Next Gen NVGS – A Clear Improvement

Australian Army soldiers
During their deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Australian Army soldiers leave Patrol Base Atiq for a night patrol. Preparations for the night patrol included weapon zeroing and adjustments to night fighting equipment such as machine gun sights and night vision goggles. (Australian DoD)

Fused and enhanced night-vision technology will make the difference to soldiers fighting at night.

Night-vision technology is rapidly advancing with step changes in performance, user experience and comfort. These advances are a result of technology for Night-Vision Devices (NVD) transitioning from being hardware heavy and dependent on legacy processing platforms to software driven hardware. This has allowed NVD providers to harness the ever growing processing power of commercial computing platforms. Electro-Optic (EO) devices today make use of edge video processing, have real time auto target recognition capabilities and utilise deep learning models to deliver night-vision capabilities far in excess of what was available only five years ago. Development of these advanced NVDs for mounted and dismounted soldiers however, is the realm of only a few companies worldwide, who are able to deliver on the highly challenging and competing demands of size, weight and power consumption and manufacture these systems in volume. Militaries however, have been quick to take note of the advanced capabilities now available on NVDs and are planning accordingly.

Capability Overmatch

The Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) continue to invest in state-of-the-art night-fighting capability and are on schedule to receive more than 5,500 cutting-edge helmet-mounted Fused Night Vision Systems (FNVS) from L3Harris. Deliveries are expected to begin next year with Final Operational Capability (FOC) slated for September 2023. “The new fused night vision systems will provide greater survivability to our ADF personnel through increased situational awareness and the ability to detect movement at greater distances,” said Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. “The fused night vision system will also allow Augmented Reality (AR) enhancements, including location and navigation data in the Heads-Up Display (HUD).” Along with its investments in NVDs, the ADF is also working on a new integrated digital soldier combat helmet system for which New South Wales company Spearpoint Solutions was awarded $2.7 million in February.

Missions Systems Australia, a subsidiary of L3Harris, received the night-vision systems contract worth $173 million in December 2020, which included full in-country support and repair. L3Harris announced in January that it would provide the advanced NVGs to the ADF under a $118 million contract. L3Harris’ FNVS fuses image intensification technology with thermal imagery to deliver enhanced situational awareness, targeting and identification capability to soldiers in all battlefield conditions and light levels. The FNVS can also deliver vital battlefield information directly to the soldier’s eye when it is combined with the L3Harris battery pack

The ADF’s night-vision procurements fall under its LAND 53 Phase 1BR project which sought to replace its helmet-mounted night-vision equipment and laser-aiming devices which attach to specified ADF weapons for dismounted combatants, including regular infantry, Special Forces (SF) and selected elements of the Navy and Air Force. Tranche 1 of LAND 53 Phase 1BR was aimed at meeting requirements for new generation NVDs featuring the latest technology with improved ergonomic performance and reduced weight. The new devices were would replace existing night-fighting products to enhance the ADF’s dismounted night-fighting capabilities.

The first Tranche 1 contract was inked with L-3 Communications Oceania in September 2016.  The five year $208 million contract for night-vision imaging systems included binocular night vision goggles with white phosphor image intensification features,  compact laser with integrated white light functions, miniature laser rangefinders and other detection and targeting tools to ADF. Amongst the systems supplied by L3Harris include: Binocular Night Vision Devices (BNVD) – L3Harris AN/PVS31A; Laser Aiming and Illumination Devices (LAID) – L3Harris AN/PEQ-16B LED / MIPIM; Laser Aiming, Illumination and Ranging Devices (LAIRD) – L3Harris SRF. L3Harris directly provides support for its night-vision systems to first and second line ADF brigades and end users from its Brisbane support and sustainment facility. Tranche 1 deliveries began in May 2017 and were completed in 2020.

