For centuries, night was a setback rather than an advantage.
Ancient warriors fought large scale battles in broad daylight and the medieval man was all about sieges and ingenious machinery. A complex code of honor bound the former and sturdy walls reassured the latter, in times where being struck likely meant losing your life.
As the doctrine surrounding combat changed, so did the tactics and the gadgets.
Having to reschedule a mission because the operatives taking part in it couldn’t see was no longer acceptable. Scientists and engineers began looking for a solution, eventually coming up with the modern night vision goggles.
This new piece of kit shook warfare to its foundations.
The Proverbial Mother of Innovation
While many erroneously associate the first night vision goggles with the American-Japanese war in the Pacific, the original concept traces back to the late 1920s.
War World I had highlighted just how unfit for combat most of Europe’s armies were. Some of the empires still fielded cavalry, as vehicles and tanks barely entered their early years.
By 1929, in an effort to improve the situation, the UK government adopted infrared cameras for airspace defense. Developed by Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi – who also patented the first fully electronic television system – these devices allowed the British to quickly and effectively respond to nighttime incursions.
Yet it took humanity more than 15 years to fully integrate the new technology into their arsenal.
The German AEG – the General Electricity Company – came up with possible military applications in 1935. By 1939, the Wehrmacht could count on a limited number of fully functional night vision goggles; the so-called Generation 0.
These would be further developed as the war raged on, with a Nacht Jager (night hunter) variant specifically designed for use on tanks.
Both sides poured considerable amounts of money and effort into research. By the end of War World II, the Axis distributed their Sturmgewehr 44 alongside the Vampire Portable System, while the American M1 and M3 saw extensive use in all theaters.
A Brief But Intense History
Once peace was restored, the winners focused on improving the technologies that had shown themselves as worthy.
Throughout the Vietnam War, the United States experimented with passive devices that amplified existing light rather than relying on infra-red beams. The Soviet Union also contributed to this arms race while the two superpowers constantly tried to prevail over their opponent.
The Generation 1 night vision goggles eliminated the need for a bulky battery pack and an easy to spot lamp, but were still far from today’s standards. Some models required the presence of moonlight to be effective.
Images were blurry, dark, and several soldiers reported only being able to see shadows and indistinguishable silhouettes.
The introduction of more precise manufacturing processes paved the way for further innovation.
Using micro-channel plate detectors, the various RnD departments managed to achieve greater levels of light amplification. In turn, that meant that infantry could operate under almost complete darkness.
GEN 2 night vision goggles returned much brighter images, all while featuring higher resolutions and more clarity.
Size and portability also improved, allowing teams to dynamically deploy their kit on the battlefield with little downtime. To draw a comparison, a generation 0 device had to be carried in a sealed case which shielded it from debris but also made assembly while under fire a challenge.
A Staple Of Rapid Military Dominance
By the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO and its members had already put the newest Generation III to good use.
The devices traded power consumption for the ability to amplify light by 50000 times. In more recent years, panoramic variants began offering larger fields of view, aiding the user’s perception of their surroundings.
Night vision goggles remain a staple of Shock and Awe, the famous doctrine aimed at reducing an opponent’s will to fight. NVGs were broadly employed in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and in the ensuing Middle-Eastern campaign. Special Forces and Recon units would often carry out their missions at night, as doing so gave them a huge advantage over the enemy.
The technology isn’t only used for military applications, though. In a small selection of countries, civilians can freely purchase similar devices.
Conversely, various governments regulate the acquisition and use of paramilitary equipment. Belgium and Iceland, for instance, enforce a series of restrictions. In Germany possession is a punishable offense.
Light-amplifying goggles also play a vital role in some search and rescue efforts. Police departments, emergency services, and fire authorities often employ them to scout dark areas or locate threats.
Variants purposely designed for competitive shooting, hunting, observation, and surveillance are also available across the globe.
In the nearest future, miniaturization and heightened functionality are likely to be the main scope of all night vision research.
The University of Michigan began testing contact lenses that could amplify visible light. The project is still far from being viable, but shows a certain degree of promise.
The future of night vision is pretty bright.