Ninox: all-seeing hunter of the night

Members of the owl family like the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua, Rufous Owl Ninox rufa, Barking Owl Ninox connivens, etc., are common in some coastal fringes of Australia. These are relatively large birds which possess acute night vision through huge eyes which can barely move in their sockets.

31st Oct 2012


 LAND 53

Ninox: all-seeing hunter of the night

Byline: Geoff Slocombe / Victoria


Members of the owl family like the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua, Rufous Owl Ninox rufa, Barking Owl Ninox connivens, etc., are common in some coastal fringes of Australia. These are relatively large birds which possess acute night vision through huge eyes which can barely move in their sockets. However they have the ability to rotate their heads almost 270 degrees left or right and nearly upside down! Owls have binocular vision which means they can see three-dimensional objects (height, width, depth) in a similar manner to human eyes.

Choosing NINOX as the project name for replacing the ADF’s night fighting equipment for soldiers is highly appropriate.

The public version of the Defence Capability Plan (DCP) 2012 describes this project as “LAND 53 Project NINOX is a multi-phased project intended to provide a suite of night fighting equipment (NFE), surveillance and target acquisition systems. These include perimeter surveillance equipment, NFE, ground surveillance radar and thermal surveillance systems that provide land forces with detection, recognition and identification capabilities under various battlefield conditions.”

“Integration and interoperability linkages exist with other projects delivering elements of the soldier system, surveillance systems and combat identification.”

A Defence spokesperson told APDR “Land Systems Division has established the LAND 53 PH1BR project team, which is currently supporting Capability Development Group in taking the project to First Pass Approval. This approval is expected between FY 2013-14 and FY 2014-15. Industry has already been consulted on both the scope and performance specifications of the project by the LAND 53 PH1BR Project Team.”

They continued “Any likely RFT will be structured to acquire NFE of differing capabilities optimised to the needs of combatants. Further, the full Basis of Provision (BOP) of LAND 53-1BR will be acquired over time, enabling underlying technology to evolve and providing the opportunity for feedback to inform subsequent procurements of portions of the BOP”. 

NIGHT VISION TECHNOLOGY

In order to position current ADF NFE and where new technology developments are leading it is necessary to discuss the concept of generations. As might be expected this terminology is used to discuss transitions between different technologies. Australia, Canada and the US officially recognise generations to ensure standardisation of terminology and interoperability between equipment used by the three countries.

Generation ‘0’ describes the original equipment from World War II to the 1950s where infra-red converter tubes changed infra-red images into viewable visible light. The range would be similar to a spotlight. Generation ‘1’ added an infra-red illuminator and typically runs at high voltages with a high-pitched whine. There is usually image distortion which can be overcome by Generation “1+” and to a modest extent by ‘Cascade Generation 1’ which also addresses the noise problem.

Generation ‘2” was developed during the Vietnam war and uses different technology to achieve better images, with little or no distortion or noise, in starlight or a small amount of moonlight. Unofficially termed Generation ‘2+’ and ‘Super Second Generation’ devices have better performance through a wider range of infra-red frequencies detected and with a longer usable tube life.

Generation ‘3’ replaces the original infra-red detectors with more sensitive gallium arsenide ones, but there are variations in performance for different models. A Figure of Merit rating is applied to these devices to help selection. ‘Generation 3 Omnibus VII’ are currently considered amongst the best devices on the market and will be of considerable interest to the DMO’s project team. Generation ‘4’ has a slight change in technology but is like the preceding generation.

XD-4 and XR5 are further technology developments which improve signal-to-noise ratio, modulation transfer and resolution.

Image fusion is a development of great value in NFE. In these devices the infra-red image is overlayed by thermal sensor output in colour.

When Defence were asked about any preference between binocular and monocular devices, a Defence spokesperson replied “LAND 53-1BR is seeking to provide a wearer of NVG with stereopsis. Stereopsis can only be achieved via binocular NVG“. Stereopsis? The visual perception of depth, or the ability to see three-dimensionally.

There is a user requirement for night vision goggles, monocular or binocular devices to be capable of being worn or used with a combat helmet and/or respirator.

In addition to the time-honoured trip wire, remote acoustic, heat, Doppler radar, magnetic and UAV-borne sensors can be added to infra-red detection to provide a more complete picture of what is happening at night in an area of interest. However, remote sensors are outside the scope of this phase of Project NINOX.

EXISTING ADF NIGHT FIGHTING EQUIPMENT

When asked by APDR about current NFE used in the ADF, a Defence spokesperson responded “Defence operates a small number of Night Fighting Equipment fleets which can be grouped into three basic types: Image Intensifiers, Night Aiming Devices and Universal Night Sights.”

“The majority of Defence’s Image Intensifiers are based on the N/SEAS Monocular. In addition, Defence has also acquired a small quantity of the AN/PVS-7B Night Vision Goggle.”

“Defence operates a Night Aiming Device, acquired under the same acquisition project as the N/SEAS Monocular and this item is essentially matched to the Image Intensifiers. Additionally the AN/PEQ-2A Laser Illuminator/Pointer has been acquired to supplement the Night Aiming Device fleet.”

