New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Winner of the New Zealand Defence Force Civilian Writing Category June 2020.
By Mr. J. Tunnage.
Western militaries no longer own the night. This was inevitable. Technology that provides access to the thermal imagery and near infra-red spectrums has become more accessible to medical industries, security services and recreational enthusiasts such as hunters. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this technology, which was historically only been available to the military, is now readily available to poachers, criminals and militants such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban. This discussion paper will provide a brief background on Night Vision Equipment (NVE) and a technical overview of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition, it will review contemporary threat group’s night fighting capabilities against those commonly found within Western militaries, finishing with five recommendations for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). The primary target audience is NZDF professionals, with the intent to create discussion around how the organisation will reclaim the night.
Militaries around the world use ‘Detect’, ‘Recognise’, and ‘Identify’ (DRI) as the lexicon for observation capabilities required by combat elements. For example, at what distance can an observer detect the thermal signature of an armoured vehicle; at what distance can they recognise that the thermal signature represents a tank; and, at what distance can the observer identify that the tank is a T72. With the rapid technological advancements in thermal sights, DRI ranges have increased significantly. Therefore, military planning considerations, tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), and doctrine that shape night operations may no longer hold true as a result of adversary night fighting capabilities outpacing our own understanding of the threat.
Before examining the ramifications and possible solutions from the advances in night fighting technologies, we need to first establish a baseline understanding of the infrared (IR) component of the electromagnetic spectrum. For the most part, each of the following classifications of the electromagnetic spectrum are mutually exclusive – meaning a person viewing through a cooled thermal sight (medium wave infrared) device will not be able to observe a near infrared laser from a night aiming device such as the in-service PEQ15. Figure One should be used as a reference for the following discussion.
Figure 1 – Infrared Component of The Electromagnetic Spectrum
First there is the visible spectrum. The visible light spectrum is as it appears in a rainbow. It begins with violet light at approximately 0.4 microns and goes through to red-light at approximately 0.75 microns. It is near the limit of the visible spectrum where visible lasers such as the red visible laser in the PEQ15 night aiming device resides at 0.65 microns.
Second is the Near Infrared (NIR) spectrum. The NIR band is approximately 0.75 microns up to 1.0 micron and is the domain of most conventional image intensification night vision equipment. For example, the NIR aiming laser on the PEQ15 resides between 0.82-0.85 microns and can be seen by most image intensifier-based night vision goggles (NVG). Advantages of near NIR observation devices include their small size; the ability to see through glass; low power consumption; and, low cost to purchase. Disadvantages include lack of definition at distance; limited ability to use during periods of daylight; and, reliance on other light sources during periods of darkness to provide visibility.
Third is the Short-Wave Infrared (SWIR) spectrum. The SWIR spectrum is approximately 1.0 micron up to 2.5 microns and is the domain of specialist military surveillance equipment and high-end laser range finders. For example, the laser in the PLRF25C handheld laser range finder used by joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and snipers is approximately 1.55 microns. Advantages of SWIR observation devices include the ability to observe 1.55 microns laser range finders and target markers; the ability to visually penetrate fog and haze; and, utility during periods of daylight. Disadvantages include high cost to purchase; and, reliance on other light sources during periods of darkness to provide visibility.
Fourth is the Medium-Wave Infrared (MWIR) spectrum. The MWIR is approximately 3.0 microns to 5.0 microns and is the domain of cooled thermal devices commonly used by snipers and surveillance assets. For example, the INOD III cooled thermal sight used by some NATO snipers provides visibility within 3.4 microns to 4.8 microns. Advantages of MWIR observation devices include the ability to identify thermal signature at distance; ability to integrate with other digital interfaces such as laser range finders; and, the ability to capture imagery. Disadvantages include high cost to purchase; high power consumption; size; inability to see through glass; and, inability to observe near NIR and SWIR lasers.
Fifth is the Long-Wave Infrared (LWIR) spectrum. The LWIR is approximately 8.0 microns to 12.0 microns and is the domain of non-cooled thermal devices commonly used on short to medium range weapon systems. For example, the AN/PAS-13G short range weapon sight used by the US military on personal assault weapons operates in the LWIR domain. Advantages of LWIR observation devices include the ability to detect thermal signature at distance; silent operation; and, the ability to capture imagery. Disadvantages include the inability to see through glass; and, the inability to observe near NIR and SWIR lasers.
Threat Group Assessment
During the ‘Global War on Terror’, Special Forces combating the insurgency in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan would often operate at night as this provided a significant tactical advantage over the adversaries who had limited ability to observe at night. Coalition forces would often observe an area of interest from above using UAVs, identify the target and then utilise helicopter insertion, landing near the target compound, the troops would disembark and sweep through the compound to prosecute the target. All involved would complete this under the cover of darkness with the use of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), providing NIR visibility whilst using a mix of weapon sights providing NIR, MWIR and LWIR visibility. This modus operandi is exemplified in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden on 2nd May 2011.
