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Combating darkness

Battlefield transparency under all types of conditions will hold the key to success of a military operation in the 21st Century. Militaries will need critical technologies and weapons which can provide the ability to overpower the adversary when he is most prone, and that is night. The Night Vision Devices (NVDs) have proved to be force multipliers during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. NVDs greatly aid the infantry in carrying out tasks such as identification friend and foe, target acquisition and target neutralization by accurate fire.  NVDs provide night fighters with the ability to see, maneuver and shoot at night or during periods of reduced visibility

The conventional and sub-conventional military operations require operations by agile, responsive, and networked infantry units in small teams that are night enabled. The device needs to be seamlessly integrated with the weapon and provide increased accuracy, lethality and standoff capability of weapon delivery system. Night devices for surveillance and target acquisition should match the effective ranges of the weapons. Night vision devices are vital for operations against terrorists and insurgents who tend to move and operate by night and constantly resort to using the terrain for camouflage and concealment.

Night vision devices (NVDs) provide night fighters with the ability to see, maneuver and shoot at night or during periods of reduced visibility. The military uses night vision for many purposes. Soldiers on the ground use night vision while defending an area or while scanning for opposition. In addition, tanks use night vision devices for the same reason. Generally when using these devices, things appear with a greenish tint because of the way the light reflects off of the landscape. Thermal imaging is used in the military on a larger scale. For example, when looking for enemies in compounds or ensuring there are no civilians in a certain area. Thermal imaging is not only a type of night vision; it can also be used during daylight hours simply to detect the presence of humans.

Effective maneuver

Military tacticians throughout history have seen the advantages of being able to maneuver effectively under cover of darkness. Night vision was first used in the military in the 1930s when Germany equipped about 50 of their tanks with night vision devices. These devices provided substantially better vision than the naked eye but would not hold a candle to the devices the military uses today. In fact, the original night vision for military use was mostly unsuccessful. It was too expensive and exceedingly heavy.

During WW II, the United States, Britain, and Germany worked to develop rudimentary night vision technology. For example, a useful infrared sniper scope that used near- infrared cathodes coupled to visible phosphors to provide a near-infrared image converter was fielded. However this device had several disadvantages. The infrared sniper scope required an active IR searchlight that was so large it had to be mounted on a flatbed truck. This active IR searchlight could be detected by any enemy soldiers equipped with similar equipment. The rifle-mounted scope also required cumbersome batteries and provided limited range.

Today, the military still uses night vision devices but they are much better suited to their needs. There are three types of night vision that the military uses: image intensification, active illumination, and thermal imaging. Image intensification essentially works by magnifying the natural light that is available from moonlight, street lights, etc. Active illumination actually uses light that is not detectable by the human eye to light up the images. Finally, thermal imaging is able to show images that give off heat such as human bodies.

Image intensification systems support direct observations by amplifying low levels of available light. They do not ‘turn night into day’ Nor do they overcomes the problems that affect vision in low light environments. The image intensifier is a vacuum-tube based device that converts invisible light from an image to visible light so that a objects in the dark can be viewed by a camera or the naked eye.

Active illumination technologies work on the principle of coupling imaging intensification with an active source of illumination in the near infrared (NIR) band. Infrared is used in night vision technology when there is insufficient visible light to see, active illumination involves conversion of ambient light photons into electrons which are then amplified by a chemical and electrical process and then converted back into visible light. Since active infrared night vision systems can incorporate illuminators that produce high levels of infrared light, the resulting images are typically higher resolution than other night vision technologies.

The use of infrared light and night vision devices should not be confused with thermal imaging which creates images based on differences in surface temperature by detecting infrared radiation (heat) that emanates from objects and their surrounding environment

Thermal imaging, based on the far infrared spectrum, forms an image of objects by sensing the differences between the heat radiated by a particular object or target and its surrounding environment.

