Fighting in the Dark

Night vision devices can give soldiers edge even in pitch dark conditions

Smruti Deshpande

In April this year the Indian Air Force executed a night operation in Sudan in which an IAF C-130J Super Hercules aircraft landed on an unprepared runway near Khartoum, which didn’t have any approach lights and navigational aids. The pilots used advanced infrared-based night vision goggles, thermal imagers and laser rangefinders for executing a successful landing under pitch dark conditions. A team of Garud commandos (who were also equipped with helmet-mounted night vision sights) quickly deboarded from the aircraft after landing and secured the runway. The commandos rescued hundreds of Indian nationals stuck in the area and quickly boarded the aircraft, thereby enabling a successful take-off at a very short notice.

Night vision

As the requirement of such equipment is huge across forces, the Indian Army’s Northern Command issued a Request for Information (RFI) in June 2022 for the procurement of Digital Night Vision Goggles (DGNV). The requirement for such equipment is understandable given the huge deployment of troops along the northern border. The Indian military currently uses such equipment for its soldiers, however, with an advancement in technological requirements, military platforms from assault rifles to vehicles come equipped with such technologies.

Night vision devices play a crucial role in military operations, providing enhanced visibility and situational awareness in low-light or nighttime conditions. They assist with navigation, target acquisition, surveillance and reconnaissance, allowing military personnel to operate effectively during the night.

Today, as per the data from Mordor Intelligence, the market size of night vision devices is estimated at USD 8,953.51 million in 2023 and is expected to reach USD 13,143.47 million by 2028, growing at a CAGR of 7.98 per cent during the forecast period (2023-2028).

North America is expected to hold the largest market share in the night vision devices market driven by the United States. First used in World War II, night vision technology has evolved into different segments over the years. Likewise, even militaries across the world have diversified the use of devices capable of identifying objects in the dark. Thermal imaging, image intensifier, infrared illumination are various types of this technology.

Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) are binocular devices that allow soldiers to see in the dark. They typically consist of image intensifier tubes and objective lenses, which amplify ambient light to provide clearer vision. NVGs are worn on the head, allowing soldiers to maintain situational awareness while operating in low-light environments.

Widely used are the monoculars, single-eye devices used for night vision. They are similar to NVGs but are typically handheld or weapon-mounted. Monoculars are often used for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition.

Night-vision scopes are mounted on firearms such as rifles or machine guns and provide the shooter with enhanced visibility in low-light conditions. Night vision scopes/sights enable accurate aiming and targeting. As per reports from last year, the Army has put out a tender for 30,000 ‘night sights’ so that its US-made SiG-Sauer assault rifles can aim better in the dark. This development came only a year after these rifles had been procured. The Print reported that an open tender had been issued for procurement of the optical instruments and that the Bengaluru-based firm Tonbo Imaging, whose services the Army has previously used, was the frontrunner to bag the contract.

The report stated, ‘The Army is looking at a minimum detection range of 600 metres for a single person walking and a minimum 500 metre-range for someone standing as part of the requirements it has sent out to the Indian defence firms.’

The RFP stated, ‘The Ministry of Defence, Government of India, intends to procure quantity 29,762 Night Sight (II) for 7.62 x 51 mm Assault Rifles along with accessories for each Assault Rifles [Lens Cover, Eye Guard, Cleaning Kit, Battery Pack Charger and quantity 03 Sets of Batteries (each set of batteries corresponds to No of batteries required to operate the Sight)].’

The army has also included in its requirement a zeroing arrangement with ‘an adjustable illuminated Bullet Drop Compensator (BDC) reticle pattern that enables engagement of human target upto 500m’ as well as a built-in autogating. The army had been seeking to buy 22,000 long-range night sights for infantry assault rifles at a cost of Rs 1600 crore. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the design, development and manufacturing of ‘Thermal Imaging Night Sights’ for the assault rifles in November 2019.

Night Vision devices; Passive Night Vision Binocular
Night Vision devices; Passive Night Vision Binocular

According to the website Night Vision and Electro-Optics India 2021, ‘the night firing capability of the soldier with an INSAS LMG without an ANVD is highly inaccurate.’ An RFI was floated by the army in December 2019 to ‘identify and detect a target in adverse weather conditions.’ It should detect a human at 500 m, a vehicle at 1,200 m and identify a soldier at 350 m. It should also have the feature to record and store images as well as videos.

There is another element that the Indian Army is using widely—thermal imaging. While not strictly night vision devices, thermal imaging devices are commonly used by forces for night operations. They detect the heat signatures of objects and individuals, allowing soldiers to see even in complete darkness. Thermal imaging devices can be handheld, weapon-mounted or integrated into vehicles. This technology can be mounted atop military vehicles as well. Military vehicles often employ thermal imaging systems to detect and display heat signatures of objects and individuals. These systems use infrared sensors to capture the thermal radiation emitted by objects, converting it into a visible image. Thermal imaging provides visibility even in complete darkness as well as through obscurants such as smoke or fog.

In 2019, The New Indian Express reported that the ability of Indian Army tanks to strike the enemy at night has got an indigenous boost with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) coming up with thermal imaging night vision devices (TI-NVD), which can locate targets at a greater distance. “We have manufactured thermal imaging-based night vision devices for tank commanders’ night sight, which will be able to pick up enemy tanks from a distance of about three kilometres,” a DRDO official told the newspaper. The DRDO has already supplied 300 TI-NVDs for T-72 tanks and 2,000 more are to be produced. These indigenous TI-NVDs are being produced by BEL, Vijaywada and OFB Dehradun. The army in the past has also actively explored options for handheld thermal imagers for surveillance.

