The ability to provide imagery of the non-visual part of the electromagnetic spectrum had its origins with the English astronomer William Hershel’s discovery of infrared (IR) light some 200 years ago.
Additional advances were provided by scientific achievements such as the discovery of the electron in 1897 and then the invention of the electron microscope in Germany during the 1930s, which revolutionized the study of the basic structure of materials.
The Second World War saw the first tentative military use of infrared detectors fitted to some German night fighter aircraft – largely unsuccessfully - and possibly to some heavy tanks at the very end of the war. While the science behind these systems was sound, materials technology was insufficiently advanced to register anything other than extremely large IR images, which limited their usefulness. Some US combat units in the Pacific used a different approach to night fighting, employing infrared emitters to “illuminate” small areas that in turn allowed snipers to target Japanese troops at relatively short ranges, a method also used by a small number of German troops from 1944.
Despite these modest beginnings a number of countries recognized the potential of such systems to allow military operations to be conducted in darkness. The idea of using IR emitters quickly fell away (mainly because of the ease with which they could be counter-detected) and instead efforts were channeled into passive IR – better known as thermal imaging – and image intensification.
The former is based on being able to detect the heat of a target (or rather the differential between its heat and the general background temperature) and the latter uses a technique of amplifying the very small amount of ambient light usually available at night (for example from stars) to be able to generate a reasonable quality greenish glow image in anything other than the blackest of conditions.
During the Vietnam War US forces effectively employed ‘Starlight’ telescopic sights using image intensification. Either technology is now scalable and they are a vital part of the sensor mix on many platforms as well as giving a huge boost in capability for individual soldiers.
The Australia Army’s foray into night fighting had its genesis in Project NINOX (named after an owl with excellent night vision) more than a decade ago – a multi-phased procurement that has provided a suite of equipment, including surveillance devices.
NINOX prime contractor US firm ITT has provided Army with an initial level of capability, which has been effectively employed in theatres such as Afghanistan, including use by special forces teams who actively hunt for the Taliban, especially in the dark. It is believed that all night patrols, including mentoring missions, make extensive use of night vision equipment.
Defence say that the current fleet of night fighting equipment (NFE) is based on the Israeli company’s ITL Mini N/SEAS monocular that is considered a Generation 3 plus device (ITL were a subcontractor to ITT). Without getting into unnecessary technicalities, Generation 3 plus represents the current state-of-the-art for such equipment and means that the hardware is smaller and lighter than older products.
The current phase of NINOX – LAND 53BR – is classified as a “technology refresh” which has the intention with providing the ADF with a new generation of night fighting equipment. The project is due for 1st pass approval next financial year and a decision the year after with an estimated acquisition cost at the upper end of the $100 million - $500 million band. The preferred approach is for a military off-the-shelf solution, which should not be too difficult given that a number of countries including the US, France and Israel are making major investments in their own night fighting equipment.
The hope is to start introducing new equipment into service in 2014, which by Australian standards will require a quick evaluation and decision. Not surprisingly the area of highest risk is achieving this schedule. While a process of industry consultation has not yet formally started Defence has confirmed that it will occur. The Department explains the rationale for the current BR phase:
“It will address lessons we have learnt in the last 10 years since the first systems were introduced. These include the ongoing drive to lighten the soldier’s load (especially head worn load) which is a common objective in many of our close combat projects; i.e. to improve the ergonomics of the system, and to increase the capabilities where possible.”
An indirectly stated aim must be to make sure that the ADF retains a capability advantage over adversaries such as the Taliban. There has been public speculation – particularly in the United States – that even tightly controlled equipment such as military night vision systems and secure radios could find their way into unfriendly hands by something as simple as a purchase on Ebay. While there is no confirmation that this is occurring, it remains a logical and worrying possibility – and is placing pressure on the US procurement system to speed up their acquisition processes.
The list of companies bidding for all - or parts - of LAND 53BR will be lengthy and is beyond the scope of this article because there are dozens of suppliers with night vision expertise. However, for the purposes of illustrating how technology is progressing it is worth considering developments in the 3 countries mentioned above, who are at the leading edge of “future soldier” developments.
The world’s largest supplier of military night vision equipment is ITT, which has more than 50 years experience in this domain. The company is currently supplying enhanced night vision goggles (ENVGs) to the US Army and is one of three finalists for full rate production of this next-generation equipment. The company says that these goggles are the first in the world to be able to fuse the imagery produced by 2 separate sensors – a thermal imager and also an image intensifier – in a single unit. The advantage of this approach is that in conditions of total blackout such as inside a cave the thermal imager will continue to provide a picture even when the intensifier will not.
Also while intensifiers provide a better quality picture they will not necessarily show a well-camouflaged enemy – but the thermal imager will do so, but at lesser resolution. ITT believe that this approach will provide users with the best of both worlds.
Another area of pioneering work by ITT is to explore fully digital imagery capture and transfer. This will further enhance a networked approach to the battlefield, where – for example – the picture from a soldier’s night sight or goggles could be transmitted over a radio link to any other place or places connected to the information grid, making a major contribution to improved situational awareness.
Another project that is making a major contribution to the night fighting capabilities of troops is the French FELIN system being supplied by Sagem (FELIN is the French acronym for Integrated Equipment & Communications Infantryman). The company has delivered more than 20,000 lightweight, modular systems based on a variety of highly capable sights and sensors to the French Army.
The company has also enjoyed considerable export success and while having to respect wishes of customer confidentiality says it is supplying “several” NATO countries and that some of the equipment is being used for current combat operations in Afghanistan. Sagem is also looking at data networking and produces – amongst other things – lightweight multi sensor IR binoculars, common day and night thermal sights with remote vision for many different automatic weapons (up to 25mm), red and blue force trackers and a variety of communications and situational awareness tools. Sagem can either provide turnkey solutions or supply individual equipment, depending on customer requirements.
Finally, it is likely that Israeli companies will also take a keen interest in LAND 53BR, especially as Elbit has already won the contracts for the related projects LAND 75 and LAND 125, as well as part of JP 2072. In addition to being at the heart of Australian “soldier of the future” activities through these programmes, Elbit is a world-class provider of electro-optical technology, particularly through its subsidiary Elop. Elbit is a major supplier to the Israeli Defence Forces and a number of export customers in the fields of command and control, advanced sensors and thermal sights.
It seems there are a number of high quality solutions available or under development that will be able to give a further boost to the Australian Army’s night fighting capabilities in the near future.