There are two main devices that the military uses today in order to take advantage of night vision technologies. The first is night vision goggles which are the less common of the two despite the fact that most soldiers are now equipped with them. Goggles look a bit like binoculars and use image intensification to help users scan for enemies in the dark. The second is simply called a night vision device and it looks more like a telescope. It can be mounted on tanks or even reduced in size and mounted on the sight of a gun or weapon for those on duty in the dark. This is a form of the first devices used in the 1930s and it too uses image intensification.

Image intensification

The World War II NVDs utilized an IR illuminator, which reflected the IR beam off the targets, that is to say they used an active infrared device. The Germans used Solution A-Sperber FG 1250 with Panther tanks and the Vampir man portable system for the soldiers. The Americans used M1 and M3 infrared night sighting devices. However, the generation 1 NVDs started using passive IR with light enhancement from ambient light. These devices were at a disadvantage on moonless and cloudy nights.

Through the 1950’s, Night Vision focused on improving upon the cascade image tube, a development of the Germans during WW II. The new system, known as Image Intensification (I2), gathered ambient light from the moon and the stars in the night sky and intensified this light. By the mid-1960’s, scientists and engineers at Night Vision fielded the first generation of passive night vision devices for US troops, including a Small Starlight Scope that served as a rifle-mounted sight or as a handheld viewer.

The research personnel came to refer to the development of this early equipment as the First Generation Image Intensifier Program. The first generation Small Starlight Scope was soon put to practical use in the field. With the United States’ growing involvement in Vietnam, US soldiers quickly recognized that they faced an enemy that relied on the cover of darkness to conduct its maneuvers and offensive operations. In 1964, the US Army issued night vision equipment to the troops in Vietnam. The Vietnam War proved to be an important stage in the development of night vision systems.

The US Army used two different types of NVDs-image intensifiers and thermals. Image-Intensifying Devices are based upon light amplification and must have some light available. These devices can amplify the available light from 2,000 to 5,000 times. Thermal Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) detectors - sometimes called “sensors”-work by sensing the temperature difference between an object and its environment. FLIR systems are installed on certain combat vehicles and helicopters.

The major test of technological efforts came in use in early 1991 when Iraqi armed forces invaded Kuwait. The United States of America and its allies immediately mobilized to force Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. Night vision systems would prove vital to operating in the desert environment. Night vision systems using I2 and FLIR technologies were used by ground troops and major weapon systems such as tanks, helicopters, missile systems and infantry fighting vehicles. Targeting systems using FLIR technology were particularly important to the major weapon systems due to their ability to ‘see’ through dense smoke, dust, fog, and haze at great distances. As in Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm showed Night Vision scientists and engineers that improvements could be made.

Night vision devices occupy an important space in providing all weather, day and night fighting capabilities. Night vision devices work on two different principles of thermal imaging and image enhancement. Thermal imaging functions in the upper region of the infra red spectrum, it captures the emissions by the target in this region; whereas image enhancement works by accumulating and amplifying miniscule amounts of light including the lower end of the infra red spectrum so that it is possible to view the target. Normally it is the image enhancement products, which are commonly called Night Vision Devices or NVDs.

Night vision technology uses image intensification (I2) to see details at night because it works by intensifying the existing light spectrum. Low levels of ambient light pass through a photocathode that converts the light photons to electrons, then amplifies them. Sensitivity levels to various infrared, ultraviolet and visible spectrum wavelengths vary with the exact device. They then hit a phosphor screen where they are converted into visible light


The night vision industry has evolved through three stages, or “Generations,” of development. Generation I technology is now obsolete. Each generation offers more sensitivity and can operate effectively on less light. Generation I devices lacked the sensitivity and light amplification necessary to see below full moonlight and were often staged or cascaded to improve gain. As a result, Generation I systems were large and cumbersome, less reliable, and relatively poor low-light imagers. They were also characterized by streaking and distortion. Operating life expectancy of Generation I image intensifier tubes was about 2,000 hours.

The next generation devices had considerable improvements in the image intensifier tubes (II Tubes) with the addition of the microchannel plate and thus were able to display images in extreme low light conditions. The images were brighter and the distortion was much less in these devices. The development of the microchannel plate (MCP) led to the birth of Generation II devices in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Higher electron gains were now possible through smaller packaging, and performance improvements made observation possible down in dim moonlight. Generation II tubes had a life expectancy from 2,500 hours to 4,000 hours.

