Are the Night Vision Goggles Used in the Bin Laden Raid Really Classified?

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Freeman does an operational check of panoramic night vision goggles at a deployed location in March 2006.

Master Sgt. Lance Cheung/U.S. Air Force photo illustration

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Tech. Sgt. Matthew Freeman does an operational check of panoramic night vision goggles at a deployed location in March 2006.

No Easy Day author Matt Bissonette is being investigated for disclosing secrets, but the goggles used by Navy SEALs are not among them, experts say. By Marcus Weisgerber and Patrick Tucker

Matt Bissonette, the former Navy SEAL in hot water for writing a book about the U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is accused of disclosing classified information about special night vision goggles worn during the operation. But are the high-tech goggles really classified?

Among the said-to-be-classified items referenced by Bissonette in his tell-all book No Easy Day are special four-tube night vision goggles. The goggles in question provide a wider viewing area than traditional night vision systems, which are akin to looking though a pair of binoculars.

CBS News’ 60 Minutes flashed screen shots of L-3 Insight’s Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggle during a segment that aired on Sunday evening about Bissonette, who is under investigation by the U.S. government for disclosing classified information in his book.

In the book, Bissonette, writes that the $65,000 goggles allow SEALs to clear corners better than the traditional night vision eyepieces, which are like “looking through toilet paper tubes.”

But L-3’s Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggle is not classified, according to officials who declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak publically about the equipment. In fact, these goggles are for sale all over the Internet.

The goggles are made in Londonderry, N.H., by L-3 Warrior Systems’ Insight division, which specializes in night vision and electro-optical technology for the military and law enforcement.

New York-based L-3 Communications has listed the system, also called GPNVG or GPNVG-18, on its night-vision goggle product webpage since at least Dec. 8, 2012, according to the Internet history website

The Pentagon has spent at least $12.5 million on the Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggles since 2010, according to federal contracting data. In all but one of the 21 contracts, the goggles, helmet mounts or related parts are simply referenced as “GPNVG” or “GPNVG18” meaning someone without knowledge of the system would have no clue what they were.

You can buy the goggles on Amazon, eBay and other websites starting at $35,000 a piece. Non-functional, knock-offs from China that look “so real that your competitor/enemy/opponent can’t tell the difference” are listed on eBay for as little as $43. The goggles worn by actors in Zero Dark Thirty, the movie about the bin Laden mission. You could even buy toy action figure SEALs, complete with the four-tubed goggles.

Seeing the Past and Future of Night Vision

Night vision lenses and scopes have been a military tool since World War II, when the United States and Germany locked themselves in a night-vision arms race to see who could see farther in the dark. One result of that competition, the U.S. produced the so-called “sniperscope” a low-level infrared scope mounted on rifles that could see about 100 yards. As detailed in this June 1946 issue of Popular Science, the sniperscope would “emit a beam of infrared light that shines on the target, is reflected back, then picked up by the telescope mounted on the gun. The naked eye can’t see the rays.” In language that is as colorful as the photos are grey, the article’s author describes the scope as ideal for “Yanks on Okinawa” charged with cutting down “unsuspecting Japs.” In the decades after the war, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, developed the technology further.

During the Vietnam War, the military invested in passive systems. These were smaller and cheaper than their predecessors and work in dark environments by picking up low levels of light and amplifying or “intensifying” that light. Nature is full of night-sighted animals who see this way, picking up visual light better as opposed to seeing light from areas of the spectrum inaccessible to humans. Eye lens shape and size, the presence of more photoreceptors that pick up low light (rods) than high light (cones) in the eye can endow an animal with the ability to see in the dark, as can a tissue layer that reflects more light back into retina, the so-called tapetum lucidum, the adaptation present in cats’ eyes that gives them that strange green shine in direct light.

Panoramic night vision goggles have been around for years. In fact, the Air Force oftentimes touted pilots’ use of the technology in the cockpit.

Night vision goggles like the L-3 GPNVG-18 work like this: they don’t shoot infrared beams at targets and pick them back up, they use vacuum-sealed scopes called “image intensifier tubes” with special lenses that adjust varying degrees of light, a bit like a cat’s eye.  The L-3 GPNVG-18 features four tubes, panoramically organized, that are spliced at the end closest to the eye. As the company explains, “The operator sees the two center tubes somewhat overlapping the two outer tubes to produce an unprecedented 97° [Field of View.]”

However futuristic looking they are, the L-3 GPNVG-18s don’t actually represent the future of night vision. DARPA’s AWARE program (advanced wide field of view architectures for image reconstruction and exploitation) last year produced a thermal camera that can take thermal images at just five microns, which is half the size of the photons it detects.

At this summer’s DARPA Microsystem Technology Office exposition, the agency was eager to show off the stacked modular architecture high-resolution thermal SMART chip that fits in a smartphone, has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels, and costs less than $500.

But even these aren’t exactly what the military is looking for.  In fact, the Pentagon recently described today’s present night-viewing capabilities as “essential, but dated.”

In September, DARPA put out a call for researchers to pitch the agency on night-vision goggles to replace those currently in military use. Specifically, DARPA wants to “develop technology for and demonstrate potential of compact, lightweight, heads-up broad-band night vision display system for ground soldiers featuring cross-band infrared sensing and illumination for robust all condition viewing.” 

In other words, it wants night vision goggles that weigh practically nothing, can switch between infrared and daylight automatically, and can provide and collect data from the wearer in way that doesn’t obstruct view (like the Google Glass). They want the system to run for 24 hours without a charge and come in at less than $5,000 a unit.

Future night vision may come in the from of special contact lenses, as two researchers from the University of Michigan have already created a thin infrared sensor made of graphene that the researchers claim could be adapted into contacts. But the researchers caution that such an application is years away.

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