First round accuracy

Special forces operators demand their electro-optic equipment—laser designators, laser sites, thermal imagers, night-vision goggles—be low power, light weight, rapidly deployed, and deadly accurate.

By John McHale

Many special forces operators like to say the last thing they want is a fair fight. They want to overwhelm the enemy so that he cannot even shoot back.

The Advanced Thermal Weapon Site from FLIR Systems provides special forces units with imagery through total darkness, fog, smoke, and dust.
Click here to enlarge image

Special forces—whether they are Army Rangers or Green Berets, Delta Force, or Navy Seals—depend on technology that gives them first-shot accuracy whether it is lasing a target for unmanned aircraft or killing the enemy with one shot from a rifle. Their laser rangefinders during the early days of the conflicts in Afghanistan amazed warlords as operators would mark a target with their laser designator, then within minutes Navy aircraft or armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would destroy it.

Electro-optics technology—laser designators, laser sights, thermal imagers, and night-vision goggles—has enabled these small units of about six-to-twelve-man teams to dominate modern battlefields.

Different type of warfighter

Special Forces have unique missions and unique needs when compared to the entire Army, points out David Strong, vice president of marketing at infrared sensor specialist FLIR Systems in Wilsonville, Ore. Their missions also get priority and are not hampered by the typical procurement restraints, he adds.

Individual units have congressional approval to go right to the manufacturer of night-vision systems, cameras, weapon sights, etc., and buy directly for their unit, says Les Hodges, business development manager for ITT Night Vision in Roanoke, Va.

The Laser Target Locator Module (LTLM) from BAE Systems weighs less than 5.5 pounds, has a direct-view optic system, a laser range finder, a digital compass, a GPS receiver, and a night-vision camera.
Click here to enlarge image

As with our parts of the Army, they will go through the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) to get what they need quickly, Strong says. For more information on the REF, visit

For the foreseeable future, individual warfighters will continue to have requirements for night-vision capability—for new systems and maintaining legacy devices, Hodges says.

Special forces operators typically want to obtain equipment as quickly as possible, which one might think means off the shelf, but often they will tweak it in different it ways to meet their needs, says Glen Bassett, director with the Combat Systems product line for Raytheon Network Centric Systems in McKinney, Texas. “They are always pushing the envelope.”

This type of procurement enables special forces officials to be more aggressive when acquiring new technology, but “they are also very innovative and creative” with their requirements, Bassett says. What they want from technology is capability more than balancing size, weight, and power, he adds.

“Their goal is to engage quickly with first-round accuracy,” Bassett says. “They are always looking to put the first round on the target.”

In thermal imaging and for special forces accuracy of laser designation is very important as it cuts down collateral damage especially in urban environments, Strong says.

Achieving that type of accuracy demands the weapon have the right munitions, be accurately calibrated, and properly aimed, so all the soldier has to do is pull the trigger, Bassett continues. To acquire this capability special forces operators will sacrifice weight and power advantages, he adds.

Equipment delivered to special forces is often low quantity, so it is not unusual to have an electro-optical system or device used by Army infantry and adapted for use by special forces—or vice versa.

Raytheon’s work on the Mk47 grenade launcher for a special forces application is an example.

“Raytheon provides a unique capability to the U.S. Army and Special Operations Command, bringing thermal imaging to the Mk47 40-millimeter grenade launcher,” Bassett says. “The Mk47 is a very versatile weapon for special operations forces. Raytheon’s Thermal Weapons System provides the long-range night-vision capability to the Mk47.”

The AN/PAS-13E Thermal Weapon Sight (TWS) requires no visible light to operate and will not shut down or bloom when hit by direct light. The sensor avoids detection because it does not emit heat or RF energy.

The device’s electronic zoom is suitable for use as a weapon-mounted sight and as a handheld imager. The imager saves power by using an eye-cup-activated standby mode, and uses L91 AA disposable lithium batteries or rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries.

Human factors

What really drives development of any warfighter system, but especially those in special operations, are human factors, Bassett says.

The AN/PAS-13E Thermal Weapon Sight (TWS) from Raytheon and the U.S. Army avoids detection because it does not emit heat or RF energy.
Click here to enlarge image

Many companies make clip-on thermal weapon sights, including FLIR, which produces the ThermoSIGHT HISS long-range thermal weapon sight. The device can see targets in total darkness, through smoke, fog, and most obscurants, according to the FLIR data sheet. It also has been tested on .50 caliber machine guns and can engage targets at ranges beyond 1,500 meters.