Generation II+ provided improved performance over standard Generation II by providing increased gain at high and low levels. Generation II+ equipment provided the best image under full moonlight conditions and were recommended for urban environments.

A Generation III intensifier multiplies the light gathering power
of the eye or video receptor up to 30,000 times. In generation III devices, currently in use by the many militaries, the photo cathode has been manufactured with gallium arsenide and the MCP has been coated with an ion barrier for increasing the life of the image intensifier tube. Otherwise, there is not much change from the NVDs of 2nd generation. Gen III technology is the most sophisticated night vision technology available. The photocathode is coated with sensitive gallium arsenide, which allows for a more efficient conversion of light to electrical energy at extremely low levels of light. Generation III provides the clearest, sharpest night vision image available. These have been extensively used in Gulf war II, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In the 4th generation, the ion barrier has been removed and an automated gated power supply has been added which enables the NVD to respond to rapidly changing light conditions. The NVD systems can move from low light to high light and vice versa environments without difficulty.

NVDs come in three major categories namely; Goggles: with binocular vision; Scopes: handheld, monocular and weapon mountable; and Cameras: capable of sending image to monitor/recorder.

A soldier can conduct his combat missions without any active illumination sources using only image intensifiers. The main advantages of image intensifiers as night vision devices are their small size, light weight, low power requirements and low cost. These attributes have enabled image intensifier goggles for head-worn, individual soldier applications and resulted in hundreds of thousands of night vision goggles to be procured by the armies in the world. Research and development continues today on image intensifiers in the areas of longer wavelength spectral response, higher sensitivity, larger fields of view and increased resolution.

Unlike the massive acquisition programs for fighter jets and combat vehicles, night vision technologies need to be refreshed every few years in order for troops to maintain their edge against adversaries. Experts and scientists have focused on improving image quality while driving down the size, weight and power consumption of these devices.

For current use one takes current technologies; for five or ten years hence one takes technologies that are well advanced in development and where the manufacturing processes are more or less defined. Highly advanced technologies are left for the future. Research and Development work has to be progressed to meet the immediate, short-term and long term requirements.


Many global firms are putting extra efforts to continuously develop and advance the night vision technology for future possible use.

ATN (American Technologies Network) Corp, as a leading manufacturer of precision optics that include Night Vision, Thermal Imaging, and Smart HD Optics, ATN continually strives to bring the most innovative technologies and products to its customers. With an ever growing demand to capture Hunting experiences on Video, ATN launched its first High Definition Gun Camera, the Shot Trak HD and Shot Trak HD X. These state of the art systems are designed specifically to be mounted on a weaver rail and may be used on most weapons as well as bows. Providing 1080p HD quality video and a laser for precise targetting, the Shot Trak cameras are tough durable, easy to install and unlike a standard action camera provide 5X magnification to capture every detail of your hunting experience.

To this day, ATN Corporation develops, crafts, and sells the world’s largest line of Night Vision Devices. ATN offers the highest quality Night Vision Goggles, Night Vision Monoculars, Night Vision Binoculars, Night Vision Rifle Scopes, advanced Day/Night Vision Systems which are all, as always, made to achieve to the highest performance possible.

ITT Exelis is the world’s leading developer, producer, and supplier of Generation 3 image intensification technology for US and allied military forces, as well as the federal homeland security market, and is the single largest producer of high performance night vision products in the world. In 2005, Exelis became the sole provider of the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle (Optical) system, which is the first production goggle to optically overlay traditional night vision imagery with long wave thermal infrared imagery. Night vision gives law enforcement, homeland security and first responder professionals the edge when they need it most - when the sun goes down or the lights go out. Exelis has integrated thermal and night vision surveillance capabilities into a single device for our law enforcement, homeland security and first responder professionals. Exelis Night Vision and Communications Solutions (NVCS) is an innovation leader in the global defence, security, and battlefield management sectors. Its reliable solutions for secure voice and data communications, battlefield situational awareness, and night vision systems ensure the success of  critical missions

