Advanced optics give ground forces operational advantage

Acquisition of night-vision devices by adversaries means that the United States needs to develop advanced technologies that can help soldiers continue to “own the night.”

Advanced night-vision and target acquisition technologies have enabled U.S. forces in Afghanistan to achieve technological superiority over its adversaries. Nevertheless, while American soldiers may own the night,” the enemy is learning to counter these high-tech devices with their own access to technology.

Army COL Mike Sloane, Project Manager for Soldier Sensors and Lasers (PM SSL), PEO Soldier, argues that U.S. forces in Afghanistan cannot afford to become complacent. “We know that our enemy is getting a hold of night-vision devices, so we have to stay ahead of whatever technologies they’re able to acquire,” said Sloane.

“It’s important that we continue to maintain a significant advantage,” added Wayde Thomka, technology management director for PM SSL. “We don’t want to ever go into a fair fight.”

Sloane said low-capability night-vision equipment is widely available for sale on the Internet, and “it doesn’t take a lot of enemy capability to offset what we have.” For instance, low-cost digital cameras are sensitive to near-infrared light, enabling hostile forces to see laser pointers.

The Enemy Is Us

However, the threat is not limited to commercial products. In June, the Defense Department inspector general issued a report on the lack of accountability of night-vision devices procured for the Afghan army and police.

The IG report found that U.S. and Afghan forces have lost track of hundreds of night-vision goggles that are now “more vulnerable to theft or loss” with the potential of falling into enemy hands, which could put U.S. soldiers “at greater security risk during night missions in Afghanistan.”

The saving grace, according to Sloane, is that even if the enemy has use of these U.S. night-vision devices, they are not the latest generation of technology.

PM SSL is focused on providing soldiers with the best available sensors and lasers that not only enhance their ability to see in all battlefield and lighting conditions, but enable soldiers to acquire targets before being detected.

“Adversaries that we face tend to blend into the general population in the vicinity of hospitals, marketplaces and schools,” said Sloane. “It requires targeting systems that more readily distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and enable the delivery of lethal power accurately to minimize collateral damage.”

To meet this challenge in combat, the Army’s PM SSL is fielding increasingly high-resolution night-vision and target acquisition devices that are more lethal and survivable, while reducing their size, weight and power.

“If you go back to the early days of the Afghan conflict, there were a small number of very rudimentary technologies available,” said David Strong, vice president of marketing for FLIR’s government systems division. “Since then, the technology has evolved to where it’s much more effective and widely available. These tools have become lighter and much more powerful. ”

Going Thermal

The Light Thermal Weapon Sight (LTWS) is part of the family of Thermal Weapon Sights (TWS), giving soldiers with individual and crew-served weapons the capability to see deep into the battlefield, increase surveillance and target acquisition range, and operate in all weather and visibility conditions, day or night.

LTWS is designed for the M16 and M4 series rifles and carbines, as well as the M136 Light Anti-Armor Weapon. Leveraging uncooled, forward-looking infrared technology, TWS devices are lightweight systems that can be mounted on a weapon rail and operate to the maximum effective range of the weapon.

“Soldiers can rapidly clip [LTWS] on to the front of their weapon and operate day or night without having to recalibrate their weapon,” said Sloane, who added that PM SSL plans to include 17-micron technology, which will result in size, weight and power improvements for light, medium and heavy TWS variants.

The Army has fielded the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (ENVG), which adds thermal capability to the image intensification soldiers have traditionally had with the PVS-7 and PVS-14 systems. However, unlike earlier night-vision devices, ENVG’s thermal capability makes it useful during the day, as well as at night, and enables soldiers to see through obscurants, such as fog, dust and foliage.

“In the current conflicts, there was a need to try to find combatants in caves,” said Thomka. “A traditional I2 [image intensifier] device won’t operate in complete darkness. With ENVG, you can go into a cave or building where there is no light and actually pick up targets [based on thermal signatures].”

Incorporating image intensification and long-wave infrared (LWIR) sensors into a single, helmet-mounted passive device, ENVG also enables soldiers to rapidly detect and engage targets by permitting the use of existing rifle-mounted aiming lights.

Sloane said one of PM SSL’s top priorities is the Family of Weapon Sights (FWS) program, which will include three variants: FWS Individual (FWSI), FWS Crew Served and FWS Sniper. FWSI — which is designed for the M16 and M4, the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, the M136 Light Anti-Armor Weapon and the M141 Bunker Defeat Munition — will involve wireless integration of ENVG with the weapon sight.

“Whenever a soldier points his weapon in the same direction that they are looking, that soldier will see a weapon-sight image within ENVG,” he said regarding FWSI. “So, in other words, a soldier can see and begin to acquire a target before they even have their weapon pressed up toward their eye.”

Based on early user assessments, Sloane said FWSI is projected to reduce target-engagement times with small arms by as much as 50 percent.

Army not ready for SWIR

Short-wave infrared (SWIR) imaging, an emerging technology, enables target identification from sunrise to starlight conditions and provides see-spot capability for laser pointers and range-finders, while enabling discrimination between friend and foe at longer ranges than is possible with image intensifiers.

John Koltookian, product manager for imaging and aiming solutions at BAE Systems, believes that SWIR is a potential solution that could solve the problem U.S. forces face from enemy access to night-vision technology. “If you were to use an aiming laser in a SWIR band, nobody would be able to see that laser,” said Koltookian.

The Navy’s Integrated Day/Night Sight Technology (IDNST) seeks to combine direct-view optics with SWIR and LWIR imagers for weapon sights capable of day, night and thermal imaging, along with laser pointing and ranging capabilities. Initiated in 2010, IDNST’s goal is to increase the lethality of Marines on the battlefield.

Early in the development of FWS the Army considered approaching the Navy about possibly combining FWS with IDNST, but decided against it, Sloane said.

“Current SWIR sensors require more power than near IR and are challenged by high costs,” he said. “However, with our applications right now, it is not what we’re looking for.”