Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate

NVESD developed the very first Night Vision Goggle, allowing the U.S. Military to state, unequivocally, that "We Own the Night."

Historically, military tacticians benefitted from the ability to maneuver under the cover of darkness. However, the military rarely conducted maneuvers at night because of the risk.

During World War II, the United States, Britain and Germany developed a rudimentary infrared Sniperscope that used near-infrared cathodes coupled with visible phosphors. The result provided a near-infrared image converter to begin night fighting efforts. Though the military shipped approximately 300 of these Sniperscopes across the Pacific in 1945, few were used. With a range of less than 100 yards, Sniperscopes could only aid in perimeter defense. These limited range, rifle-mounted scopes ran off of cumbersome batteries and required active infrared searchlights so large that Soldiers had to mount them on flatbed trucks. Enemy forces with similar equipment could readily detect the searchlights.

Despite its inadequacies, the infrared Sniperscope initiated investigation into advanced night vision technology. Military leaders saw many uses for such technology beyond sniping under the cover of darkness. Night vision goggles and weapon sights had the potential to equip armies to operate 24 hours a day. The next challenge in night vision technology was to develop passive systems without the infrared searchlights that betrayed Soldiers' positions to the enemy.

The Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) dates back to 1954 with the founding of the Research and Photometric Section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering Research and Development Laboratories (ERDL). ERDL began with minimal funding and without laboratory facilities. The Research and Photometric section of EDRL began developing personalized night vision equipment intended for use by individual Soldiers in the field. This technology carved a unique niche for ERDL; many similar organizations focused on developing large weapons systems.

NVESD’s initial mission was “the Conquest of Darkness so that the individual can observe, move, fight and work at night by using an image that he can interpret without specialized training and to which he can immediately respond.” As NVESD expanded into new areas and across Army platforms, the mission also expanded to include new applications for sensor technologies.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, NVESD focused on improving the cascade image tube developed in Germany during World War II. NVESD contracted scientists from the Radio Corporation of America to research and develop a near-infrared, two-stage cascading image tube. This new cascade image tube used a multi-alkali photocathode and exceeded researchers’ expectations. The Image Intensification system collected and intensified ambient light from the night sky, but was hindered by limited light gain and inverted images. To remedy these issues, NVESD added a third electrostatic stage to enhance light gain and to re-invert the image. With this, however, the tube grew to 17 inches in length and 3.5 inches in diameter, which made it too large for practical applications.

From 1957-1958, NVESD scientist John Johnson worked to develop methods of predicting target detection, orientation, recognition and identification. Johnson worked with volunteer observers to test each individual's ability to identify targets through image intensifier equipment under various conditions. This time marked a noted development in the performance modeling of night vision imaging systems. In October 1958, Johnson presented his findings in the paper, “Analysis of Image Forming Systems” at the first NVESD Image Intensifier Symposium. The paper described image and frequency domain approaches to analyzing the ability of observers to perform visual tasks using image intensification. These findings became known as the Johnson Criteria and proved important in understanding the performance of night vision devices and systems and guiding further developments.

Night vision technology fielded in the 1940's and 1950's included:

  • 1940s – Sniperscope
  • 1940s – Metascope
  • 1955 – First NIR Mapper
  • 1958 – First IR Linescanner

During the mid-1960s, NVESD scientists and engineers fielded the first generation of passive night vision devices for U.S. troops, including a Small Starlight Scope. These systems were referred to as First Generation Image Intensifiers. Second and third generations have since evolved.

Also during this decade, NVESD worked and contracted with scientists and engineers from other organizations to pursue research and development objectives. NVESD advanced beyond acting solely as a research institution to coordinating and managing further shared research initiatives in many fields including astronomy, nuclear physics, and radiology, while continuing to work with research personnel from leading commercial organizations. NVESD established fundamental strategies of collaborating with private industry in technology development and advancement.

As the U.S. became increasingly involved in the Vietnam War, Soldiers recognized that the enemy relied on the cover of darkness to conceal its offensive operations. In 1964, the Army issued night vision equipment to its deployed troops, and the Vietnam War became a driving force in further technology development.

Personnel from NVESD traveled to Vietnam to evaluate fielded equipment and interviewed Soldiers and Vietnam veterans to collect user feedback. Gaining real-time, first-hand knowledge from Soldiers set precedence for NVESD's hallmark research and development technique, later used in assessing Soldiers' needs during Operation Desert Storm. This approach led to findings such as Soldier reports that stated, "You don’t know how many lives you’ve saved," according to Dr. Robert S. Wiseman, a former NVESD Director.