FLIR Systems, considered as pioneers in thermal imaging, was founded in 1978, originally providing infrared imaging systems that were installed on vehicles for use in conducting energy audits. Today its advanced systems and components are used for a wide variety of thermal imaging, situational awareness, and security applications, including airborne and ground-based surveillance, condition monitoring, navigation, recreation, research and development, manufacturing process control, search and rescue, drug interdiction, transportation safety and efficiency, border and maritime patrol, environmental monitoring, and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives threat detection. All of the visible light cameras-daylight cameras, NVG cameras, and I2 cameras-work by detecting reflected light energy. But the amount of reflected light they receive is not the only factor that determines whether or not you’ll be able to see with these cameras: image contrast matters, too.

FLIR is mainly into thermal imagers manufacturing. The company believes if one is looking at something with lots of contrast compared to its surroundings, he will have a better chance of seeing it with a visible light camera. If it doesn’t have good contrast, one can’t see it well, no matter how bright the sun is shining. A white object seen against a dark background has lots of contrast. A darker object, however, will be hard for these cameras to see against a dark background. This is called having poor contrast. At night, when the lack of visible light naturally decreases image contrast, visible light camera performance suffers even more.

Thermal imagers don’t have any of these shortcomings. First, they have nothing to do with reflected light energy: they see heat. Everything one see in normal daily life has a heat signature. This is why one has got a much better chance of seeing something at night with a thermal imager than you do with visible light camera, even a night vision camera.

L-3 Warrior Systems is a world leader in the development and production of advanced night vision and electro-optical systems and components. Warrior Systems supports all branches of the United States military, including elite military units, law enforcement, first responder agencies, allied nations and consumers by developing and delivering laser aiming and illumination devices, laser rangefinder systems, handheld and clip-on thermal imaging and fusion systems, wireless technology, holographic weapon sights, and advanced components.

Recently US Navy awarded a contract to L-3 Warrior Systems for high-performance image intensifier tube assemblies for series of night-vision monoculars to make them suitable for covert Special Forces operations.

CONTROP Precision Technologies has also become a leader in night vision technology. CONTROP night vision cameras have been known to provide proven solutions. Night Vision technologies refer to a variety of different methods to provide the ability to see in limited or no light situations.  The three most common types of night vision technologies are Thermal Imaging, Low Light Imaging and Near Infrared Illumination.   

CONTROP’s Thermal Imaging Camera systems are night vision cameras based on a night vision technology which does not require any light what-so-ever. These cameras produce a black and white image (picture) even in total darkness. CONTROP’s thermal imaging night vision cameras are used for airborne, land and sea applications.  They are incorporated into border surveillance, coastal control and protection of important facilities for law enforcement, security and military applications. CONTROP’s surveillance cameras include image enhancement algorithms which collect minute amounts of light - including the lower portion of the infrared light spectrum - amplify them to a level which can enhance the image obtained from the thermal imaging camera CONTROP develops and manufactures unique Thermal Imaging Infrared Cameras, including the optics, electronics, mechanics and software, enabling modification or changing of the camera to meet any requirements or any new technologies.

CONTROP’s wide-range of EO/IR, infrared cameras includes cooled and uncooled Thermal Imaging cameras for a variety of night vision applications.

Even Indian company Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) is fast gearing up to enter the night vision devices market.  NVDs are one of the areas of strategic interest for TASL.  The company has entered into a partnership with Exelis Inc, the world leader in Generation 3 Image Intensification (II) based NVDs, to manufacture and supply these systems to Indian Defence market. These systems will enable the security forces to achieve Battle Field Transparency even under low ambient light conditions and night, thereby significantly enhancing night operations. TASL provides a range of NVDs, which will enhance the situational awareness in the tactical battle space. These NVDs are based on designs that have been successfully used by Defence and Security forces across the world in theatres ranging from urban environments to dense forests.

