SEEING IN THE DARK - NIGHT VISION IN ASIA

Clad in a black wetsuit the lead SEAL silently emerged from the ocean waters, his new 5.56mm Night Fighting Weapon (NFW) tucked tightly against his shoulder. Moving silently and cautiously, he worked up the sandy slope of the beach, while another seven men emerged eerily from the tropical waters.

1st Jul 2010


Clad in a black wetsuit the lead SEAL silently emerged from the ocean waters, his new 5.56mm Night Fighting Weapon (NFW) tucked tightly against his shoulder. Moving silently and cautiously, he worked up the sandy slope of the beach, while another seven men emerged eerily from the tropical waters. They formed a defensive perimeter on this isolated beach on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines. While one man from the elite Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG) scanned their surroundings with a pair of head-mounted night vision goggles (NVG), the rest of the SEAL team remained on high alert. Satisfied they had the coast to themselves and that no Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) combatants were about, they continued their reconnaissance mission. They settled down to wait the arrival of other special forces from the Philippine Army…

While the above description is fictional, this is actually the kind of mission regularly carried out in the Mindanao region of the Philippines. And as can be seen, it is the type of mission that night vision devices (NVD) greatly enhance.

Background

Equipped with modern NVDs, soldiers can continue combat and surveillance operations at night or in low-light conditions with little loss in tempo when compared to the daytime. Recent combat deployments, in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, have significantly propelled the case for widespread use of NVDs. They are not just a desirable item for a team leader, but NVDs have become indispensable for every soldier. NVDs can be divided into three broad categories in terms of their function and configuration – 1. Weapon sights; 2. Helmet-mounted or head-mounted goggles; and 3. Handheld (or tripod-mounted) devices for surveillance.

Generation III devices have been around for more than 20 years, but the latest NVD technology is called Gen III+ or Gen III Omni-VII. They are distinguished by having an automatic gated power supply that regulates photocathode voltage, which results in instantaneous adaptations to changing lighting conditions. The ion barrier is also thinned, resulting in less image noise and the ability to operate in lower light levels. An example of this generation is the AN/PVS-22 .

The USA is at the leading edge of NVD developments. Therefore, it is useful to conduct a brief survey of recent American advances, for these usually influence acquisition decisions by Asian allies. Buoyed by the launch of the US Army’s Omnibus VI project in May 2002, ITT supplied 60% of the US Army’s NVDs, while L-3 EOS supplied the remainder over a five-year contract. In this period, more than 600,000 AN/PVS-14 monocular NVDs were fielded. The modern AN/PVS-14 weighs 400g and enables identification of targets at ranges of 150m. It is numerically the market leader, and the latest model operates for 40+ hours on a single AA battery.

The latest generation is the AN/PSQ-20 Enhanced Night Vision Goggles (ENVG), which will replace the AN/PVS-14. This new piece of kit superimposes thermal and image intensification (I2 or II) images, the first system in the world to do so. It is this multi-spectral image fusion that is presently showing the greatest NVD advances. ITT received a USD560 million contract in April 2005 to develop the ENVG, with the 10th Mountain Division and US Army Special Forces using it in combat from mid-2009. However, weighing 910g and costing USD10,000 per unit, it is more expensive and heavier than its predecessors. A digital upgrade package known as the ENVG(D) is being developed by ITT, DRS, Intevac and Kopin, with first units delivered for US Army evaluations in June 2009. The key characteristic is the changing of analogue output into digital signals.

As the world leader, the USA closely restricts NVD exports. It allows Gen III technology to be exported only to NATO countries, plus Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan and South Korea. Decisions regarding sales to other nations are made on a case-by-case basis

East Asia

The standard NVG used by the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF) is the JGVS-V8. This is merely a licensed copy of the AN/PVS-14 from ITT. NEC has been manufacturing the JGVS-V8 under license since it was adopted earlier this decade. Production runs at 1,000-2,000 units per year.

In terms of helmet-mounted NVGs, South Korea utilises the KAN/PVS-7 that weighs 680g. As its name suggests, it is a licensed copy of the American system. This third-generation device built by Samsung Thales was first fielded in 1997. Its price is approximately USD4,000 per unit. The new K11 Advanced Individual Weapon System, a new dual-calibre weapon developed by S&T Daewoo, features an integral optical sight for daytime use and night sight with infrared sensor.

Taiwan is making considerable local investment with a range of NVDs. The TS96 Night Vision Monocular is the standard head-mounted sight used by the Republic of China (ROC) Army. It is designed by a division of the Ministry of National Defence (MND) - the 402nd Factory, Manufacturing and Production Center (MPC) of the Armaments Bureau. Its maker describes the TS96 as “compact and lightweight so as to offer mobility for special operations.” It has a built-in infrared illuminator, and it can be easily combined with a personal weapon equipped with an infrared aiming light. Detection range is quoted as 300m and it has a 40º field of view. The 402nd Factory also makes TS91B and TS93 weapon sights for fitment to standard personal weapons.

