New Wave of Night Vision Tech to Boost Soldier Lethality

By Nick Adde

Photo: Army

When Billy Fabian was serving as an infantry officer in Iraq a little more than a decade ago, the U.S. Army had a decided advantage when it came to pursuing the fight at night. It was not, however, without flaws. The goggles he and his fellow soldiers used were sophisticated, but simplistic. At times, they were ineffective.

Though they amplified ambient light, the goggles did not work in complete darkness. They were drowned out by bright light as well. Moreover, although the gear still provided a distinct advantage to troops who wore them, the tactical-advantage gap was closing. Insurgent forces were getting their hands on night-vision goggles. Additionally, soldiers who wore them would use infrared lasers to target adversaries bearing small arms — effectively providing these foes with an indicator of their enemies’ locations.

Though much has changed since then, Pentagon leadership still views regaining the night-vision advantage as a critical goal. Defense Secretary James Mattis has prioritized improving the lethality of close-combat warfighters. Better night-vision goggle systems are a key element of the secretary’s push. Though the armed forces and industry are making steady forward strides, challenges remain.

“A key question is, how do you balance performance with soldier load?” said Fabian, now a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “As our dismounted soldiers get more protection — body armor, etc. — as well as advanced optics such as night vision, it adds a lot of weight.”

The next generation of night-vision technology will address these issues, Fabian believes. Such capabilities would amount to a “pretty huge step,” he said. “All of the improvements would make the dismounted soldier and Marine more lethal and survivable.”

The Army’s soldier lethality cross-functional team, headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia, is conducting the main work in advancement of night vision.

“We’re looking at improvements across the board,” said Col. Travis Thompson, the team’s chief of staff for soldier lethality.

“With an increase in situational awareness, you may not have to call in on the radio to identify where friendly units are,” Thompson said. “You’re more likely to detect the enemy and be able to engage them in that close fight faster.”

The Army wants new equipment that would increase field of view and depth perception for soldiers in a close fight, and allow soldiers to manipulate the gear “in quick order” when operating, for instance, inside a building, Thompson said.

The effort focuses upon moving toward a binocular system, to replace the monocular one that has been in use for roughly two decades.

Last June, the Army awarded L3 Technologies a three-year, $391 million contract to produce and provide the next-generation Enhanced Night Vision Goggle–Binocular (ENVG-B).

For its part, L3 is following the Army’s “system of systems” approach, Lynn Bollengier, vice president and general manager for the company’s warrior missions solutions division, said in a written statement to National Defense.

“There is greater integration amongst the equipment the soldier is carrying, much like the commercial world has integrated consumer products. As a result, our customers are very interested in next-generation and leap-ahead technologies that can improve lethality and reduce warfighter workload,” Bollengier wrote.

L3’s ENVG-B is a prime example. It would allow soldiers to view maps from the Army’s Nett Warrior integrated situational-awareness system, as well as video from their weapons’ sights.

Its binocular capability will increase field of view and depth perception for soldiers involved in close fighting, said Thompson. The visual itself also is changing to white phosphorus from the familiar green phosphorus.

“It will help us as we start to overlay [the display soldiers see] with color from augmented reality. SOCOM [Special Operations Command] soldiers have been using this for quite a few years,” said Thompson.

Fused thermal capability would allow troops to have day-night capability that would function in all environments, Thompson said.

“If you look around a dark corner with no light, unless you have some [enhancement], you won’t identify anything. With thermals, [objects will] stick out quickly,” said Thompson. “You know the enemy is out there. You have to poke your head up to look for him, but the last thing you want to do is expose yourself to the enemy [and] you don’t have a choice.”

The technology, which would include augmented reality as well, has been available for combat vehicles like the M2/M3 Bradley fighting vehicle and M1 Abrams tank for awhile, but only now is making its way to the soldier level. Once it is available, the system would allow soldiers to view everything they would conceivably need to see while looking straight ahead.

No longer would they have to look downward to discern information, as they do with present systems. Besides a visual of what is in front of them, they would know their compass heading, locations of friendlies and potential enemies, and a host of other readings.

The first prototypes should make their way into the field sometime within the next 11 months. Which units would get them still has not been determined. Army Forces Command will make that call in due time, Thompson said. The idea is to place it among the dismounted troops who would need it the most — infantry, combat engineers, combat medics, special operators and scouts.