“Defence also operates the AN/PVS-22 Universal Night Sight which can be fitted to a range of small arms weapons within the Defence Fleet.”

The N/SEAS Monocular was acquired in 1995 from ITT Excelis through ITL, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems. It is a compact, monocular (can be twinned to form a binocular) night vision system offering high resolution and a clear, bright image under adverse environmental conditions. Depending on the image intensifier tube fitted, it can be Gen 2+, SuperGen, Gen 3, or use XD-4 or XR5 technology. A lightweight unit, it is powered by a single battery with more than 24 hours useful life.

As an example of the latest night vision technology, Elbit Systems have introduced their XACT-NV32 model at Eurosatory 2012. This highly advanced, compact and lightweight (180gr) micro monocular features a ruggedised body (fully complying with Environmental MILSTD810), along with a unique optical and mechanical design, which includes an advanced I2 tube, as well as an auto shut-off technology. Head, helmet or weapon-mounted, the monocular's unique design prevents shifting of LOS (Line-Of-Sight) and flexibility of use due to a flip-up head/helmet adapter. When used in dual configuration as a binocular, the system provides a lightweight solution for depth perception in driving, complex terrain navigation etc. XACT–NV32 provides high image quality even in complete dark scenarios and features automatic and manual gain control for better visibility under any light condition

The AN/PVS-7B binocular night vision goggles (NVG) originally had a Gen 2 image tube, but can be upgraded with a Gen 3 image tube to increase system performance by over 50% and the tube lifespan by more than 300%.

F88S-A2 Steyr rifles can be fitted with the ADF’s AN/PEQ-2A target pointer/illuminator/aiming light (TPIAL) using their standard rail interface. Since the LAND 125 Phase 3C project to upgrade Steyrs will not reach Year of Decision until FY2014-2015 to 2015-2016, any new NFE acquired by Project NINOX will have to fit the standard rail interface on existing Steyrs.

The AN/PVS-22 Universal Night Sight adds night vision to an existing telescopic sight, being fitted in front of it on the standard rail interface. It uses a Gen 3 image intensifier tube and can recognise a standing person in starlight beyond 500 metres.

As can be seen from the current ADF NFE, there will be choices to upgrade existing equipment by changes to image intensifier technology.

INDUSTRY PARTICIPATION

There is no indigenous capability to manufacture night vision equipment, although industry plays an important role in support of the current capability, primarily maintaining the in-service systems.

Questioned by APDR on the AIC Plan to be provided by prime contractors to this project, a Defence spokesperson said “The proposed replacement of the ADF NFE has generated keen interest from a number of multinational defence contractors. Market feedback has established that several of these companies are known to have the capability to provide the major equipment, spare parts and maintenance support. There are currently no known Australian manufacturers who can offer a mature in-country manufactured Night Vision Goggle capability. This capability is not considered a Primary Industry Capability by Government.”

“As mature products are required, the scope for Australian Industry involvement is limited to the possibility of providing repair, maintenance and possibly upgrade during the life of the systems.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

APDR asked a Defence spokesperson about exclusivity of NFE and conditions for its safekeeping. This was prompted by reading a US audit report on the supply of 7,157 items of night vision equipment to the Afghan National Army which cited “hundreds of missing serial numbers, 518 ‘discrepancies’ and 75 goggles that were ‘unaccounted for during our physical inventory’."

It is thought that a number of these have finished up in the hands of the Taliban. This raises the question of how can NFE acquired by the Australian Army be reasonably certain of being undetectable by potential adversaries.

The Defence spokesperson replied “All NVG technologies likely to be considered by LAND 53-1BR are passive devices and undetectable by other NVG. Aiming LASERs, being active systems, are detectable by any NVG operating in the same portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum the LASER emits in. There are no user requirements for the exclusiveness of NFE technology”.

“In the case of NFE currently procured from the United States, specific International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) requirements exist which the Commonwealth of Australia must comply with. These severely restrict what the Commonwealth can do outside use by ADF members, without seeking US approval. It is anticipated that other potential source nations would also have similar restrictions on the use of their technology. NFE is subject to specific security arrangements for storing, handling, transportation and accounting.”

A further question from APDR asked about DPCU-NIR as the current camouflage uniform, given that it is very hard to see in infra-red (IR) through night vision goggles. The Defence spokesperson replied “The Disruptive Pattern Camouflage Uniform (DPCU) with Near-IR treatment is still the default camouflage uniform for Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force personnel in the field, both on exercise and on operations, while Royal Australian Navy personnel now wear the Disruptive Pattern Navy Uniform (DPNU) as their default working dress. The ADF also utilises environment specific camouflage patterns (Disruptive Pattern Desert Uniform and more recently the Australian MultiCam Pattern) as appropriate.”

To their credit, Defence is taking Project NINOX very seriously and, although new equipment will come through in tranches rather than one big delivery of everything chosen, the ADF’s troops will continue to be well-served with night fighting equipment.

The Powerful Owl, if it could talk might say “NFE developments look promising and are highly likely to help catch prey”.

 

APDR at a glance