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Some of the most difficult combat occurs during nighttime operations. Combat losses and wounded can be high as the enemy often has the upper hand, lurking in unseen spaces known to only them in house-to-house fighting; explosives can be triggered as troops enter a dark alley or road in urban combat. The spaces are tight and you use every inch of cover you can, engaging the enemy requires having to expose part of your body to take aim or look for a target.
U.S. forces train extensively for this, especially during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where house-to-house fighting and searches were common missions. While thermal weapon sights and night vision mitigate the danger and offer a significant advantage over the enemy, there are still limits to the technology that will not reveal hidden threats waiting to strike.
But a new generation of thermal weapon sights and night vision goggles, when working together, will change how U.S. troops fight in these conditions, freeing them from traditional firing positions and introducing improved safety methods for navigating tight spaces and avoiding hidden threats.
The Army’s new Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III (ENVG III) and the Family of Weapon Sights – Individual (FWS-I) are two programs the Army and DRS Technologies designed to work together to create an enhanced capability for infantry soldiers called Rapid Target Acquisition. The devices are connected wirelessly enabling soldiers see their weapon sight image and crosshairs aligned with what they are seeing in their night vision goggles.
This new capability allows soldiers to quickly acquire a target and accurately fire the weapon well before an adversary can gain the advantage on the battlefield.
“With these tools, soldiers can acquire and engage targets well before our adversaries can gain the advantage,” said Army Col. Michael E. Sloane, Project Manager for Soldier Sensors and Lasers. “Not having to shoulder the weapon and reacquire the target with a different sensor significantly reduces engagement time and provides soldiers with yet another advantage on the battlefield,” according to Sloane.
Soldiers will be able to look around corners, above walls or through narrow positions with just their weapon, quickly acquire targets and fire. The advantages over the enemy as well as the added safety of troops are significant as the system can be used in the same manner to look for set traps with minimal to no exposure of their location.
“This is hard to believe until you actually see it,” said Sloane. “You might expect to see this technology in today’s video games, but probably would not believe it’s possible with actual night vision devices and weapon systems.
Not Your Grandfather’s Weapon Sites and Goggles
With this newly combined technology there is very little that is different on how the sights and goggles are set up. The thermal sight is mounted on a weapon and the goggle is worn in the same fashion as older generation models mounted on the helmet. The difference comes when the weapon sight wirelessly transmits a video signal of where it is aimed, directly to the goggle, a soldier can accurately fire their weapon without having to bring the weapon sight to the eye to aim.
“This capability provides the soldier with the ability to see, begin to acquire, and engage a target or targets without having to remove their night vision device, shoulder the weapon and then regain target acquisition through the weapon sight,” Sloane said.
A control panel on the weapons allows the soldier to turn the wireless signal on and off depending on need. Soldiers can also toggle between infrared, thermal or use both at the same time to spot an enemy in low or poor visibility. The weapon sights and goggles can be used individually as well seeing more clearly and further than previous generations.
The new weapon sights are the smallest and lightest ever built for the Army and now use only four batteries over eight in older models. Control buttons are easier to use and were designed with soldier feedback. One of the biggest improvements in the weapon sight is the distance it can make out a target. Objects can be clearly seen more than 1,000 meters away – beyond the distance of a carbine’s effective range, but good for use on more powerful rifles.
“The sight was developed to see beyond the carbine’s effective range so it could be used with the M249 squad automatic weapon and other longer range weapons,” said Army Lt. Col. Timothy Fuller, Program Manager for Soldier Maneuver Sensors.
Soldiers already using the weapons sights in the field have positive reports on how far and how clear the images are. In one case, a soldier reported being able to see two individuals digging a hole for an IED at 600 meters out. “I don’t think we would have seen those people – at that distance – with just night vision goggles,” according to the soldier.
This new third generation goggle contains a “smart battery pack” mounted in the rear of the helmet with a computer processor that merges the images of the thermal weapon sight and the NVGIII image. Considered the brain of the combined system, it allows the soldiers to see the ENVG III images and overlaid thermal sight image at the same time. By transferring the weapon sight image to the ENVG III the soldier will get an increased field of view, 40 degrees compared to the 18 to 26 degrees from just the scope of the weapon.
Additionally, the ENVG III can also be switched to a basic battery pack and used as only a night vision goggle. DRS Technologies is also looking at future data feeds into the goggles including maps and information from smaller weapons and other information.
“This is just the first step for DRS to provide future soldiers more situational awareness and sensor abilities through the smart technology of ENVG III,” said Shawn Black Vice President General Manager, DRS Infrared Sensors and Systems. “The goal is to outfit our troops with technology that will constantly improve soldier ability and keep them steps ahead of the adversary.”
Both the FWS-I and the ENVG III systems have undergone considerable scrutiny by soldiers during the design and development phases with the Army and DRS Technologies in developing this system. The result is a much more refined, friendly, easier to use and more powerful system for soldiers.
Distribution of the new system is in its early stages and will begin with brigade combat teams. As more sets come online distribution will be broader across the Army and other services.
The new technology will take some getting used to and with new ways to fire weapons using the It has led to a new way for troops to fight and there will have to be new tactics, techniques and procedures developed and honed for safe and effective employment of the new capabilities.
“We’re excited about bringing the next generation of maneuver enablers to soldiers,” Col. Sloane said. “The Army has invested heavily in the Family of Weapon Sights and there will be many companies, countries and other U.S. organizations that will attempt to achieve the same effects and potentially spend tens of millions of dollars in pursuit of what we are already achieving,” according to Sloane.