Also, the new devices would be issued to entire squads rather than two or three members, so that everyone is fighting at the same level of capability. Throughout the process, soldiers will provide their assessments of which components work well and which do not, he said.

A second system under development, the integrated visual augmentation system, or IVAS, would include significantly more sophisticated notification and identification capabilities than the current technology affords.

Instead of a goggle system through a tube, the new system would allow for what Thompson calls “true see-through display” — that is, goggles and glasses that include artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It would be more powerful and robust, but maybe slightly heavier because it entails two lenses instead of one. Still, developers are acutely aware of the weight factor and are working to make it more manageable.

“One system we’re actually looking at [would determine] where we put chips to process information,” Thompson said. If the soldier’s head is closer to the data source, less energy is needed to transfer it from source to user.

“We’re taking this holistic approach to power demand, the amount of power soldiers need, in a package that makes sense,” said Thompson. “This whole process is not about the next, newest and coolest thing. It’s about providing soldiers what they need on the battlefield today and in the future.”

More details about the program should begin to emerge within the next two years, as the system is being developed.

Because the night-vision enhancement initiative would apply to Marines as well, the two services are working closely together and with Special Operations Command to ensure that such systems are acceptable to their missions.

“In the long term, we want improvements and capabilities and are working with the Army and SOCOM … to see where, we align and leverage with each other,” said Billy Epperson, the Marine Corps’ infantry weapons and optics capabilities integration officer.

“It’s no secret that the PDS-14 (night vision monocular) we have currently deployed through the Marine Corps first entered the service with the Defense Department in the mid- to late-1990s,” Epperson said. Input from Marines is essential, he added.

“We always have representatives from warfighters and operating forces as a voice — from the beginning all the way to final selection,” Epperson said. “The last thing we want to do is field something they absolutely hate and refuse to carry.”

Industry participants who are vying for roles in future night-vision development understand that their main goal is to enable individual soldiers and Marines to see better in the battlefield.

“When the [most recent] requirements for the enhanced night vision goggle came out, we immediately started developing a binocular system that would meet them,” said Darrell Hackler, Harris Corp. senior director of global business development for night vision.

The team at Harris is applying its experience in infrared technology and light amplification to “turn night into day for operators,” said Christian Johnson, who manages the company’s Army account.

The Harris system incorporates image-squared technology — which the company touts as having superior capabilities than the past and current night-vision iterations.

“If there is no ambient light to be amplified, [the user] can switch to the thermal camera. Or, in an area where it’s freezing cold and nothing seems to be giving off a thermal image, [it can] put in a thermal image,” Johnson said.

With augmented reality technology, infantry troops would be able to garner navigational information such as compass headings, Johnson said. Goggle displays also would include a blue-force tracker, an indicator of air asserts on station, a means of marking target reference points, and the ability to share information and send text messages to fellow soldiers, Johnson said.

“U.S. forces will have a capability that no one else has,” Johnson said.

Dave Smialek, director of business development, precision guidance and sensing solutions at BAE Systems, said: “The main issue we’re trying to address is improvement for the soldier who is looking to see farther in the battlefield.”

With its Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III and Family of Weapon Sights-Individual (ENVG III/FWS-I) systems, BAE also would provide sharp imagery through thermal technology and rapid target acquisition. Infantry fighters would be able to fire at foes without having to shoulder their weapons.

Each potential supplier of the next night-vision system would be expected to deliver a package that offers greater range, the ability to see through glass, and manageable weight and size — in addition to the aforementioned display enhancements, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser specializing in international security with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“The problem we’ve always had in the past is weight and power. They’re interesting technologies, but if they weigh too much and you have to plug in a battery every two hours, it’s not very practical,” Cancian said. “These new suites of systems will have to prove themselves in testing and on the battlefield.”

What ultimately could determine how quickly new night-vision gear makes its way to ground troops has little to do with shaking down the technology, Cancian believes.

“The whole close-combat lethality initiative hinges on two things: One is Secretary Mattis sticking around. The other is budget and funding,” Cancian said. “If one of those were to go away, it might take some of the impetus out of this initiative.”

Topics: Night Operations, Land Forces

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