Cutting-Edge NVG

The US Army is now fielding the most sophisticated military Night Vision Goggles (NVG) currently in operational service with initial deployment of the new Enhanced Night Vision Goggle – Binocular (ENVG-B) now underway. The US Army selected L3Harris in October 2020 to deliver the ENVG-B as its next generation night vision system to enhance situational awareness and increase soldier mobility. The advanced NVGs have already made an appearance in the region, when a US Army armoured brigade combat team equipped with ENVG-B’s made a trial deployment in South Korea in 2019.

“The ENVG-B is the most advanced night vision goggle ever developed for and fielded by the US Army, enabling a soldier to see and manoeuvre in zero and low-light situations,” said Lynn Bollengier, president, Integrated Vision Solutions, L3Harris. The ENVG-B features see through map overlays and a compass in addition to AR capabilities and a HUD that integrates wirelessly with weapon optics. Low Rate Production is now underway and approximately 5,000 ENVG-Bs have been fielded thus far with the 82nd Airborne Division already having received 1,500 units by March. The development of the advanced new NVG’s is aimed at regaining American superiority in night-vision technology which had steadily eroded in recent years.

ENVG-B/Military Mountaineering
A member of the New Hampshire Army National Guard, shows the wearable positions of the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B) during a Soldier Touchpoint event in 2019. The ENVG-B’s capability of assuming various positions is one of the many features of the system decided by soldier feedback. (DVIDS)

The ENVG-B binocular system provides greater depth perception than a traditional monocular sight. Its  dual-tube design and improved Image Intensification (I2) resolution provide outstanding vision in low-light or no-light environments. The use of white phosphorous tubes means the soldiers will not have to see through a green tint as on current NVGs which make use of green phosphorous tubes.

In Reliability Growth Tests (RGT) held in June 2020, participants found the ENVG-Bs completely outperformed the PVS-14 Night Vision Monocular, which is the current standard military issue NVG for US troops. The PVS-14 is also in widespread use with many NATO countries and other U.S. allies. Troops wearing ENVG-Bs could engage targets out to 300 metres and even beyond, whereas troops equipped with standard issue PVS-14s had difficulty even seeing beyond 150 meters. Over the course of the RGT, troops reported a ‘night and day’ difference in terms of target detection and clarity between ENVG-B and PVS-14.

Crucially, ENVG-B will be integrated with Nett Warrior and Family of Weapon Sights – Individual (FWS-I) which are part of the US Army efforts to deliver capability to its warfighters far beyond what is the standard in today’s battlespace. The ENVG-Bs will feature a wireless connection with FWS-I and be able to present a fused thermal image to the soldier. FWS-I provides enhanced target recognition and passive engagement capabilities, even behind cover and concealment and soldiers will be able to utilise the combined technology to detect targets through smoke and spot enemies even while obscured from view. The ENVG-B’s can also be connected wirelessly to Nett Warrior, which provides access to blue force tracking, improved communication and mission planning tools.

India Needs NVG Upgrades

India’s ongoing border confrontation with China has brought to light a shortage of modern night fighting equipment for large sections of the Army. The size of Indian requirements can be estimated from a 2019 Request for Information (RFI) for night sights for 56,000 7.62X51mm assault rifles spread across 40,0000 Image Intensifier and 16,000 Thermal Imaging (TI) based sights. “Some of our recent programmes include TI sights for assault rifles and we are working on the Request for Proposal (RFP) for the procurement of more than 22,000 TI sights for SIG 716 assault rifles being imported,” Ankit Kumar, CTO and co-founder of Tonbo Imaging an Indian firm specialising in night vision technology tells AMR. The military is also procuring 800 TI night sights for infantry units equipped with AGS-30 30-mm automatic grenade launchers as they currently lack TI sights for night operations with access only to a PAG-17 day sight.

