Soldier Lethality CFT, Fort Benning, GA – Really good was never really going to be good enough for the Army team developing the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle – Binocular. Nine months after equipping the first unit with the ENVG-B, developers are testing the rigor of system enhancements at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., in order to assess new augmented reality technologies and the hardware that delivers them.
As a night vision device, the ENVG-B’s dual thermal and infrared sensing capabilities deliver unmatched clarity in situations where visibility is diminished, including the complete absence of light. It was fielded for the first time last fall as part of an initial Directed Requirement to get those next generation night vision capabilities in the hands of Soldiers at Fort Riley who have since deployed with them to Korea.
But that was just the beginning, said Maj. John Nikiforakis, the Assistant Product Manager for PEO Soldier. New applications are being tested and refined for delivery to the Close Combat Force.
“We put an incredible tool in the hands of Soldiers who need it now,” Nikiforakis said. “But the goal always is to treat the Soldier as a system, to equip Soldiers and squads holistically with weapons and system elements that work together to make them more lethal and more survivable. That’s what we’re doing here, testing the ENVG-B as a system.”
It’s a system that includes augmented reality capabilities and a heads-up display that integrates wirelessly with weapon optics. Those kind of capabilities make it possible for a Soldier to detect and even fire on a target around an obstacle with limited exposure to the enemy.
In what is called a reliability growth test (RGT), the first of three planned for the ENVG-B system, Soldiers from C Troop, 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, put the system to the test during field training exercises throughout the month of June. After a week of classroom training with the systems, a week of marksmanship training on the range, and a week of nighttime situational training exercises, the event culminated in a 72-hour field training exercise with an opposing force. Thirty participants used the ENVG-Bs, and others used PVS-14 night vision devices in order for data collectors and observers to draw comparisons.
There was no comparison, said Capt. Will Hess, the C Troop commander.
“In terms of target detection and clarity, the difference between the (ENVG-B) and the PVS-14 is night and day,” Hess said. “The guys wearing the ENVG-Bs were taking targets out to 300 meters and even beyond, whereas our guys with 14s are having trouble seeing beyond 150. I can’t say enough about the ENVG-Bs. There’s really no comparison.”
Which doesn’t mean the tests all ran smoothly. By design, RGTs are iterative Soldier Touch Points that expose weaknesses in the software or hardware early and often throughout the development process in order to shape a final product that is beneficial to the Soldier and wholly accepted. That’s the Soldier Centered Design methodology employed by the Soldier Lethality Cross Functional Team that leads the ENVG-B program, one of Army Future Command’s signature modernization efforts. Soldiers are involved in design and development every step of the way.
“The focus for this is getting it the hands of the Soldiers and just figuring out early on what are some issues with the device and how do Soldiers actually use it,” Hess said. “They developed it and tested it in the lab based on how they think Soldiers are going to use it. Now, we give to Soldiers and run them through our training and see how they actually use it and to test its durability, to see how it stands up to the kind of rigorous use Soldiers put it through in a dense, rugged environment doing dismounted squad maneuvers.”
The rugged environment at Fort Polk includes swamps, and swamps present Soldiers with a different kind of challenge.
“Snakes. Two water moccasins, two feet away,” said 2nd Lt Phillip Davis, who spotted the threat using ENVG-Bs in thermal mode. “The guys using the 14s couldn’t see them at all. There’s no comparison between the two. Just the difference in depth perception and clarity is drastic. The ENVG-Bs are incredible for situational awareness alone. Having that augmented reality with Rapid Target Acquisition allows us to make decisions quicker, and that’s going to save a lot of lives.”
With all the additional “gee whiz features” on the ENVG-Bs, like see-through map overlays and a compass, Davis said he needs more time with the goggle to prevent cognitive overload.
“The potential is astonishing,” he said. “These are capabilities I never thought I’d see in the Army, but it’s a lot like learning to drive a stick shift; we just need practice. Our guys are picking up on it very quickly, so I can see it being a great benefit a few months from now.”
In the coming months, the ENVG-B team will continue to conduct Soldier Touch Points, including RGTs, to address any issues identified during the exercise at Fort Polk, Nikiforakis said. It’s an iterative “test-fix-test” cycle.
“We rely on Soldier feedback to ensure the equipment we field is exactly what they want and what they need to be more lethal and more survivable on the battlefield,” he said. “The need to restore overmatch is urgent. The key to staying on track is keeping Soldiers involved every step of the way and finding ways to work around the challenge of the (COVID-19) pandemic.”
When employees of the two vendors manufacturing the ENVG-B prototypes were diagnosed with the virus, Elbit and L3 found work-around solutions, including telework and alternate schedules, to mitigate risk without delaying production.
“Everything we do is a team effort,” Nikiforakis said. “But nothing speaks to the ingenuity and dedication of the team like what we’ve seen over the past few months, as everyone from every corner of the (Army Modernization) enterprise has persistently found ways to succeed at a time when it would’ve been easy to hit pause. We just keep our eyes on the finish line, because modernization can’t wait.”
Army Futures Command and its subordinate cross functional teams partner with ASA(ALT) and its PEO subsidiaries, CCDC, and multiple branches of the Army Modernization Enterprise to deliver the next generation capabilities necessary to establish and sustain a clear and decisive overmatch for the Army of 2028 and beyond.