Night-Vision System for Army Soldiers Demands Unusual Collaboration Between Industry Archrivals

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Army is poised to invest more than a billion dollars over the next decade in a James Bond-like targeting technology for infantry troops. A riflescope wirelessly transmits video to a night-vision goggle, allowing a shooter to kill a target without having to bring the weapon up to eye level. 

This project, known as “rapid target acquisition,” has been in the works for years and still has a way to go. Much of the technology — digital night-vision systems and thermal weapon sights — already has been developed. But the individual components, made by competing vendors, now have to be integrated into a seamless wireless network, which will require unprecedented teamwork between two contractors — DRS Technologies and BAE Systems — that will later go head-to-head to win production orders.

The Army is buying an “enhanced night vision goggle” dubbed ENVG III that is worn on a helmet. It will be linked wirelessly to a “family of weapon sights individual,” or FWS-I, which can be mounted on rifles and carbines. If the system works as envisioned, soldiers will be able to point the weapon and shoot around the corner, staying out of the line of fire.

While there is nothing magical about this technology, the industrial agreement that the Army required vendors to sign is far from ordinary. It compels them to share sensitive details about their products with each other to make sure they are interoperable with each other. 

DRS Technologies and BAE Systems were each awarded contracts to produce both ENVG III and FWS-I systems. Both vendors are to produce sights during the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the program, said Lt. Col. Timothy Fuller, product manager for soldier maneuver sensors. The systems will be used for “developmental testing during EMD.”  
FWS-I systems, additionally, may be produced for the follow-on “production qualification testing” in 2016. After these tests, the companies would compete for low-rate initial production orders. For ENVG systems, both suppliers are expected to deliver systems for production qualification testing, which is ongoing, Fuller told National Defense in an email.

“The real possibility exists that a soldier could employ an FWS-I from one vendor and expect it to work with the other vendor's ENVG,” he said. The Army project manager for soldier sensors and lasers, DRS and BAE officials have “worked hard to make that a reality while being careful not to divulge any inherently proprietary information.”

Cross-vendor interoperability “certainly adds a layer of complexity,” Fuller noted. The Army believes this was essential for the program to succeed, he added, “because it will ultimately alleviate potential problems down the road for soldiers” when they take the equipment to the battlefield.

DRS officials called this approach unprecedented in a military acquisition program. “It’s an interesting process to go through, we haven’t seen it before,” said DRS Technologies vice president Shawn Black. “It’s a forced a level of interaction between competing primes that we haven’t seen historically.”

From an initial pool of five competitors, DRS and BAE were selected in 2014 over Raytheon, L-3 and ITT Exelis. DRS is working under a five-year $367 million contract, and BAE under a five-year $434 million deal. The companies have been longtime competitors in the night vision and broader military electronics industry. Both are gunning for big FWS-I and ENVG orders. 

The goggle is ready for production but the sight is lagging two years behind. Before the Army makes large purchases of either system, program officials want to be certain that a DRS goggle works with a BAE sight, and a DRS sight works with a BAE goggle. 

“The Army program executive officer does a very good job making sure there’s plenty of competition,” Black said in an interview. “The combination of sights and goggles in a single contract and the interoperability requirements is new. Before, they would just buy sights and goggles separately.”

The companies will compete for each “fair opportunity delivery order” for the FWS-I, Fuller said. “ENVG will continue to be procured using a two-vendor strategy which enables DRS and BAE the opportunity to compete for each delivery order.”

The initial low-rate production orders for weapon sights would be about 10 percent of the entire planned procurement of 36,000 units. ENVG contracts could be for up to 40,000 systems.

The ENVG III goggle has been a long time coming. The Army started the project in the 1990s and for years struggled with development and manufacturing setbacks. Advances in optics, displays and detectors eventually improved the performance and manufacturability. 

Although the technology is relatively mature, what makes the latest version of the ENVG unique are its three channels. Two are for the goggle itself — one for thermal (heat seeking) imaging, one for image intensification to see in low-light conditions — and the third channel is for the weapon sight. “The three images are correlated. That’s one of the key elements in the program,” said Tony Bacarella, DRS Technologies dismounted systems portfolio leader. 

Soldiers now have to beam their targets with lasers. With the new system, they will no longer need a laser. “If they want to be covert, it’s all digital,” Bacarella said. “A soldier can target quickly from a covert position.” 

Fuller said the FWS-I uses just four batteries instead of eight, is lighter and smaller than earlier thermal weapon sights, and has a more ergonomically friendly control buttons. It can resolve images further away than traditional thermal weapons sights, he told reporters in July. The ENVG III contains a "smart battery pack" that is connected from the sensors in the front of the helmet through fiber optic cables to the back of the helmet, Fuller explained. In addition to a battery, it contains a small computer processor, which merges the image from the FWS-I with the ENVG III image.

Topics: Defense Contracting, Procurement

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