Tonbo Imaging’s Spartan
Indian company Tonbo Imaging’s Spartan is a next-generation tactical thermal sight powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset which gives high GPU processing power. The company claims that it is the world’s lightest AI-powered scope, weighing only 300 grams. It was introduced in 2019 and also works as a monocular helmet-mounted sight. (Tonbo)

In September 2020, the Army issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) for upgrade of 811 BMP-II and BMP-IIK Infantry Combat Vehicles with a 3rd Generation Thermal Imager based Gunner Sight, 3rd Generation Thermal Imager based Commander Sight (Panoramic), Modernised Fire Control System and Automatic Target Tracker. Tonbo Imaging displayed its proposed solution to upgrade the night fighting capabilities of Indian BMP IIs at Aero India 2021 in February and Army trials are slated to start soon for this project. “We are working through the IDEX programme to upgrade the BMP II with See Through Armour (STA) Capability and enhance the situational awareness of the driver, commander and gunner sitting inside a closed hatch vehicle. We have successfully demonstrated a fully military qualified product integrated with the BMP and are looking forward to the pilot production order by IDEX under the $136 million (1000cr) budget allocated by the defense minister for such successful projects by start-ups in IDEX,” Kumar tells AMR. While the contract for night-vision upgrade of 811 BMP-II and BMP-IIK has been allocated to the Ordnance Factory Board and Bharat Electronics Limited, another 800 ICV’s are planned to be upgraded.

The BMP-II was fitted with Tonbo Imaging’s Wolfpack multi-aperture, multi-spectral see-through armour system. The Wolfpack system features a holographic Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) for navigation, AI enabled target recognition, video stabilisation, sensor fusion and threat analysis. The TI on the system delivers a 50hz frame rate with 4x digital zoom, while the Day Imager features a low lux CMOS with 720p HD resolution, 46-degree X 34 degree field of view and 10x optical zoom. The Wolfpack system enhances situational awareness via a network of an array of multi-spectral cameras constantly looking out to different directions around the vehicle generating seamlessly fused 360-degree panoramic images covering the surroundings of the entire vehicle. The solution proposed by Tonbo Imaging uses nine cameras that are integrated with the helmet display and the firm’s STA  technology gives the commander, driver and gunman a 360-degree view around their tank while sitting inside, even at night. This technology also caters to the drop in visibility due to smoke, dust and fog.

Tonbo is also awaiting a production order for supply of EO sights for a .50 cal Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RCWS) to be fitted on the Arjun Mark 1A Main Battle Tank (MBT). The EO sensors provided for the RCWS has completed successful user trials and once a production order for the Arjun MBT is in place, the company will gear up for production of the EO sights. Apart from supplying products to the US and Peruvian Army, Tonbo is gaining success with Indian armed and paramilitary forces as also SF units.

Kanpur-based defence manufacturer MKU is working together with French defence firm Thales to develop the ELFIE night vision devices for the Indian armed forces. As per the schedule, integration of the first pre-series of devices at MKU’s facility in Kanpur was to have been completed in the first trimester of 2020 with a true model of a made in India, ELFIE night vision device to have been available in the first trimester of 2021. The lightweight monocular offers a wide field of view and is suitable for left or right eye use, providing stereoscopic vision in binocular configuration. It can be used in hands-free mode on a face mask/helmet mount or weapon-mounted. ELFIE is touted as being an ideal solution for vehicular use and for paratroopers and Special Forces (SF) operators.

ELFIE Night Vision Device
In February 2020 Thales and MKU announced the co-development of the ELFIE Night Vision Device (NVD) for the armed forces in India and for export. (Thales)

Another important aspect when it comes to NVDs, especially for operators in the region is their support and maintenance. Typically for NVD’s the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) varies from 1,500hrs to 10,000hrs depending upon the number of components inside a system or the complexity of the system. EO systems are also export controlled and it is not easy to send them across borders for repairs making investments into maintenance of such equipment of vital importance considering they will remain in service for more than a decade.

It is important for users to buy and maintain the manufacturer recommended list of spares and also special tools and equipment to repair the system as and when required as any cutting of corners here, leads to an adverse impact on the operational availability of NVDs.

by Mike Rajkumar