. ^ Rowland, Buford; Boyd, William B. (1953). U. S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Ordnance, Department of the Navy. p. 279. 
  18. ^ U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (8 August 2008). "Request for information about the Isleta Pueblo Ordnance Impact Area" (PDF). Isleta Pueblo News. Vol. 3 no. 9. p. 12. Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 March 2017. 
  19. ^ Miller, John Anderson (1947), Men and Volts at War, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company 
  20. ^ Sharpe 2003
  21. ^ Baldwin 1980, pp. 217–220
  22. ^ Eisler, Paul; Williams, Mari (1989). My Life with the Printed Circuit. Lehigh University Press. ISBN 0-934223-04-1. 
  23. ^ Bush 1970, pp. 106–112
  24. ^ a b Bush 1970, p. 109
  25. ^ Dobinson, Colin (2001). AA Command: Britain's Anti-aircraft Defences of World War II. Methuen. p. 437. ISBN 978-0-413-76540-6. 
  26. ^ Potter, E.B.; Nimitz, Chester W. (1960). Sea Power. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. pp. 589–591. 
  27. ^ Albert D. Helfrick (2004). Electronics In The Evolution Of Flight. Texas A&M UP. p. 78. 
  28. ^ Rick Atkinson (2013). The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945. pp. 460–62,763–64. 
  29. ^ Bush 1970, p. 112
  30. ^ US 3152547, Kyle, John W, "Radio Proximity Fuze", issued 1950-12-04 
  31. ^ Hogg 2002, p. ???[page needed]
  32. ^ Proximity Fuze - what does "VT" mean?.
  33. ^ Navy presents high award to Wurlitzer men. Billboard magazine. 15 Jun 1946. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Allard, Dean C. (1982), "The Development of the Radio Proximity Fuze" (PDF), Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, 3 (4): 358–59 
  • Bennett, Geoffrey (1976), "The Development of the Proximity Fuze", Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 121 (1): 57–62, ISSN 0953-3559 
  • Brennan, James W. (1968), "The proximity fuze. Whose brainchild?", US Naval Institute Proceedings, 94 (9): 72–78 
  • Collier, Cameron D. (1999), "Tiny Miracle: the Proximity Fuze", Naval History, U. S. Naval Institute, 13 (4): 43–45, ISSN 1042-1920 
  • Fuzes, Proximity, Electrical: Part One (PDF), Engineering Design Handbook: Ammunition Series, United States Army Materiel Command, July 1963, AMCP 706-211 
  • Fuzes, Proximity, Electrical: Part Two, Engineering Design Handbook: Ammunition Series, United States Army Materiel Command, AMCP 706-212 
  • Fuzes, Proximity, Electrical: Part Three, Engineering Design Handbook: Ammunition Series, United States Army Materiel Command, AMCP 706-213 
  • Fuzes, Proximity, Electrical: Part Four, Engineering Design Handbook: Ammunition Series, United States Army Materiel Command, AMCP 706-214 
  • Fuzes, Proximity, Electrical: Part Five (PDF), Engineering Design Handbook: Ammunition Series, United States Army Materiel Command, August 1963, AMCP 706-215 

External links[edit]