Night-Vision Technology Arms Race Accelerates
As the U.S. Army prepares to equip soldiers with a new generation of night-vision technology, countries around the world are trying to stay apace.
The Pentagon’s largest supplier of night-vision goggles, ITT Exelis, expects a dramatic growth in international sales. Although the latest technology that is being produced for the U.S. military is not approved for export, the company sees a rising demand for its less sophisticated but still coveted “generation 3” goggles that have been sold worldwide.
The biggest prize in the international market now is India, whose government is poised to buy up to a half-million night-vision goggles for its army. ITT Exelis’ night-vision division, based in Roanoke, Va., is making a foray into the Indian market by creating a joint venture with one of that country’s largest military suppliers, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd., of Mumbai.
“Exelis decided to partner with an influential company in India to help us with our customer advocacy,” says Dave Smith, ITT Exelis’ night vision program manager.
The company believes that by offering to supply generation 3 goggles, it can beat local competitors that currently provide less capable generation 2 products, Smith says in an interview.
ITT so far has sold 1.4 million generation 3 devices in 99 countries. The company predicts that demand will grow, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
“There’s a huge emerging market and need in India for night-vision devices,” Smith says. As part of a larger program to upgrade that country’s entire infantry force, the Indian Ministry of Defense has indicated it would buy from 300,000 to 500,000 night vision goggles over the next several years, he says. “They have been getting generation 2 technology from other suppliers. … But they want to move to generation 3.”
What makes generation 3 goggles more desirable are their improved “image intensification” tubes that convert photons to electrons and amplify the available starlight or moonlight. Smith says the newest generation 3 tubes offer better performance under low-light conditions.
The night-vision export market is a tough one for U.S. suppliers because the U.S. government views this technology as a key advantage that the American military has over potential enemies, and has stringent export licensing requirements. ITT was fined $100 million by the Justice Department in 2007 for night-vision export licensing violations dating back to 2001. The case was settled in March 2007.
Smith says the topic of export licensing came up during the company’s discussions with Indian officials about possible future purchases of ITT’s generation 3 goggles. The State Department has approved sales of generation 3 systems to several U.S. allies, and Smith expects ITT also will be authorized to sell them to India. But he cautions that not all generation 3 devices are the same. The State Department gauges the performance of night-vision goggles by “figures of merit.” Within the generation 3 category there are multiple tiers. The highest level is only available for the U.S. military. Within the less advanced tiers, it is up to the U.S. government to decide what country is eligible for what level of performance.
Another key step in securing foreign sales is creating domestic manufacturing sources. “In India there is a requirement for a certain amount of Indian content,” Smith says. Under the agreement with Tata, ITT will supply night vision kits for the local firm to assemble and test. “Over time that line will grow to where they’ll be able to do more in-country manufacturing,” he says.
The image-intensification tube technology will not be transferred, however. Tata will repackage and integrate the tubes into goggles.
Although generation 3 is considered state-of-the-art night vision technology, traditional goggles over time will be superseded by more sophisticated systems that sense both light and heat, and have color smartphone-like displays.
“U.S. night vision requirements are transforming,” Smith says. The Army is slowing down purchases of image-intensification goggles and is moving to “sensor fusion” goggles that overlay thermal imagery over the traditional amber/green display. This is significant, as it allows soldiers to spot adversaries hiding behind dense foliage.
The Army’s new “enhanced night vision goggles,” or ENVG, can import and export imagery, video, and data. A soldier would be able to receive in his goggle drone-captured imagery of what’s over a hill or map files from a command center.
ITT’s version of this technology is called “Spiral ENVG,” says Smith. It is not authorized for export. “The international market is for traditional night vision,” he says.
The company will be competing for ENVG sales against DRS Technologies, of Parsippany, NJ, which partnered with L-3 Electro-Optical Systems. DRS developed the infrared imaging technology and L-3 provides the image intensifier tubes.
Smith says foreign buyers eventually will be seeking data-capable goggles as well. ITT has designed a “tactical mobility” night-vision goggle that can receive and send data from image-intensifying systems, but does not have sensor fusion like the U.S. devices.
The choices in the marketplace will be changing, from whether to buy generation 2 or 3, to which goggles offer the best “situational awareness” and the ability to be connected into a tactical network, Smith says.