Marieke / Second synopsis
‘We own the night’: The rise and fall of the US Military’s Night-Vision dominance
It took Seal team 6, 38 minutes to blast its way into Bin Laden’s Bunker, erase him from existence, and collect a trove of intelligence strewn about his cluttered house. The ability to see in the dark made it all possible.
For decades, the U.S. military has prided itself on ’owning the night’ thanks to its unmatched night-vision technology. From the early days, when soldiers used clunky infrared scopes to detect and beat back Japanese night raids in Okinawa, the United States has maintained that advantage.
In recent years though, the nation’s visual supremacy has begun to fade. It’s been a quarter century since night-vision devices, or NVDs, were declared ’the single greatest mismatch’ of the Gulf War, and since then, the underlying technology has remained largely unchanged. In addition to decades of lacklustre innovation , powerful NVDs are now readily obtained by U.S. enemies. Either on the black market or through internet.
The result is a narrowing gap between U.S. night vision and the rest of the world’s. To the military it’s an unacceptable state of affairs. So the Army’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate are focused on ’buying back the overmatch.’
They are planning to do this by:
- Giving soldiers higher fidelity displays.
- Sensor architecture with access to real-time information.
This could be seen as conjuring a sci-fi battlescape in which soldiers night-vision displays provide them with a Terminator-like stream of data. ’The key, as ever, will be getting the new technology onto the field before our adversaries and pressing our advantage while we can.’
America’s first attempts to give warfighters the superpower of night vision came during World War II, when Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States developed systems that relied on infrared spotlights. Bouncing off a distant object the infrared light was invisible to the naked eye but could be detected by a battery powered device known as a sniperscope. Revolutionary as it was the technology was impractical. As soon as the enemy acquired his own version of the equipment, the once-invisible infrared spotlight instantly gave away the user’s position.
By the time the United States was fighting in Korea, a greater range made the sniperscope more viable on the battlefield. Those who mastered it, were able to deploy the technology with deadly accuracy to ward off Chinese infiltrators.
The next generation of NVDs would depart significantly from the sniperscope by eliminating the need to illuminate a target with infrared light. Instead, these NVDs amplified the light given off by the moon and stars. The most famous device of the era, introduced during the Vietnam War, was the starlight scope, a rifle-mounted telescope that amplified ambient light by about 1000 times.
Starlight scopes, were used for the most part as observational tools. The story of how an army patrol leader, spotted a Viet Cong force with his starlight scope, and then saw another enemy unit behind them. After quietly allowing the first unit to pass, he ordered his men to fire on the second group. ’Each enemy unit, thinking it was being attacked by Americans, opened fire as the US patrol withdrew. They blasted one another.’
A quote of John Kerry’s biography Viet Cong part where he used a starlight scope and flare:
’The entire sky seemed to explode into daylight, the men from the sampans bolted erect, stiff with shock for only an instant before they sprang for cover like a herd of panicked gazelles.’
The next generation of NVDs in the 80s performed in much lower light than their predecessors and provided improved clarity and image brightness.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the United States took their chance to fully deploy its latest technology, which included both traditional image intensification capabilities and newer, heat-sensing thermal imaging technology. These devices allowed US troops to fight with an unrelenting pace. The Iraqis didn’t stand a chance.
Night Vision was so essential to the coalition’s success in Desert Storm that it inspired a new military slogan. ’We own the night,’ 'it was the ability to attack at night, when all of the rest of the world’s defences are at 10 percent of what they are in daytime, that gave us this huge immediate impact and edge.'
More than a decade later, when U.S.-led coalitions invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq, the military encountered an enemy that was beginning to use night-vision technology as well. The Taliban and Al Qaeda had been able to acquire older NVDs on the black market, but the devices were scarce and few fighters were trained to use them. They also weren’t aware of how U.S.’s night-vision had improved, leaving them unaware that they were just as visible in the darkness.
Nowadays, that advantage is gone. ISIS fighters, particularly those who’ve been recruited from overseas, fully understand the power of night vision, and in some cases they have obtained their own devices. Since even Walmart has dozens of different night vision scopes and monoculars in stock, there’s only so much the government can do. Even the Pentagon’s own contractors have been known to stray.
But the best way to reassert the monumental U.S. advantage in Night Vision isn’t to control exports, it’s to develop ground-breaking new systems like:
- Goggles that combine image intensification and thermal imaging.
- Technology that connects a set of night vision goggles with a weapon sight.
In the longer term, advancements will likely include giving a soldier the ability to magnify small areas of his field view, observing with extreme clarity and determine for example, whether the object in question is an orphan playing ball or IED-planting insurgent.
Separate sensors in NVDs will one day communicate with other devices, seamlessly providing a soldier with a stream of useful information. Military engineers are also working on exploiting ’a region of the infrared spectrum’ that will allow a helicopter to see through sandy, brownout conditions.
In 2014 there has been a light sensor developed at the University of Michigan so small it could be squeezed into a contact lens. It is doubtful that engineers will be able to squeeze all of processing and display requirements into such a small device.
But with the amazing pace of innovation, you learn to never say never.
This Synopsis of ‘We own the Night’ is quite closely related to a synopsis that I had written about my self-directed research progress on infrared.
Night vision is used to detect the enemy / stranger. It is a defensive tool. While in my case I use these infrared techniques to peel off or expose layers and make the invisible visible in just an observing way.
I would potentially even like to connect these techniques to the unconscious, which would be quite an abstract poetic approach. So I wonder if I want to appropriate these military camera devices because I think they have the potential to become something else, or if I want to make use of these techniques because I already had associations with violence and safety that I wasn’t aware of at first-hand.
It makes me wonder if my motivation would be to have a closer view of my subject where the aim would be to expose, or if I have a detached motivation where the aim would be to detect and objectify. Since the use for night vision in the military is to find your target and annihilate it, I don’t think the fighters that use it see their targets as equal humans.
Night vision has the effect that it can give a very detached, distanced and objective viewpoint. So now I really wonder how I would feel when I will film with a night vision camera and how it would make me approach my subject.
I also wonder what associations the viewer would get. Thermal imaging has in a way already becoming integrated in popular culture. Because of its high aesthetic value it is easy to get beautiful images with this way of infrared imaging. But with night vision it’s a different story you are not overwhelmed with awe when you see a night vision documentation.
A device that gives the ability of nocturnal vision is very interesting to me, animals that have nocturnal vision also use this for hunting. This also makes it ironic that the article implies that U.S. army ‘’owns the night’’ while certain species of animals always had this ability.
But whether it is through a device in the army or genetically with animals the purpose is the same: hunting. Out of all of the infrared techniques out there I think Night Vision has the closest relation to this purpose, even when it is being used for security it is still used to track a person.
I don’t think it has been used yet for artistic purposes as much, like with analogue/digital infrared photography and thermal imaging, but I would have to look into this more.