(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Clay Lancaster)

The ability to detect and identify targets at night and under poor visibility conditions has long been an essential military requirement. History has shown that the ability to maneuver under the cover of darkness gives tacticians a big advantage over the enemy. Since its invention, night-vision technology has taken a firm place not only in individual soldiers' kits, but in almost every component of the tactical spectrum, ranging from the perimeter defense to helicopter pilots and tank drivers.


Today’s reality: Modernizing and retrofitting

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams)

Today, many governments face the costly need to upgrade their fleets of armored vehicles (AVs) that have become obsolete with time. Despite budget cuts and insufficient funding, armies around the world still need effective, affordable modernization options for their AV fleets.

India is a good example. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, like China and Pakistan, India's government has quickly identified the need to modernize its tank fleet. The biggest defense vulnerability were gaps in the night-vision capabilities. Eventually, the government decided to equip its army's old 3,500 battle tanks with modern night-vision devices.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were great lessons, too, in terms of understanding the usefulness of this modern technology. Many new technologies sprang up during these wars, ranging from unmanned platforms to smart sensors, but night-vision technology offered a completely new dimension to tactical operations and, possibly, changed the course of war.

As a response to similar demand around the world, many companies started offering retrofitted thermal imaging cameras and driver vision enhancement kits that can be installed on refurbished vehicles or added as an upgrade to new vehicles. Using these upgrades, older-generation military machinery can be modernized relatively inexpensively.

But what are these systems capable of? Let's explore what thermal imaging systems can do and what they cannot.

​Fighting tank blindness: Improved situational awareness

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini)

Thermal imaging is a boon to the armed forces, especially for ground troops. Nowadays, armored vehicles are required to operate in all-weather battlefield environments, and there is the need for proactive situational awareness (SA). Modern thermal imaging cameras certainly provide the necessary technological innovation to achieve this end.

A tank, besides being a formidable machine, is also a large target. For tank crews, it is important to detect before they are detected. Modern thermal imaging systems can offer up to 360° visibility and generate higher-resolution images — this will help AV crews get crucial information before they physically encounter a potential threat.

Such systems also typically have a wide-view screen with the ability to select a point of interest anywhere on the screen, and the capability to zoom in to study the object further, or the ability to switch between multiple camera feeds. To improve the operators' tactical edge, such cameras have different screen orientations with options for secondary views of the periphery. What's more, these systems can provide supporting analytics and alert operators to important events for faster decision-making and therefore higher survivability.

​Improved maneuvering

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Richard Wrigley)

Besides the rich SA about what is happening around them, AV operators need to know the nature of the terrain on which they are advancing to successfully maneuver and tactically position themselves for battle.

This is what modern thermal imaging technology excels at. It gives AV operators the ability to reconnoiter, identify, and tag targets at greater distances or at close range, 24/7 and in any weather conditions. By being able to see the terrain ahead in total darkness, through tall grass, camouflage, dust, light fog, sand storms, and rain, drivers are able to detect obstacles or potential threats sooner and will have more time to react. Thermal imaging can also see through smoke, which is exactly what AV crews need on a smoke-covered street or battleground.

How effective thermal imaging is for AVs?

(DoD photo by Benjamin Faske)

Since zero-visibility conditions have zero impact on thermal imaging cameras, they are capable of "seeing" in environmental conditions that are impenetrable to any other technology on the market. The types of threats these systems can detect are diverse: IEDs, vehicles, human targets, anti-tank missiles, and various terrain features and obstacles (cliffs, large boulders, waterways etc.).

This technology is not infallible though. Thermal imaging will have difficult time detecting AVs that use invisibility cloaks or other stealth technology, for example, the one in use by the Russian army.

New advances

The modern army's growing need to operate at night and under poor visibility conditions has led to development of more and more sophisticated thermal imaging devices. One example is a research project that an experimental physicist Dr. Kristan Gurton and electronics engineer Dr Sean Hu are conducting for the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL). Their new camera, which relies on sensing polarized light, can see small hidden objects such as tripwires and booby traps, and it shows images in such detail that AV crews soon may be able to detect and identify specific individuals, for example, in urban environments or in the open field. Other advances, such as battle management systems, can be integrated as well with thermal imaging units for improved capabilities.