The Indian DPSU BEL is also engaged in developing new generation night vision devices with some cooperation. So far the company has supplied more than 10,000 NVDs to the Indian Army with 2nd Gen Image Intensifier Tubes and more than 20,000 units have been supplied to other customers. BEL has absorbed the critical Image Intensifier (II) tube technology and has improved the 2nd Gen II tubes to Super Gen II specifications with better Figure of Merit. BEL’s existing facility in Pune is now being upgraded to manufacture the next generation of Image Intensifier Tubes. Recently BEL displayed Passive Night Goggles, Passive Night Monocular, Passive Night Binocular and others at an exhibtion.  Passive Night Sight for INSAS/LMG guns is a device that can be fixed to the guns to have clear vision of the target location.

The night fighting capability of Indian armed forces is limited and it is openly accepted by former service heads. The night fighting capability of the Army particularly the infantry and Special Forces need to be upgraded on a war footing.

What the Indian Army needs is “third generation” NVDs for soldiers, night sights for rifles and night vision equipment for armored and mechanized formations. The Army needs around 30,000 third generation NVDs to meet its requirements.

In the modern battlefield limited night fighting capability decreases force effectiveness and leads to reduced deterrence. Most advanced armies of the world have third generation NVDs as their core equipment complimented by earlier generation equipment. Fourth generation equipment is already in the test and field trial phases.

As the demand for NVDs is large, the cost factor is also crucial. Although not as complex as a fighter plane or submarine or other bigger modernization plans for Indian armed forces, the NVDs are crucial to India’s security as they provide the ability to fight at night and other conditions of reduced visibility

Therefore, the cost factor could be reduced with indigenous manufacture. The development of indigenous night vision cameras, gun sights and binoculars for internal security would soon be a reality with the efforts of Indian private and public defence companies which will reduce the dependence on the foreign countries.

New technology

The current global trend for NVDs is more inclined towards lighter and compact models with longer ranges and longer operational lifetimes. The technology for Image Intensifier tubes is also constantly being upgraded to achieve higher resolution and higher SNR. The other feature being introduced is the use of auto-gated power supply which helps the Image Intensifier tubes to work in the daytime, and also improves their operational lifetime.

Even the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) believes today’s night vision goggles are too heavy and cumbersome for troops and have led to short term and long term neck injuries. Therefore DARPA has invited  proposals from companies to build the next generation of night vision goggles. Proposals must put forth a plan to design goggles that look a lot like a bulky pair commercial sunglasses. The night vision glasses must be able to instantly switch from daylight to infrared.

The DARPA is also working on a digital helmet-mounted multiband camera and clip-on weapon sight that can see day and night in any weather conditions.

The camera and weapon sight would fuse reflective light in the visible, near infrared, short-wave part of the spectrum, as well as thermal images from the mid-wave and long-wave portions into a single image. Making the devices as small as possible is another objective of the program.

The US Army is simultaneously procuring a new suite of night vision goggles and weapon sights that can combine imagery from both devices. The coming years may bring greater advancements. Officials from military research organizations believe that a shift from analog to digital night vision devices will soon be possible, yielding the prospect of capturing and sharing color video among soldiers.

For decades, the US military relied on analog night vision goggles that use image intensification tubes to amplify existing light, allowing troops to see in practically pitch-black conditions. The Army’s newest goggles incorporate thermal imaging so that soldiers can see even if there is no visible moon, stars or nearby cities to provide ambient light.

The capability to detect and identify targets at night and under poor visibility conditions has been an essential military requirement for a long time. In recent years, the advent of passive night vision devices has added a completely new dimension to tactical operations, not just for the individual soldier, but for almost every component of the tactical spectrum, ranging from rifleman to helicopter pilots and tank drivers.

Apart from the military uses, NVDs are used by law enforcement agencies, wild life observers, hunters, navigators, security, and surveillance personal etc.

Due to its growing significance in the modern battlefield scenario, night vision technology continues to expand at a rapid pace and more developments will likely be seen in the very near future.