In July last year the author embedded with the Australian Army’s 7th Brigade during the large-scale Exercise Talisman Sabre. At that time, he witnessed widespread use of night vision goggles (NVG) such as the monocular ITL Mini N/SEAS in night-time combat conditions. Soldiers spoke well of the capabilities such devices offered. Whether used by soldiers patrolling, conducting actions at night, or driving vehicles in blackout conditions, NVGs and weapon sights helped maintain operational tempos no matter the time of day
24th Jul 2012
FIGHT TONIGHT! NIGHT VISION PROGRAMMES IN ASIA
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong
In July last year the author embedded with the Australian Army’s 7th Brigade during the large-scale Exercise Talisman Sabre. At that time, he witnessed widespread use of night vision goggles (NVG) such as the monocular ITL Mini N/SEAS in night-time combat conditions. Soldiers spoke well of the capabilities such devices offered. Whether used by soldiers patrolling, conducting actions at night, or driving vehicles in blackout conditions, NVGs and weapon sights helped maintain operational tempos no matter the time of day. However, one common side effect of their employment was twisted or sprained ankles, simply because the depth perception offered by NVGs makes cross-country movement difficult. This article gives a quick roundup of night vision programmes in the Asia-Pacific region, covering both weapon sights and NVGs. The uptake of night vision devices (NVD) in the region has been slow to gain momentum compared to the USA and Europe, so some Asian countries have some catching up to do.
NVDs fall into three broad categories: (1) weapon sights; (2) helmet-mounted or head-mounted goggles; and (3) handheld or tripod-mounted surveillance devices. Technologically the second category is one of the most challenging because any platform must be lightweight, compact and have low power consumption levels if it is to be of practical benefit to the infantryman. Soldiers also want to use their weapons at optimum ranges, so NVGs must provide clarity and target identification at sufficiently long ranges. It is critical that the modern soldier can observe, acquire and engage targets at night or in low-visibility conditions.
The USA continues to lead the world in night vision technology, so it will be of help to first see what the gold standard is currently. The AN/PVS-14 monocular NVG that weighs 400g has been the standard type in the US military. ITT and L-3 EOS are prime contractors for the AN/PVS-14, and under a five-year contract initiated in 2002, these two companies supplied more than 600,000 NVGs to the US military. Examples also serve in Australia, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.
The most advanced systems like the AN/PVS-22 clip-on weapon sight fall within the Gen III Omni-VII class. This category is distinguished by automatic gated power supply that regulates photocathode voltage. This basically means these systems allow instantaneous adaptation to changing lighting conditions, and because the ion barrier is thinned, they produce less image noise and can operate in lower light levels.
The AN/PVS-14 is being replaced by newer-generation AN/PSQ-20 Enhanced Night Vision Goggles (ENVG) from ITT. The AN/PSQ-20 superimposes thermal imaging (TI) and image intensification (I2), plus soldiers can still choose just one of these methods. I2 captures ambient light from the stars, moon or manmade sources and amplifies it thousands of times. The advantages of I2 are its light weight, compactness, relative inexpensiveness and low power consumption. On the other hand, TI gathers electro-magnetic radiation emitted by heat sources (e.g. from people, manmade objects or even natural features) to produce an electronic image. TI and infrared do not rely on ambient light so they can be used in the darkest conditions, and in smoke, fog or haze. However, TI comes with a premium price tag compared to I2. The ENVG is the first production model in the world to employ multi-spectral image fusion technology, and it was trialled in combat in Afghanistan from mid-2009 onwards. A production contract for 2,400 units was awarded to ITT in 2005, and a second contract in August 2010 promised 6,500 units. The disadvantages of the fused ENVG are its greater power usage, weight (910g) and price (USD10,000 each).
An upgraded, lighter, less power hungry and more rugged ENVG(D) has been under evaluation since June 2009. Also offering a digital image export capability, this digitised version could be issued to US forces by 2014. The US Air Force is also experimenting with Panoramic NVGs (PNVG) that double the field of view to around 95º. These use four 16mm tubes instead of the usual two 18mm tubes.
The AN/PAS-13 Thermal Weapon Sight (TWS) II family from Raytheon exists in three different guises. So far, more than 33,000 have been produced. The infrared AN/PAS-13(V)1 Light Weapon Thermal Sight (LWTS) is mounted on M4/M16 rifles and M136 anti-armour weapons, the AN/PAS-13(V)2 Medium Weapon Thermal Sight (MWTS) is fitted to the M249 SAW and M240B, while the AN/PAS-13(V)3 Heavy Weapon Thermal Sight (HWTS) goes on the .50-cal M2 machine gun, 40mm automatic grenade launcher and specialist sniper rifles. The US Marine Corps (USMC) began receiving the ELCAN AN/PAS-28 Medium-Range Thermal Biocular (also known as PhantomIRxr) in 2010 as part of a 10,000-unit order. It weighs 1.6kg and can detect targets at 2,200m with a 70% probability.
