FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Jan. 14, 2015) -- New technology is spawning better sensors and helping the Army of today to dominate the battlefield of tomorrow.
"Our mission is to provide the best equipment for our Soldiers," said Col. Michael E. Sloane, Project Manager for Soldier Sensors and Lasers, or PM SSL. "Success means enabling our Soldiers to maintain combat overmatch on any battlefield anywhere on the globe."
PM SSL is part of the Program Executive Office Soldier, and has the responsibility for getting high-tech sensors and lasers into the hands of American troops. Enablers, such as the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle, known as the ENVG, Thermal Weapon Sight, known as TWS and Laser Target Locator, or LTL, make it possible for Soldiers to "own their environment" day or night, and through obscurants, Sloane said.
"With these tools, Soldiers can acquire and engage targets well before our adversaries can gain the advantage," he said.
The ENVG I was the first helmet-mounted fused (image intensification and thermal image) goggle, overlaying thermal imagery over traditional night vision into a single display for the Soldier.
"The ENVG continues to receive tremendous feedback from Soldiers who are using this equipment in combat," Sloane said. "The thermal capability makes it useful during all light conditions, day and night. Additionally, this system enables Soldiers to see through obscurants such as smoke, fog, dust or light foliage."
Capabilities are much improved over other night vision devices, such as the PVS-14 or PVS-7, because an ENVG highlights thermal contrast and enables detection and identification of targets that may otherwise be camouflaged.
While developing the ENVG II, the Army and its industry partners continued to apply lessons learned to create a more producible image intensification tube.
"This significantly reduced the logistical burden by using a common image intensification tube and introduced a system that consumed less power, and allowed the system to operate on three batteries instead of four batteries," Sloane said. "This also reduced weight and long-term costs for the system."
The next generation of ENVG under development is the ENVG III. The significant Soldier improvements with this variant include:
■ A wider thermal field of view and higher resolution thermal capability
■ Wireless connectivity from the weapon-mounted thermal sight to the ENVG III
■ The introduction of a smart battery pack that will provide the wireless capability and image processing from the weapon sight to the ENVG III while simultaneously serving as a battery pack
"Soldiers should watch for this battle-changing capability, the ENVG III, in late FY16 or early FY17," Sloane said.
The technology is being developed to work with the Family of Weapon Sights Individual, or FWS-I, variant, also a PM SSL system. The FWS program will have three variants: individual, crew served and sniper. Each system will allow the Soldier to acquire and decisively engage threats faster by decreasing the transition time between using mobility and targeting sensors.
"We're really excited about bringing the next generation of maneuver enablers to Soldiers," Sloane said. "The Army has invested heavily in the Family of Weapon Sights and there will certainly 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."
The FWS-I is principally a weapon-mounted thermal sight. The weapon sight represents the smallest and lightest thermal sight the Army has ever developed. However, the sight's revolutionary capability lies in its ability to wirelessly transmit weapon sight imagery and reticle (aka cross hairs) to the Soldier's ENVG III or helmet-mounted display.
A wireless communication capability between the weapon-mounted sight and goggle is known as Rapid Target Acquisition, or RTA. When RTA is enabled and a Soldier points his or her weapon in the same general direction observed through the ENVG III, the Soldier sees the weapon sight image and reticle spatially-aligned within the ENVG III display.
"This is hard to believe until you actually see it," Sloane said. "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.
The U.S. Army Communication-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center's Night Vision and Electronic Sensor Directorate, along with industry partners, are doing what was only dreamed a few years ago, Sloane explained.
"This capability provides the Soldier with the ability to see, begin to acquire, and engage a target or targets without having to remove his or her mobility night vision device, shoulder the weapon, and then regain target acquisition through the weapon sight," he said. "Not having to shoulder the weapon and re-acquire the target with a different sensor significantly reduces engagement time and provides Soldiers with yet another advantage on the battlefield."
Soldier feedback is vitally important to the equipping process.
"We always involve the Warfighter in the designing, developing and testing of systems for our Soldiers," he said. "We must do this from the very first day we develop capabilities. The PM teams plan for and then develop new equipment training programs to ensure Soldiers receiving this equipment are properly trained on how to put it into operation and maintain it, and how to best employ it on the battlefield."
One example of gathering feedback from Soldiers is a recent success story from the field. Soldiers continue to be impressed with the detection capabilities of the TWS, or AN/PAS-13.
"We were coming back one time from a counter-IED [improvised explosive device] mission," said Sgt. Joshua Cowan, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, relaying his story using the TWS at night in theater. "My gunner called up and said, 'Sergeant, I think I see something.' We pulled over and stopped. We went up for a look. And from a good 600 meters out, we could see very clearly two individuals digging a hole for an IED while two more armed men pulled security for the diggers. I don't think we would have seen those people--at that distance--with just the night vision goggles."
Sloane said the Army proactively develops technologies for unpredictable and complex challenges.
"We clearly recognize the importance of our industrial base, as well as both government and industry science and technology laboratories," Sloane said. "We rely heavily on these laboratories, academia and our industry partners to work very closely with us in developing cutting-edge technology that can either become a part of our materiel solutions or represent an innovative approach toward meeting a capability gap.
The Army's strategy of staying ahead of emerging technologies pays off by maintaining overmatch capabilities against ever-evolving threats and enemies, Sloane said.
"Success includes Soldiers safely returning from combat, hearing success stories from Soldiers and achieving unprecedented results from a team of professionals," he said.
The PM SSL team works closely with the Army's communities of science and technology; research, development, testing and evaluation; and capability development, as well as the U.S. industrial base and the professional acquisition workforce.
"To continue this trend of success, PM SSL will maintain strong and productive relationships with the Army Centers of Excellence (Maneuver, Fires, and Aviation) teams who identify requirements to fill existing capability gaps through material solutions," Sloane said. "Collectively, we will continue to do what has never been done before by developing revolutionary capabilities to best enable our Soldiers for victory on any battlefield."
This article appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on sensors research. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.
The Program Executive Office Soldier partners with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America's Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness--technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment--to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.
Army Technology Magazine [PDF]