On November 2, 1965, the Night Vision Laboratory (NVL), the precursor of NVESD, was established to consolidate the several areas of night vision research within the Army under a single organizational director, Dr. Wiseman. The areas of research for which NVESD was then officially responsible were Visionics and Image Intensification, Far-Infrared, Light Source, Thin Film, Advanced Developments, Systems Development and Systems Evaluation.

Subsequent to this unification, there was an R&D organization at Fort Belvoir, Va. dedicated to studying night vision technology. NVL expanded its R&D efforts and began to make new discoveries in various fields, including lasers and battlefield sensors. It took on the name of Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate to better encompass all areas of research.

Night vision equipment fielded in the 1960s included:

  • 1964 – Starlight Scope
  • 1965 – AN/TVS–4 Night Observation Device
  • 1967 – Low Light Level Television; Pulse Gated I2-AN/TVS–2 Crew Served Weapon Night Sight
  • 1969 – First Laser Rangefinder (Ruby); AN/PSS–11 Handheld Metallic Mine Detector

Thermal imaging, based on the far infrared spectrum, forms an image of objects by sensing the differences between heat radiated by an object or target and its surrounding environment. Before the 1970s, prototypes using this technology were very expensive.

While NVESD R&D focused much of its effort on developing practical night vision equipment based on near-infrared technology, scientists also worked toward technological advancements that would pave the way to far-infrared night vision equipment. The advent of linear scanning imagers, consisting of multiple-element detector arrays, led NVESD to develop thermal imaging systems in the 1970s.

Multiple-element arrays provided a high-performance, real-time framing imager that could be practically applied to military use. This technology led to targeting and navigation systems known as Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) systems. FLIR systems provide the advantage of ‘seeing’ at night as well as through smoke, fog and other obscured conditions.

FLIR imaging was in high demand for all weapons system platforms, which spurred a proliferation of designs and prototypes for multiple platforms. To satisfy this demand, in 1973, a group of experts from NVESD designed a Universal Viewer for Far Infrared that led to the family of Common Modules, and thousands were fielded across multiple platforms. The Common Module-based FLIR systems were less expensive to purchase and produce than previous designs.

In 1978, the Optical Radiation Technical Area, a group of laser scientists and engineers, moved from Fort Monmouth, N.J. to the Night Vision Laboratory at Fort Belvoir. Here, they designed and fabricated some of the first monolithic linear laser diode arrays for operation at room temperature for high peak power laser illuminators. They developed a complete pulsed laser system that operated at 500 watts per pulse at 15 KHz. This compact laser imaged targets up to 3 kilometers away.

NVESD's laser efforts expanded to include solid state laser research and development, gas lasers, laser radar, chemical detection, lager rangefinder systems, light aiming systems and laser designator systems. Later, the laser team began working on diode pumped lasers for Army applications. NVESD devoted considerable effort to tunable lasers for optical countermeasures using various solid state laser materials and nonlinear frequency conversion techniques.

Night vision accomplishments of the 1970's included:

  • 1971 – Handheld Thermal Viewer; FLIR Production; AN/PRS-7 Handheld Non–Metallic Mine Detector
  • 1975 – AN/PVS–4 Individual Weapon Sight; NVESD Thermal Model Publication
  • 1976 – Common Module FLIR Production
  • 1977 – AN/PVS–5 Night Vision Goggles

In the 1980s, NVESD began improving its Image Intensification systems. The Army fielded the third generation of night vision based on image intensification technology, composed of the AN/AVS-6 Aviators Night Vision Imaging System (ANVIS) and the AN/PVS-7 Night Vision Goggles.

In 1980, NVESD developed the AN/GVS-5 Laser Infrared Observation Set, which significantly increased the probability of hitting stationary or airborne targets with the first round fired. Fielded in 1988, the AN/AAS-32 Airborne Laser Tracker greatly improved the offensive capability of Army helicopters.

NVESD also developed Second Generation FLIR systems by improving its thermal imaging technology. Improved sensor resolution and sensitivity, coupled with reduced exposure time through signal processing for aided target detection and recognition, led to Second Generation FLIR with greater stand-off range.

