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Shoot from the hip: Wireless night-vision, thermal goggles can be linked to small-arms weapons

By David Vergun, U.S. Army

New U.S. Army night vision equipment promises an enhanced image of the battlefield and frees Soldiers from using traditional firing positions.

The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III, or ENVG III, is worn on a helmet in the same way earlier models were worn. The device can be wirelessly linked to the Family of Weapon Sights -- Individual, or FWS-I, which can be mounted on the M4 carbine, M16A4 rifle, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, M136 AT4 rifle, or M141 Bunker Defeat Munition, said Col. Michael Sloane, Project Manager for Soldier Sensors and Lasers (PM SSL), Fort Belvoir, VA.

The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III can be wirelessly linked to head-worn weapon sights. [Photo Credit: Courtesy, PEO Soldier]



Because the FWS-I wirelessly transmits a video signal of the weapon sight to the ENVG III, a Soldier will be able to accurately fire his weapon without having to bring the weapon up to eye level. Soldiers will be able to point the weapon around a corner, acquire a target wirelessly though the FWS-I, and fire -- all while remaining in defilade.

Other variants within the Family of Weapons Sights are being developed for sniper rifles and crew-served weapons such as the M240 and M2 machine guns, as well as the MK19 grenade launcher.

The technological compatibility between the two systems provides rapid target acquisition capabilities, allowing Soldiers to acquire targets much more rapidly and clearly see them in their helmet-borne ENVG III without looking through the scope of the weapon.

Sloane and others spoke during a Fort Belvoir media roundtable at Program Executive Office Soldier, July 22.

Because the sight picture, from the weapon's point of view, appears in the ENVG III, the Soldier gets the benefit of the 40-degree view provided by the ENVG III. This provides much greater situational awareness than the 18- to 26-degree view, which is provided by the scope of the weapon, Sloane said.

Both systems have undergone rigorous scrutiny by Soldiers at a number of installations and training areas during live-fire events. Additionally, Soldier feedback (called "Soldier Touch-Points") has informed every step of the design and development, Sloane said.

Sloan also said that tactics, techniques, and procedures with the new system will continuously be refined by the Maneuver Center of Excellence, or MCOE, on Fort Benning, GA, and the Army Training and Doctrine Command on Fort Eustis, VA. The refinements will ensure safe and effective employment of the new capabilities.

Phil Cheatum, from MCOE's Soldier Requirements Division, said training for the new capability is being refined for future employments.

Thermal weapons sights have been around since the 1990s, said Lt. Col. Timothy Fuller, who serves as the program manager for Soldier Maneuver Sensors (PM SMS). The difference is that the FWS-I uses just four batteries instead of eight, is much lighter and smaller than earlier thermal weapons sights, and has a more ergonomically friendly set of control buttons. Those controls were designed with Soldier feedback in mind.

Additionally, the FWS-I can resolve images further away than traditional thermal weapons sights, Fuller said, noting that targets can be clearly seen past 1,000 meters. He said the carbine's effective range is about half that distance. The reason it was designed to pull in images from further away is so it could be used with the M249, which has a much greater maximum effective range than the M4.

Helmet-mounted night vision systems have been around equally as long, he said. But besides capturing the image wirelessly from the FWS-I, the new ENVG III contains a "smart battery pack" connected from the sensors in the front of the helmet through fiber optic cables to the back of the helmet, where the smart battery pack resides.

It's smart, Fuller said, because in addition to a battery, it contains a small computer processor, which merges the image from the FWS-I with the ENVG III image. In this way, the ENVG III will allow Soldiers to see both the thermal and night vision imagery at the same time. A benefit of thermal imagery is that Soldiers can use it to detect the heat signature of a target in visually degraded environments, such as in a smoke-filled room.

The ENVG III can also be used with a basic battery pack in the same way current models that have been fielded are used, namely the ENVG II and ENVG I.

Procurement process
In 2014, an engineering and manufacturing development contract was awarded for low-rate initial production on both the ENVG III and the FWS-I systems. Production is to begin this summer. Contract winners include BAE Systems and DRS Technologies, who will each be allowed to build both systems, Fuller said.

Tremendous cost savings will be realized because the Army is able to competitively procure and furnish night vision image-intensification tubes to the ENVG III producers, Sloane said. The tubes are manufactured by L-3 Communications and Harris Corp.

Both vendors, BAE and DRS, are developing a FWS-I (mounted-on weapon) and ENVG III product (helmet-mounted). This photo illustration depicts the prototype samples from BAE's FWS-I and DRS' ENVG III. [Photo Credit: courtesy, PEO Soldier]





Sloane added that the Army conducted a competitive bidding process, which is in line with the Defense Acquisition Executive, Frank Kendall's, Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative. Kendall is the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. He declined to give a price figure for each unit, explaining that BAE and DRS would compete for sales on a regular basis, and a fixed price could hinder that competitive advantage for the Army.

The Army plans to equip 18 Soldiers per platoon with the FWS-I and 24 Soldiers per platoon with the ENVG III. In accordance with Army guidance, the first units to receive the new kit will be brigade combat teams.

Soldiers will continue to use the ENVG I and ENVG II units currently fielded. ENVG III units will be fielded beginning in 2017, and FWS-I units will be fielded beginning in 2019, he said.

Sloane said PM SSL and PM SMS could never have completed this work alone. Playing major roles in the development of the systems are MCOE; the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate; the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center; HQDA G-3 and G-8; PEO Soldier; and Army Materiel Command.

Sloane also said that the countless hours of testing by Soldiers was priceless and will be continued in all future activities.

Published August 2015

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