Philippines and others eye US assistance
Several months ago, Defence Review Asia visited the southern Philippines to obtain an update on operations against terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). A highlight was meeting a team from the Light Reaction Battalion (LRB) of the Philippine Army. This Special Forces unit was created in 2006 for counterterrorism duties in urban and jungle settings. The LRB is part of the Joint Special Operations Group (JSOG) that also includes air force and navy personnel. LRB teams are inserted to kill or apprehend antagonists during high-value-target missions. Members of the LRB showed the author some of the kit that helps them perform their missions, and one important piece was AN/PVS-7D NVGs. The LRB is one of the best-equipped units in the Philippine Army, and although these NVGs are not the latest technology, they greatly assist their operations.
The Philippines obviously benefits greatly from American financial and military assistance. The newest NVG for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is the EOTech M914A (a version of the AN/PVS-14). By May 2010, the Philippines had received 2,351 M914A goggles from Nightline Inc in the USA. Most sets went to the army to assist operations in the restive southern region of Mindanao. There are still not enough to go around, however. Several years ago when the author visited the Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), one member admitted there was often only one set per eight-man team instead of the desired rate of one per member. Aircraft and helicopter pilots now perform regular night missions thanks to US training and equipment.
Of course, the Philippines is not the only Asia-Pacific country to make use of American equipment. South Korea and Japan produce American systems under license. The Japanese company NEC produces 1,000-2,000 JGVS-V8 units annually, these being a licensed copy of the AN/PVS-14. Likewise, Samsung Thales in South Korea produces copies of American systems.
The USA strictly controls Gen III technology and permits sales only to NATO members, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan and South Korea. The USA strictly controls NVD exports via figure of merit (FOM) regulations inaugurated in 2001. The FOM is an abstract measure of image tube performance derived from the number of line pairs per millimetre multiplied by the tube’s signal-to-noise ratio. For countries outside its inner circle, the USA approves exports on a case-by-case basis, and tubes with an FOM of >1,400 cannot be exported without governmental approval. This system does not always work in practice, as illustrated by ITT being fined US $100 million in 2007 after it breached export laws by selling technical data to contractors in China, Singapore and the UK. Furthermore, the Pentagon’s inspector general revealed in June that dozens of American and Afghan NVGs have been lost - raising the spectre of many falling into Taliban hands. The report stated a total of 518 discrepancies and found that 75 pairs were unaccounted for. Well-equipped terrorist groups like the ASG in Mindanao are also known to use NVGs typically purchased on the open market.
India - a gaping market
On 29 March, Tata Advanced Systems (TAS) formed a strategic alliance with the American firm ITT Exelis (formerly ITT Corporation until it changed its name in October 2011). The purpose is to supply third-generation NVDs to India, a country with a serious shortage of such equipment. This collaboration will see ITT supplying vision intensifier tubes and other components to India for local production. The Indian Army suffers from acute night blindness. Currently, only one soldier in a ten-man section is authorised to possess an NVG set, but the army wants to increase this ratio to 50% of personnel. Indeed, India is set to spend US $2 billion on night vision equipment over the next five years, although this figure includes thermal sights for tanks. India’s Futuristic Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS) programme nominated Nelco Limited (part of the Tata Group) to develop new-generation NVGs.
Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) previously set up a factory to produce second-generation sights, and it won a contract in 2008 to produce 32,766 NVGs for paramilitary forces. Production commenced in September 2010 in technical collaboration with Star Defence Systems of Israel and using French Photonics tubes. However, tests in March 2011 found that 10% of devices were faulty, creating something of a political furore. BEL subsequently signed a contract to supply 30,634 night sights for rifles, rocket launchers and light machine guns, as well as night vision binoculars and NVGs for the army. However, huge gaps remain in Indian technological capabilities and numbers. A joint venture between Thales and local company Rolta was formed in 2009 to market Lucie and Monie NVGs, Sophie surveillance devices and Munos weapon sights.
The army has a requirement for uncooled TI sights with an 800m range for 7.62mm machine guns and sniper rifles. In addition it needs handheld thermal imaging sights with integrated laser rangefinders for infantry, armour, air defence, artillery and engineer units. Paramilitary forces need long-range surveillance equipment to monitor borders too. A request for information dated March 2010 called for a monocular head-mounted NVG weighing less than 340g for use with the Israeli Tavor TAR-21 rifle that is issued to special forces and paratroopers. Magnified night vision weapon sights are also being sought for these TAR-21s, but it is unclear if any contract has been awarded yet.
Southeast Asia looks to the future
Singapore is busy implementing its Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS) programme. It incorporates the Israeli ITL MARS sight on a short-barrelled 5.56mm SAR21 assault rifle. For the future ACMS Lite suite, STELOP (ST Electro-Optics, a division of ST Electronics) is proposing the Helmis uncooled thermal viewer. Still at the prototype stage, it weighs <500g and can be helmet- or head-mounted. It has a 30º field of view, and can detect figures at 500m and recognise targets at 130m. It combines with the Thermal Reflex Sight (TRS) and 800x600 organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display to give views in both visible and infrared bands.