However, only three months later the infallible perception of Special Forces night operations would be shattered. On August 6th, 2011 in Wardak province, Afghanistan, a CH-47D Chinook helicopter with the call sign Extortion 17 was carrying 38 Special Forces personnel as immediate reaction force when it was shot down by RPG fire during final approach to target in ‘near zero illumination conditions’. All personnel died in what is the largest single-incident loss of American life during Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom. What has never been made clear is how did an individual with supposedly limited access to night fighting technology in a remote Afghanistan village hit a ‘blacked out’ moving target (albeit large) at a distance of over 200m in pitch-black conditions. Either they got exceptionally lucky or the Taliban were starting to develop their own night fighting capabilities.
What is clear though is that since 2014 the Taliban’s night fighting capabilities have gone from strength-to-strength. Firstly, it would appear from social media posts that the NVGs and thermal sights that the Taliban initially posed with were as a result of captures from Afghan National Army (ANA). However, a 2019 report from the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team stated thermal devices from commercial companies such as Pulsar and ATN Corp have become a popular tool for the Taliban and it is thought that there is at least one such night vision device per 10 to 16 Taliban fighters from a total force of 60,000 to 65,000 fighters. Confirmation of the prevalence of Taliban using Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) thermal devices only requires a quick search on Twitter where there is an abundance of Taliban propaganda, including successful attacks on ANA positions recorded on the COTS LWIR thermal scopes.
The recent proliferation of COTS thermal sights is not just limited to Afghanistan. In late 2019, Nigeran military commanders publicly stated that their forces are technologically over-matched by Boko Haram who were fielding drones, NVGs and thermal scopes. Further north in Syria and Iraq, there is no shortage of social media posts and footage of ISIS using COTS thermal scopes on both assault and sniper rifles. There are also reports of ISIS elements using NVGs and thermal scopes on sniper rifles during the 2017 Battle of Marawi in the Philippines. It would appear that wherever there is armed conflict in the world, there is also a high likelihood that adversaries have access to quality night fighting capabilities.
As with other forms of contemporary technology such as drones, the civilian market is the driver for the development of low cost but high-quality night vision solutions. The distinct advantage commercial thermal solutions offer recreational hunters and the private security industry has a more nefarious, and most likely unintended customer base. Using the same Pulsar and ATN sights as the Taliban, ISIS and other criminal syndicates, hunters right across the Western world have embraced the LWIR spectrum to detect and stalk their prey that have previously been inaccessible. As the demand for this technology has increased, so too has the quality of the thermal processors increased to a point where hunters, Taliban and ISIS are now using thermal scopes that is some cases provide better capabilities than thermal scopes used by current military combat elements.
How good are COTS thermal scopes when compared to common Military Off the Shelf (MOTS) thermal scopes? The Pulsar XQ50 Trail thermal scope with a built-in laser range finder uses a 17-micron 640 x 480 uncooled LWIR sensor. This sensor is similar in capability to that used in AN/PAS-13G which provides detection capabilities out to at least 1400m – less the built-in range finding capability. This means any heat signature from a person, vehicle or aircraft picked up within 1400m that is not normally part of that observation arc automatically becomes an item of interest. Engagement on that item of interest will come down to an adversary’s weapon capabilities, knowledge of local population distribution and assessed likely actions of friendly forces.
So where are adversaries getting their night fighting capabilities – in particular COTS thermal devices? In a Military Times interview, retired US Army Colonel Steven Bucci stated that “State actors, like Iran, Russia and especially North Korea, could be willing to exchange hard cash for battlefield tech, with the added benefit of causing headaches for U.S. officials”. Regardless of where the funding is coming from, there are multiple online avenues for threat groups to source COTS thermal devices. A quick search of ‘Pulsar Thermal’ or ‘ATN Thermal’ on Chinese mega online vendors Ali Baba and Ali Express will produce a long list of options that can easily be purchased. Access to COTS thermals such as the Pulsar series is just as easy in New Zealand with a Pulsar XQ50 LRF thermal scope costing NZD$7600 at Gun City and Hunting and Fishing stores. The prevalence of COTS thermal scopes in New Zealand is important to note as the presence of such a device during an armed stand-off such as the Hans Molenaar siege would create a tactical dilemma for those who respond.
Common adversaries world-wide have used the principles of manoeuvre warfare against coalition, host-nation forces and law enforcement. They have identified and targeted the ability to conduct successful night operations; they have started to take the battle to host-nation forces that coalition forces have trained and equipped; and, they have exploited common MOTS night fighting vulnerabilities with the use of cheaper and sometimes better COTS solutions. As stated by retired US Army Colonel Steven Bucci, “it only takes one piece of night vision equipment present on the battlefield and you lose a key tactical advantage. As with other technology trends it was evident that it was only a matter of time until we lost this key tactical advantage”. Unfortunately, a number of Western militaries around the world have been found wanting. In order to rectify the situation and reclaim the night, it is critical that these militaries take a holistic, yet pragmatic approach to identify and adopt solutions that will save lives and increase the likelihood of mission success.