Working so closely with the end users provides instantaneous feedback on designs, Bassett says.

Power management

Batteries that can run for days, not hours, and power the 21st century warfighter for an entire mission is a kind of Holy Grail concept within the defense industry. Bassett says Raytheon is working on power source solutions just as is every other prime contractor.

Special forces operators want longer running batteries simply because the batteries represent less weight that infantrymen must carry on missions, Strong says. Foot soldiers do not want to carry extra batteries or chargers when they could be packing more ammunition, he adds.

Power is sometimes the reason behind the choice of cooled or uncooled thermal imagers, Strong says. Cooled systems are lighter in weight and lower in power usage, yet have shorter ranges than cooled sensors.

FLIR makes its own coolers and other components to ensure the life cycle of the product, he adds.

Cooled systems are heavier, consume more power and are longer range, Strong says. FLIR offers a cooled product that warfighters can carry in their ruck sacks called the Recon III. Strong says the device has zoom settings for short-, medium-, and long-range reconnaissance missions. It also provides precision geo-location of targets with an eye-safe laser rangefinder.

FLIR’s infrared detectors all have high-definition components so that the picture is much like what is seen on high-definition televisions, Strong says. FLIR is working on getting a high-quality laser into a small package at low power, Strong says. That type of combination is still years away, he adds.

“We’ve got a whole range of man-portable sensors that do various jobs at FLIR,” Strong says. Some products were designed specifically for special forces applications, but were available later as off-the-shelf products for other users in the military and law enforcement, Strong says.

Night vision and sensor fusion

A current trend in electro-optics is sensor fusion—fusing short-wave infrared and long-wave infrared—to give a more detailed view to the warfighter. ITT’s ENVG—enhanced Night Vision Goggles—has sensor fusion capability. One version that mounts to the soldier’s helmet is in use with special forces units, Hodges says. The device optically combines an image intensification tube, and thermal infrared micro-bolometer technology enables improved mobility and situational awareness.

This system comes in a monocular unit, with a separate battery pack for helmet-mounted or handheld use. The ENVG provides flip-up, tilt, fore/aft adjustment; left/right eye use; and quick disconnect from the helmet. The device has expanded viewing capability from highlight conditions to total darkness and through battlefield obscurants.

The ThermoSITE HISS, a long-range thermal weapon site from FLIR Systems, can be clipped on to a weapon’s day scope.
Click here to enlarge image

ITT and the U.S. Army Night Vision Laboratory at Fort Belvoir, Va., are also working on the ENVG (D), which will enable soldiers to transmit images digitally to aircraft, command units, and other players on the digital battlefield, Hodges says. “Right now only the warfighter sees what he sees and it ends there,” but eventually he will be able to share that imagery in real-time with rest of his deployed force, he adds.

The ENVG (D) uses thermal and low-light digital sensors to export and import digital imagery, connecting the dismounted soldier to the digital battlefield.

Night vision on a chip

The new system will essentially “be night vision on a chip,” Hodges says. The new sensor is designed with a microchannel plate complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor (MCPCMOS), he adds, and fuse image-intensified video with thermal infrared video, Hodges continues.

The Enhanced Night Vision Goggle from ITT Night Vision fuses image intensification with thermal infrared images for improved situational awareness.
Click here to enlarge image

The digital format enables a common reconnaissance platform within a digital network that will improve not only the situational awareness of the individual warfighter but the group as well, he says. The user can send fused video and receive images as well, Hodges adds.

Another ITT night-vision device for special forces is the third-generation AN/PVS-14, Hodges says. The unit can be handheld, head-mounted, adapted to a camera or camcorder, and weapon-mounted.

The AN/PVS-14 weighs little more than 12 ounces—similar to the ITT ENVG—with one AA battery. Accessories include the 3X Military F/1.5 lens, and a Galilean afocal telescope, which mounts to the objective lens of many of ITT’s night-vision devices.

Special forces users also want multi-tasking from their night-vision equipment, FLIR’s Strong says. His company makes a device called the Advanced Thermal weapon sight (ATWS) that combines thermal weapon sight and handheld imager for surveillance operations.

The ATWS provides imagery through total darkness, fog, smoke, and dust. It also has large pushbutton controls that adjust the image and free the user from complicated menus.

