Electronic Weapons: September 8, 2004


Night-vision goggles (NVGs) have enabled the U.S. military to "own the night" in land, sea, and air operations, with the devices being used by everyone from foot soldiers to fighter pilots. However, the current generation of helmet-mounted devices has several drawbacks. For example, image intensification technology a fancy way of taking what little light there is and magnifying it to be bright enough to be seen by the human eye performs poorly on overcast nights when clouds block available light. The latest generation NVGs allow the identification of a person out to 650 meters on a clear night with a full moon, 500 meters with a quarter moon in the sky, 375 meters with no moon and available starlight, and around 200 meters under a cloudy sky. Conversely, too much light from street lights or bright spotlights causes "bloom out" too much light saturates the electronics and blurs vision. Other drawbacks include a limited field of vision described as "looking through a soda straw" due to existing packaging of NVGs and increased helmet weight. 

Two different approaches are being taken for the next generation of night vision gear. Special Operation Command (SOCOM) intends to field "fusion goggles" combining traditional image intensification gear with thermal sensors by the end of next year. Thermal sensors would give operators the ability to see through fog, smoke, or in limited light and saturated light conditions that cripple image intensification gear. Fusion goggles should enable identification of a person out to 650 meters under nearly all light conditions and will also help in spotting camouflaged and concealed personnel by their heat signature. There are methods to limit heat signature North Korean infiltrators creeping across the DMZ have worn insulated scuba suits but they're pretty awkward. 

Enhanced Night Vision Goggles (ENVGs) will also be very useful in urban combat conditions where streetlights play havoc with existing NVGs. SOCOM also intends to integrate the dual-mode technology into weapons sights, such as the AN/PAS 13. The new capability won't be cheap. Initial runs of the goggles will cost $15,000 a set, with the price expected to drop down to $8,000 once larger production quantities are delivered. Current generation NVG goggles run around $2,500 a pair a bargain. Fusion goggles will eat batteries much faster due to all the electronics involved. Exactly how fast is unknown, but existing NVGs use up a pair of AA batteries every 50-60 hours. 

Meanwhile, the Air Force is working on fielding wide-view NVGs with a 100-degree field of vision; over double that of existing NVGs that provide a 40-degree view. For any type of aircraft, but most especially with low-level helicopter operations, using existing NVGs is a considerable challenge. With existing equipment, pilots (as well as other operators) have to continually scan back and forth to take in everything. The Panoramic NVGs (PNVGs) consist of four smaller NVG image intensification tubes; current NVGs use two tubes. The smaller tubes are also lighter in weight, so while the total weight of the system is a couple of ounces heavier than existing NVGs, the gear sits closer to the helmet and is more distributed. If necessary, the pilot could safely eject with the goggles on the helmet and use them for escape and evasion on the ground. The goggles have also been "hardened" against laser blinding attacks. Cost of the system is expected to be around $50,000 per set. Doug Mohney


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