STELOP supplied SGD16.9 million worth of UTWS thermal weapon sights in 2009 for the 7.62mm GPMG. The Singaporean company also holds a five-year contract to maintain electro-optical equipment for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Other STELOP innovations include the Coris-Advance portable day/night integrated target acquisition system. Weighing just 2kg, it has a laser rangefinder with a 2,000m range, and a GPS-based system with an accuracy level of +/-5m. It can operate autonomously on the battlefield and can connect to command-and-control systems. The Coris Mk II is a handheld or helmet-mounted weapon sight. It weighs no more than 800g, and can detect targets at 1.7km. STELOP also offers the 5kg Uralis 384L, a day/night observation and surveillance device with a 2km-range laser rangefinder.
Thailand acquired some ThOR thermal rifle sights from American Technologies Network (ATN). The company has also been negotiating to sell the latest ThOR-320. Those Tavor TAR-21 rifles acquired for the army can also be fitted with 800 Rantel-2 monocular NVDs latterly acquired from Pulse Inteco Systems.
In February 2011, Malaysia procured 35 Thermal Sighting Systems (TSS) from British firm Infrared Security Systems (ISS). India is also buying this same system that can detect man-size targets at 1,200m. The Thermal Imaging Viewer (TIV) from the same company is also in service with India, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, a Personal Surveillance Sight (PSS) with 900m range was developed specifically for Malaysia and delivered early last year
Taiwan is investing heavily in locally produced NVDs through state-owned enterprises like the 402nd Factory of the Armaments Bureau. TS91B and TS93 weapon sights can be fitted to standard weapons like the T91 assault rifle. The TS91B has a 600m range and weighs 530g, while the TS93 weighs 1.35kg and has a 1,200m observation range and 20-hour endurance. In terms of NVGs, the TS96 Night Vision Monocular can be either head- or helmet-mounted. This 355g NVG has a quoted detection range of 300m and 40º field of view. On the other hand, the TS96 NVG uses a binocular configuration. It weighs 540g but its performance is otherwise identical to the monocular version.
The current inventory of the Australian Army includes the ITL Mini Night Single Eye Acquisition Sight (N/SEAS) sight weighing 380g. These were supplied by Point Trading, which signed an agreement with ITL in 2010 for manufacturing, assembly and servicing rights up till 2020 in Australia and New Zealand. Elbit Systems bought a majority share in ITL in October 2010, but this led to Point Trading filing a lawsuit against Elbit, claiming the Israeli firm was trying to circumvent the original deal with ITL. Mini N/SEAS has also been adopted by India, Singapore and Thailand.
The major pending NVD programme in Australia is LAND 53 Phase 1BR, which will provide monocular and weapon sights to replace/refurbish existing equipment. Military off-the-shelf (MOTS) designs are preferred, and an initial operating capability is expected in 2014. The project is estimated at AU $300-500 million, and dozens of international companies will doubtlessly be competing. Phase 2B of the LAND 125 Soldier Enhancement Programme saw Thales Australia supplying 350 Qioptiq VIPIR-2 weapon sights that could be mounted on F88 Austeyr rifles. Additionally, Australia uses N/CROS binoculars from ITL.
Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand Army procured 750 N/SEAS NVGs from ITL in a NZ $15 million purchase. A number were issued to troops deploying to Afghanistan. Legacy NVGs still in service include the M983 (AN/PVS-18), while weapon-mounted sights include the Ranger M995 and M993 from L-3 EOS. The NZ Army also possesses N/CROS Mk III handheld night vision binoculars.
Thus far, American and Israeli NVDs have been commonly mentioned in this article. However, Thales and Sagem are major European suppliers too. Thales has sold 6,000+ Sophie handheld TI binoculars to more than 45 countries to date. The 2.4kg Sophie can detect humans at 5km and vehicles at 10km. The 3.5kg Sophie MF (Multifunction) adds a laser rangefinder, GPS, direction finder and laser-pointing system, making it ideal for forward observers and special forces. The Australian Army, for example, is a user of the Sophie MF.
A member of the Light Reaction Battalion in the Philippines is wearing AN/PVS-7D NVGs from ITT Exelis. This device weighs 680g. (Gordon Arthur)
A Singapore Army solider exhibits a complete Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS) suite that includes a MARS sight on his SAR21 rifle. (Gordon Arthur)
STELOP in Singapore has produced Coris-Advance, a portable day and night integrated target acquisition system. (Gordon Arthur)
This is a TS96 binocular NVG from Taiwan. It is helmet-mounted and is the standard NVG of the ROC Army. (Gordon Arthur)
Taiwan’s TS93 night weapon sight from the government-owned Factory 402 fitted here on a standard 5.56mm T91 assault rifle. (Gordon Arthur)