Last year, the army even initiated an upgrade of the over 2,500 Russian Infantry combat vehicles BMP II with night vision technology among other the capabilities.

Last year, the government signed a Rs 1,075 crore contract with the BEL for the supply of thermal imagers for the Indian Army’s T-90 tanks. Based on the requirement projected by the Indian Army, the DRDO and the BEL have jointly designed and developed an advanced mid wave thermal image (MWIR) based sight as a replacement for the existing IC-based sight, the Ministry of Defence said in a release.

With night vision having become a necessity even for mechanised forces, the Indian Army enabled its mechanised forces with night-fighting capabilities last year. “The Indian Army has succeeded in arming its mechanised forces with capability to not only detect its enemy fast even in dark but also has proceeded on an ambitious capability enhancement plan with the timeline set for 2023. The future inductions are planned for war-fighting along the mountainous terrain of the northern borders,” The New Indian Express said last year. Sources told the newspaper at the time that 96 per cent of armoured fighting vehciles were night enabled. The technology employed was based on thermal imaging technology, which was “passive and is capable of seeing farther, better and clearer.”

Specialised night vision cameras are also used by military personnel for surveillance, intelligence gathering and documentation of operations in low-light conditions. These cameras often employ advanced image intensification technologies to capture clear images and videos at night.

FLIR systems are designed to provide real-time infrared imaging of the area ahead of the vehicle. They allow the detection of potential threats, obstacles and personnel at extended ranges. FLIR systems are commonly used in reconnaissance and combat vehicles to enhance situational awareness and aid in target identification.

With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the technology has made inroads into the night vision devices market as well. The Indian Army uses an AI-based night vision device, which is mounted on the helmet of a soldier, and warns the soldier of any suspicious activity. Along with the helmet, a wristband-like device will vibrate after picking up signs of movement in the soldier’s line of sight.

The latest development in terms of night vision devices is the contract awarded to MKU for the design and indigenous development of night vision goggles for LUH by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). According to a report in the Financial Express, ‘Soon pilots flying Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) in different terrains and day/night will get to wear indigenously manufactured Aviation Night Vision Goggles (ANVG).’ This came after Netro Optronics by MKU was awarded the contract for the design and indigenous development of NVGs Night for the LUH by the HAL at DefExpo 2022.

Similarly, another MoU was inked between Netro and Hensoldt to not only indigenously manufacture but also assemble NightOwl products in the country. This technology has been developed to enable observation at extremely long ranges. As per Hensoldt’s official website, “With its combination of a very large field of view for wide-area observation and detection, and an extremely small field of view for identification, it fulfils the highest requirements for the seamless surveillance of land and maritime borders.” The capabilities that the company lists include optimal vision at long range even under difficult conditions, easy integration into existing systems, thermal imager with mega pixel detector, and extreme magnification through 200x continuous zoom.

Earlier during DefExpo2020, the MKU along with Thales had announced the co-development of the ELFIE Night Vision Device (NVD) for the armed forces in India and across the world. This cooperation involved co-development of these devices at MKU’s facility in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

A lightweight monocular with the widest field of view, the ELFIE provides unprecedented mobility and night combat capability. Whether hands-free (on a face mask or helmet mount) or weapon-mounted, the ELFIE is suitable for left or right eye use and provides stereoscopic vision in binocular configuration. The ELFIE is ideal for vehicle-driving and for paratroopers and special forces operators. When mounted on a weapon, it provides a red dot sight or laser pointer to the user.

In some of the latest global developments, as reported by The Seattle Times, the US Army has come up with a futuristic night-vision goggles that transform lurking in the dark into a video-game-like experience. The US military released a stream of videos that showed soldiers, objects and locations in dark outlines in a glowing white light. ‘The footage looks like scenes from role-playing video games such as “Halo,” but it actually shows what the world looks like through the military’s new Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binoculars (ENVG-B),’ the report stated. It added that the helmet-mounted device, loaded with thermal imaging and augmented reality capabilities, introduced technology found in smartphones and gaming systems to traditional night vision hardware. This technology has been developed by Elbit Systems of America. The unique feature is that the gadget works by amplifying light that’s already out there ‘either from the moon, stars or sources on the ground.’

BAE Systems has an Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III and Family of Weapon Sight-Individual (ENVG III/FWS-I), which provides dismounted soldiers with a solution that allows them to navigate and rapidly acquire and engage targets in all light levels and conditions. With both units integrated, weapon sight imagery and aim point can instantly transmit into the goggle for a tactical edge during close combat missions.

BAE Systems in 2021 also announced its 1.6 megapixel ‘Hawkeye’ sensor, which provides high-performance imaging capabilities in all light conditions and is optimal for battery-powered soldier systems, unmanned platforms and targeting and surveillance applications. According to the manufacturer, the ‘HWK1411 is the first low-light complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensor to capture imagery during overcast starlight conditions.’

L3 Harris Communication came up with the Hyper Enabled Warfighter (HEW), the company’s latest force-multiplier supporting the US military. It fuses capabilities needed to successfully carry out a ground mission into one integrated system, providing next-generation situational awareness, lethality and connectivity for end users. This product is a result of the L3 Technologies’ merger with Harris Corporation in June 2019. HEW ties together head, weapon and body-mounted sensors into a single, secure and wireless network, allowing operators to aggregate, exploit and share data with other end users across the larger battle space.

As night operations are a necessity with threat perceptions existing in India’s western and northern borders, the military, especially the army, has been inducting a variety of night vision capabilities, both hand-held as well as vehicle mounted. With an increasing focus on mobility and unmanned systems, the Indian industry should now look towards newer capabilities that will enhance the efficiency of night-time operations.



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