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A Proud History, a Hopeful Future: The Evolution of Night Vision

Germany might have invented night vision technology with the creation of a simple infrared device in the 1930s, but the United States has long dominated the industry. This domination has led to unparalleled advantages in both survivability and lethality of the warfighter since the technology’s inception.

A Proud History

Night vision technology has evolved rapidly since its invention. Generation 0 devices could only amplify light around 1,000 times. Generation 0 devices were IR illuminators called “sniperscopes.” Using reflected light, the US military deployed them during World War 2 to identify objects, but they were cumbersome and difficult to use. Generation 1 devices used in Vietnam were lighter and crucial for combat in low-light jungle environments but had limited range and versatility. 

Generation 2 represented a massive leap in the field of night vision. Generation 2 devices have a much longer life expectancy and create brighter, sharper images. While older than Generation 3 devices, they are cheaper, effective, and still used by law enforcement. Generation 3 devices surpass all the previous generations. They have a light expectancy of 10,000 hours and are currently used by both the United States military and law enforcement agencies. 

Current night vision generations have given the United States military an unrivaled advantage in night operations. After the
Persian Gulf War, General Barry McCaffrey argued that America’s night vision capabilities were “the single greatest mismatch of the war.”

Losing the Edge

The United States cannot rely on its past success. The internet is full of articles, blogs, and videos declaring that the sun has set on the United of States of America’s night vision dominance.

There are many reasons for the gloomy prognosis. Only some of them are within the United States of America’s control. Despite export laws established under ITAR, it is easier than ever for bad-faith actors to acquire night vision technology from online vendors. Companies must ensure that they safeguard who their technology is going to. A lot of night vision sales are outside of these controls. Terrorist groups across the globe have acquired Soviet-era night vision technology through illicit means and can purchase night vision technology from any number of countries.

Non-state actors are not the only ones closing the night vision gap. Other countries have also reverse engineered United States-built night vision devices, creating versions that rival their US-manufactured counterparts.

Reclaim the Night 

The United States can only reclaim their dominance with continued investment and innovation. It is not only about improving lethality but survivability of the warfighter as well. Previously invisible to the naked eye, IR strobes now reveal soldiers’ positions to the enemy. Other technology that soldiers used to safely identify themselves for allies, now reveal them as targets to enemies.  

There are several ongoing efforts with survivability and dominance in mind. Looking through the new ENVG-B is like looking at something straight out of a video game. The new device vastly improves soldier’s situational awareness by replacing green phosphor tubes with white ones. It was previously believed that green phosphor tubes were easier on the eyes and could easily discern images, but the new white phosphor tubes create an even brighter, sharper image. Not only was the tube replaced, but the ENVG-B incorporates augmented reality and thermal imaging to help identify images and process data.  

The ENVG-B is not the only device that is helping the United States reclaim the night. Digital imaging solutions promise to revolutionize the industry. Augmented reality technology can improve data collection and distribution. New panoramic night vision devices could improve field of view more than any night vision devices have before.  

It will require the night vision industry to push technology forward and reinvest resources to live up to the old army adage that the United States “Owns the Night,” but the path has been laid to get there.