Another laser system designed for nighttime use is the Laser Target Locator Module, or LTLM, from BAE Systems in Arlington, Va. The LTLM is an all-weather, lightweight, handheld laser target locator system that enables soldiers to identify target locations while on foot, in daylight, or at night, and in fog and smoke. The device is produced for the U.S. Army Program executive Office (PEO) Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va.

The LTLM weighs less than 5.5 pounds, has a direct-view optic system, a laser range finder, a digital compass, a GPS receiver, and a night-vision camera based on thermal cameras used in BAE Systems’ thermal weapon sights, according to the release. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2010.

The system’s light weight and its ability to determine target coordinates quickly makes a soldier’s job easier, says Bruce Zukauskas, LTLM product line director for BAE Systems.

Sensor networking

Raytheon engineers are developing networked fire control as well, Bassett says. This is another way of improving first shot accuracy, reducing time to target, and ensuring target identification, he adds.

Essentially a warfighter would have access to any sensor on the battlefield at any time before he pulls the trigger or marks a target for an aerial strike, Bassett continues.

Special forces units need eye-safe laser components to cut down on accidental eye injuries

Special forces units are requiring their laser sites, designators, and other laser equipment with eye-safe wavelength of 1540 to 1890 nanometers to cut down on eye injuries, say engineers at DILAS in Tucson, Ariz.

“The longer wavelength by itself means nothing, it is the eye-safe properties of the longer wavelength that make it attractive to the military,” says Rajiv Pandey, senior product manager at DILAS. If there is accidental exposure to the eye it will not hurt the retina, he explains. It might cause minor damage to the outside of the eyeball, but it will not damage the optic nerve, Pandey adds.

The eye-safe components DILAS builds are conduction-cooled, QCW, vertical-diode laser stacks, which can operate in temperatures between 20 and 35 degrees Celsius, Pandey says. DILAS vertical stacks are designed specifically for applications such as diode-pump solid-state laser, materials, processing, and defense applications.

“We don’t sell directly to special forces units, but to the subsystem laser developers and prime contractors,” Pandey says. DILAS bars are efficient because “we go out and find the most efficient bars available and use them,” whereas others will just develop their own bars in-house or in their own fabrication facility, Pandey says.

The improved efficiency means that when the laser exits the fiber it will be as strong as and power efficient as possible, he adds. For the military it is more important to have lower heat generation and power consumption, which translates into “overall lower cost of ownership,” Pandey continues

The DILAS stacks have a compact and planar design and a center hole for module alignment. Conduction-cooled QCW stacks with very low pitch (400um) and peak powers can be reached to as much as 300 watts per bar. For more information, visit

Enabling real-time video transmission to ground forces from UAVs

Engineers at Elisra in Bene Beraq, Israel, have developed wrist-worn technology for warfighters that enables them to see real-time video coming from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), resulting in reduced time between sensor and shooter.

“Elisra offers various solutions for communications link between UAVs and the solider that are a part of the Digital Army Program in Israel, says an Elisra spokeswoman. Their solution is called V-Rambo—Dissemination of Intelligence via DL (Data Link), voice over Internet Protocol, and battlespace video net systems, she adds.

The system has a video and telemetry receiver about the size of a Blackberry cell phone, the spokeswoman says. The device can be carried in a pocket or pouch. The video and data can be displayed in real time, either on a wrist-wearable monitor, or on other types of portable display devices, such as laptop computers, she says.

The wrist-worn V-Rambo from Elsira in Bene Berak, Israel, provides individual soldiers with real-time video and data from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Click here to enlarge image

Elisra also offers a pocket-sized, multi-sensor-compatible C4ISR system called Multi V-Star that “enables the buildup of real-time situation awareness”, and works with two UAVs at once, the spokeswoman says.

With the support of two data-links, Multi V-Star can receive transmissions—dual-frequency analog and/or digital data link—from two different types of UAV sources, simultaneously. Unlike other systems, Multi V-Star receives video and telemetry, and then correlates the video information with the local GIS map and 3D terrain information.

Multi V-Star provides improved situational awareness by manipulating digital maps, tactical overlays, and real-time video streams from several UAV sensors. The system handles dual day/night video electro-optical sensor support, and can perform automatic map registration, dual targeting surveillance, and dual recording while simultaneously engaging two UAV platforms. Multi V-Star also allows dissemination of real-time video and metadata to networked battlefield users.

Elisra also produces an active man transceiving system (AMTS) that gathers intelligence for unmanned ground vehicles, UAVs, and reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting acquisition (RSTA).

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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