First, defensive operations TTPs need reviewing. For example, a common TTP for friendly forces coming under attack at a forward operating base or similar defensive position is to ‘man’ weapon systems from key advantage points around the base and observe arcs outward. As demonstrated by successful Taliban attacks on the ANA , the problem with this TTP is that when you expose even a small portion of the human body to a thermal imagery device, the thermal signature from the human body tends to stand out like a full moon on a clear night. Furthermore, it only takes a handful of rounds through a barrel for it to heat up and present as a ‘light sabre’ in a thermal imagery device, further giving away an individual’s position. A significant TTP review is required to identify how friendly forces can minimise their thermal signature on the contemporary battlefield.
Second, offensive operations need reviewing. In accordance with the Survivability Spectrum used in the New Zealand Army Future Land Operating Concept 2035, a key facet to battlefield survival is to not be seen. From a TTP perspective, this will involve studying terrain to identify routes that will provide access to targets whilst reducing the likelihood of being seen by adversary observation capabilities. It will also require overwatch and fire support assets to stand off further and use fieldcraft to conceal their position, thus increasing the impetus of technological overmatch. This will challenge the required capability of their weapon systems and individual competency. Furthermore, careful consideration will be required for helicopter infiltration/exfiltration/medivac points, as aircraft will easily be detected in a thermal scope. Lastly, the question will need to be asked as part of the military appreciation process if troops need to be deployed on the ground, or can the desired military effect be achieved by other means, mitigating risk to friendly forces.
Third, there needs to be a review how forces operate across the IR component of the electromagnetic spectrum through a doctrine and capability definition lens. There have been significant technological advancements in recent times in regard to fusing two or more parts of the IR spectrum. For example, the Talon inline weapon sight from Qioptiq uses both NIR image intensification and a non-cooled thermal sensor fused into a single display that is observed through the primary day optic normally used on assault weapons. This fused capability provides the end user the ability to not only identify NIR lasers but also detect thermal signatures from vehicles, people and animals. Regardless of the technology adopted, it needs to be a leap ahead of adversary capabilities, coupled with a well thought out set of TTPs.
Fourth, the entire soldier system needs to be reviewed to identify IR signature emission. This includes everything from clothing to weapon systems. Solutions do exist. For example, Israeli company Fibrotex offers sniper hides that provide multi IR spectrum protection; there is evidence of Tiaga combat uniform minimising NIR signature; and, some carbon wrapped barrels have the potential to reduce thermal signature , which in turn could reduce the number of ‘light sabres’ flaring up in adversary thermal sights during a firefight. Furthermore, there needs to be investment in technologies that enable the detection of adversaries on the battlefield. For example, there is technology that will enable the detection of a life form and other technology that will enable detection of optics on the battlefield. Nevertheless, capability gap analysis needs to be conducted and investment in capability development needs to be allocated.
Fifth, current procurement and capability management methodology needs to change. As stated in the 2018 Strategic Defence Policy Statement: ‘the core task of the Defence Force is to conduct military operations, in particular combat operations’. Right now, it could be argued that the Taliban are better equipped to conduct military operations at night than a number of Western militaries. NZDF specifically needs to identify how to deliver better, faster. The ‘fast follower’ capability management approach does not always work – especially when you are following a slow-moving bus and the adversary is driving dune buggies. Achieving overmatch against current COTS solutions will be expensive. Therefore, leaders need to rationalise who needs to fight at night and ensure that they are equipped with a capability that is a leap ahead of likely adversaries. Furthermore, adopt an intelligence led capability management approach to ensure that NZDF combat forces remain ahead and do not lose ground against the potential threats they may face.
The aim of this discussion was not to be alarmist, and nor should it be. All supporting references are readily available open source and most concepts are well known. Rather the aim was to provide a contemporary NVE capability baseline of both friend and foe to build upon. The electromagnetic spectrum has been introduced utilising lay terms. Furthermore, the discussion explored how the technological ‘peace dividend’ and globalisation has benefited both hunters and terrorists. The paper challenges NZDF leaders to review TTPs, as well as systems and processes to ensure that the current and future New Zealand soldier is ready and equipped to reclaim the night.
About the Author.
Mr Justin Tunnage is a reserve Officer, professional project manager and company owner of Desert Road Project Management. He is currently NZDF NVE Programme Lead in Land Delivery of Capability Branch. He is a qualified sniper and combat veteran.
About the NZDF NVE Programme.
The NZDF NVE Programme aims to update and refresh NZDFs NVE across the services and trades over a series of phases and stages. The program aims to ensure those NZDF force elements on high and immediate readiness are equipped with the most effective NVE and training to retain the advantage of night operations.