China has an NVG system in the form of the Type 1985, which employs third-generation I2 tubes. It is made by NORINCO and has been exported to allies. Its capability lags behind Western systems, although the author was unable to ascertain what new systems might be in service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), especially in special forces units.

Elsewhere in Asia

The USA has been fortifying Pakistan in its fight against the Taliban by supplying modern weapons and equipment. This includes NVDs, and Pakistan’s Institute of Optronics is license-producing the American AN/PVS-5A design.

Pakistan’s traditional nemesis, India, lags behind in terms of night vision technology. The Indian Army only fields second-generation NVDs that some complain are “more a hindrance than an asset.” New Noga Light, an Israeli company, is supplying NVGs for two mountain divisions according to a USD30 million contract signed in 2007. Shocked by a deadly Naxalite ambush in Chattisgarh in April, the Home Ministry has embarked upon a spending programme to procure new equipment for paramilitary security forces. This includes night vision sights for rifles.

While third-generation NVGs and weapon sights are needed, the Indian Army has been told to wait. Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) set up a factory to produce second-generation sights, but since then BEL has not found a foreign partner to assist with local production of more modern NVDs. Each ten-man section in the army is only authorised one NVG set whereas the army wants 50% of soldiers to have them. The comprehensive Futuristic Infantry Soldier As a System (F-INSAS) programme sees Nelco Limited (part of the Tata Group) responsible for developing NVGs. The Tavor TAR-21 rifle from Israel is issued to special forces and paratroopers, and magnified night vision weapon sights are now being sought for them. There is also need for monocular head-mounted NVGs weighing less than 340g for use in conjunction with the TAR-21, according to a March 2010 request for information (RFI).

The Philippines recently announced the army had purchased USD8.7 million worth of NVGs for operations in Mindanao. By May 2010 a total of 2,351 EOTech M914A (AN/PVS-14) goggles had been delivered from Nightline Inc in the USA. Most are destined for the Philippine Army, but 186 sets went to the air force. Three infantry divisions and special forces serving in Mindanao will benefit greatly from these new devices.

As part of Singapore’s Advanced Combat Man System (ACMS), night weapon sights for the SAR-21 rifle are made by ST Kinetics. Singapore also uses the locally produced Advanced Hand-Held Thermal Imager (AHHTI) that allows vision at night and in fog. “This system exhibits greater sensitivity and detection range as compared to its predecessor, reaching a clarity level up to facial features,” cites official literature. Its range is 1.8km and the AHHTI weighs 2.3kg. It has 2x and 7x fields of view, and is designed for one-man operation. Captured images can be downloaded and transmitted by reconnaissance units.

Asia-Pacific

Subsequent to Project Ninox of the 1990s (which acquired 25,000 sets of goggles using ITT tubes assembled by BAE Systems Australia), Australia has been pursuing its LAND 53 Phase 1BR programme for monocular and weapon sights to replace or refurbish obsolescent equipment. Initial operating capability (IOC) is slated for 2014-16, and military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) designs will be selected. Thales Australia also supplied 350 Vipir-2 sights in fulfilment of Phase 2B of the Australian Army’s LAND 125 Soldier Enhancement Programme. These sights are mounted on standard 5.56mm F88 Austeyr rifles. The Vipir-2 can detect people at 1,200m and it comes with both 9° and 6.5º fields of view.

The New Zealand Army has used NVDs since 1995, with standard types including L-3 EOS Ranger M995 and M993 weapon-mounted sights. For NVGs, the army uses the M983 (AN/PVS-18) that can be worn on the head or helmet-mounted. However, equipment is being modernised to keep pace with new technology and to equip soldiers deploying to Afghanistan. New procurements include 750 Mini Night Single Eye Acquisition Sight (N/SEAS) NVGs from ITL Optronics in Israel as part of a NZD15 million purchase.

Gaining wider currency

Ironically, it is not just militaries that benefit from NVDs. On a recent visit to the Philippines, the author spoke to battle-hardened members of the Philippine Navy’s elite NAVSOG. One member related how terrorist organisations such as ASG also use NVDs. The groups are able to purchase them over the counter using proceeds from kidnap ransoms that are all too common in Mindanao. When asked whether NAVSOG and Philippine Army special forces are adequately equipped with NVGs, one NAVSOG operator said, “Ideally, each person should have one.” When pressed whether this was the case in reality, it turned out usually only one or two people in each 8-man team had NVGs. Increasing their availability is particularly important, as NAVSOG only performs combat operations by night, and such devices could greatly enhance their effectiveness.

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