American soldiers may soon be issued new, advanced night vision goggles similar to the type used by elite U.S. Special Operations forces.
Night vision innovation is essential for the U.S. military to continue to "own the night" in combat. Night vision goggles allow warfighters to see the enemy at night, or in the darkness of a cave, for example, as clearly as they do during the day.
The advantages night vision devices provide is not just limited to darkness. They are also vital for spotting threats in a whole range of conditions soldiers may encounter in combat. With night vision, soldiers can see through whipped-up sand in sandstorms, through smoke from an explosion, through extreme weather and fog - and they can even spot a threat lurking behind foliage thanks to thermal imaging.
Hostile forces, both state and terrorist groups like ISIS, increasingly obtain the latest American night vision goggles on the black market and use them against U.S. forces.
With enemies ramping up and catching up in night vision, American innovation has become even more important. The Army has wisely decided to invest some of the additional $800 million it will receive for research and development, (over the last year’s request) to develop better night vision goggles.
Soldiers can expect radical change in looks. These new night vision goggles will look sort of like binoculars, rather than the single tube look currently in use with the Army.
What will the new advances be?
Details have yet to emerge, but changes will extend beyond looks.
By improving the design, Soldiers should have lighter and more comfortable night vision devices that will allow them to move more quickly while wearing them and move more easily thanks to better depth perception.
What do soldiers currently use?
Currently, soldiers tend to use basic night vision models.
The PVS-14, for example, uses ambient light that can be scavenged at night – light from the moon and stars.
Although heavier and bigger, the shift from PVS-14 to ENVG gave Soldiers a vital boost in night vision. The ENVGs, (Enhanced Night Vision Goggles) are also a monocular style with just a single tube.
The ENVG incorporates an infrared image intensifier and thermal camera. This tech takes the IR and the thermal data and delivers them into the soldier’s display.
With this approach, soldiers can opt to use them both at the same time or select only thermal or only IR.
Upgrades to ENVG gave soldiers compatibility with aiming lasers, so they could benefit from thermal, laser, and image intensification simultaneously.
ENVGs were first introduced nearly ten years ago and been updated, but they are not cutting edge.
Taking ENVG III as an example, it does include advances like wireless but still weighs about two pounds and remains cumbersome and is hardly sleek.
What’s in the future for night vision?
In the future, night vision for U.S. forces need to be radically enhanced. U.S. forces deserve the absolute best. The good news is that there is a lot of promising, exciting innovation underway.
Lightweight and comfortable
For starters, military night vision has been too heavy and cumbersome. Ultimately, night vision technology should look more like the sleek, ultra-lightweight, comfortable shades, like Gatorz, favored by US special operations warriors.
Higher fidelity displays will continue to evolve, providing better and better clarity.
One highly useful advance will be a magnification option. Warfighters should be able to do a sort of easy and instantaneous “zoom” with their night vision device. The option to magnify a small section of the field of view would be handy in innumerable ways.
Here’s a practical example. A team is quietly, stealthily, moving towards a terrorist’s home in a village using the cover of darkness to approach undetected. But as they approach using their night vision, they spot someone with something in his hand that looks like a grenade. By cueing a “zoom” with high fidelity, the team can see through their devices and in the same moment identify that it is a toy and therefore not a threat.
Faster threat identification – and elimination – helps protect the force and ensure mission success.
“Iron Man” and “Predator” feeds
“Iron Man,” “Predator,” “Robocop” and “Terminator”-style visual feeds and capabilities probably seem like the stuff of science fiction. But adversary innovation is moving in that direction and the military must keep up with their ambitions and exceed them.
So what would that involve exactly?
U.S. warfighters should be able to share what they are seeing, as they are seeing it, with other teams and commands if necessary. The night vision tech should be able to do this automatically by one simple cue.
This advantage is already very achievable. The ENVG digital update project has already proven enhancing clarity and transferring data with night vision tech is possible.
If warfighters could receive video streams from drones, this eye in the sky could deliver vital data to help keep troops safer.
During a night mission, warfighters could avoid an enemy ambush by cueing real-time drone imagery delivered in their night vision field of view to see what’s around the proverbial corner. Advanced notice of enemy combatants poised to strike can save lives.
Back in 2015, the Army announced an impressive breakthrough connecting night vision devices to weapons sights.
Using this amazing advance, soldiers could acquire enemy targets without “seeing” the combatant with his or her own eyes. By pointing a weapon around a corner, for example, the weapon sight would provide “eyes” and deliver the video feed to the night vision goggles. This night vision advance means soldiers could accurately shoot an attacking combatant while still safely behind cover and not exposed to enemy fire.
The potential is enormous across the board from the M4 carbine, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and M141 Bunker Defeat Munition through to sniper rifles, MK19 grenade launchers and machine guns like the M2 machine guns.
US forces own the night in combat
This Army announcement to provide better night vision to American soldiers is welcome news.
Complacency about the American military’s reputation to dominate the night in war zones is dangerous. Night vision tech is a core component to this important combat advantage.
There’s no question that historically this has been true; however, hostile entities – both unfriendly countries and terrorist organizations – have been quietly, and unrelentingly, catching up in night vision.
On the one hand, countries like Russia and China are aggressively advancing their own night vision tech.
And on the other hand, hostile forces like ISIS are finding ways to increasingly use American advanced night vision against our own forces. The State Department ban on night vision device sales has been ineffective and the black market continues to provide ever more advanced models to use against Americans.