Also in the 1980s, NVESD pioneered the revolution in aided target recognition. While U.S. forces now had the ability to see in the dark, technology still needed to be improved to help Soldiers distinguish between friend and enemy. By uniting with private industry scientists, NVESD helped develop algorithms that were more effective at detecting targets and minimizing false alarm confusion.

Accomplishments during the 1980s:

  • 1981 – AN/VGS–2 Tank Thermal Sight
  • 1982 – AN/TAS–6 Night Observation Device, Long Range
  • 1984 – AN/AVS–6 ANVIS Goggles, 3rd Gen I2
  • 1986 – AN/GVS–5 Laser Rangefinder
  • 1987 – AN/PVS–7 Night Vision Goggles
  • 1988 – AN/AAS–32 Airborne Laser Tracker

In the 1990s, NVESD developed an eye-safe laser rangefinder, the AN/PVS-6 Mini Eyesafe Laser Infrared Observation Set (MELIOS). The 1990s also saw the next generation of Aviators Night Vision Imaging System with Heads-Up Display (AN/AVS-7) and an improved group of lightweight thermal weapon sights for ground troops.

During this decade, NVESD pioneered the concept for Horizontal Technology Integration (HTI), a new method of developing and acquiring equipment for the U.S. Army. This HTI system focused on developing equipment that integrates FLIR subsystems from a single Project Manager across several weapon systems. This use of common hardware reduced equipment procurement costs.

The major test of NVESD’s technological efforts came in late 1990 and early 1991 when Iraqi armed forces invaded Kuwait. The U.S. and its allies immediately mobilized to force Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Night vision systems proved vital to operating in the desert environment. As General Barry McCaffrey, then commander of the 24th Infantry Division, testified, "Our night vision capability provided the single greatest mismatch of the war."

Night vision systems using image intensification and FLIR technologies were used by ground troops on major weapons systems including tanks, helicopters, missile systems and infantry-fighting vehicles. Targeting systems equipped with FLIR technology that could 'see through' dense smoke, dust, fog and haze at great distances were crucial to the major weapon systems. Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm showed NVESD scientists and engineers a way to improve technology by integrating image intensification and FLIR capabilities.

The major test of NVESD’s technological efforts came in late 1990 and early 1991 when Iraqi armed forces invaded Kuwait. The U.S. and its allies immediately mobilized to force Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Night vision systems proved vital to operating in the desert environment. As General Barry McCaffrey, then commander of the 24th Infantry Division, testified, "Our night vision capability provided the single greatest mismatch of the war."

Night vision systems using image intensification and FLIR technologies were used by troops on major weapons systems including tanks, helicopters, missile systems and infantry-fighting vehicles. Targeting systems equipped with FLIR technology that could 'see through' dense smoke, dust, fog and haze at great distances were crucial to the major weapon systems. Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm showed NVESD scientists and engineers a way to improve technology by integrating image intensification and FLIR capabilities.

Continuing in its tradition of cooperative research and development, NVESD worked with nongovernment companies to develop uncooled infrared sensors and uncooled focal plane arrays sufficient for rifle sights, crew served weapons, driving aids and missile seekers. This technology transitioned to engineering development and production programs. Looking to the future, uncooled technology can lead to exciting new concepts, including infrared goggles and low cost missile seekers. Networked arrays of miniature, low-cost, light-weight, low-power IR sensors provide new possibilities for sensors to support the Army’s vision by providing situational awareness. Larger arrays of uncooled imaging systems offer affordable integration of sensors on robotic, air and ground platforms.

By the end of the 20th century, NVESD had provided the Army the legacy to "Own the Night". NVESD has transitioned the unique sensor technologies that have resulted in fielding over 400,000 Image Intensifier Systems; 60,000 Thermal Systems; 40,000 Laser Systems; and 15,000 Countermine systems.

CERDEC NVESD is strongly focused on the Army vision for the transformation of current technologies to meet the missions of the future force.

NVESD's vision for 2025 and beyond includes delivering technologies that enable Soldiers to operate in all environments, improving sensing for robotic and autonomous operations, integrating sensor architectures that support dynamic display and discovery of sensor data at all echelons, advancing Soldiers’ threat identification range overmatch, and enhancing the Soldier's ability to automatically target, detect, identify and track threats. This vision will be enabled by a multitude of NVESD research and development thrusts to include the development of multifunction sensor technologies, continued improvements to focal plane arrays, lasers and other key components of sensors and novel sensor algorithms.

It is through this work NVESD will enable the U.S. Soldier to "Own the Environment."