Monday, September 11, 2006


I recently read an article explaining how night vision technology works. I usually read whatever comes across my desk about the subject, even if I already understand it. The article indicates that the U. S. military, the best military in the world, uses Generation 3 night vision technology. Why would the military use Generation 3 technology night vision, when Generation 4 night vision technology exists?

The answer is that the Generation 4 development, was not exactly a more advanced one. Generation 4 night vision was developed at the request of the Army back in 1998. They wanted a Gen 4 tube that had no ion barrier, or protective coating, on the micro-channel plate (MCP). This request was based on preliminary tests that revealed that a filmless tube would increase performance of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) by 20%, thereby giving U.S. forces a further edge over adversaries. That was good news. Unfortunately, those same tests showed immediate degradation of the new tube because there was no film to protect the photocathode from the harmful ions generated during normal tube operations and the tubes could not meet the 10,000 hours of active life, standard for Gen 3 devices.

Regardless, ITT and Litton both began their separate research on the filmless Gen 4 device. Not long after, as part of a bid to win the Army’s Omni V procurement contract, Litton surprised the industry by proposing the development and delivery of a Gen 4 filmless tube. ITT responded by accelerating the development of it’s own Gen 4 filmless tube, which proved to be quite a daunting task when it came down to it. In the midst of it’s research and testing, however, ITT came to realize that many of the modifications to the system required by a filmless tube, could also be applied to the Generation 3 tubes. Additionally, ITT found that by significantly thinning, rather than removing the protective film, it could achieve the Army-mandated Gen 4 performance and end-of-life reliability requirements.

As a result, the enhanced Gen 3 tube was dubbed the "Pinnacle" because it represented the apex in technological achievement. Photoresponse was 22% better, the signal-to-noise ratio was improved nearly 24%, and the halo effect was reduced from 1.25mm to .90mm. Overall, the Pinnacle tube provided a 20% greater range of vision at night, than the previous Gen 3 tube.
Subsequently, ITT as able to convince the Army to swap the still unproven Gen 4 filmless tubes for the Pinnacle as part of Omni V contract. ITT was able to point out that the life cycle costs of the Gen 4 filmless tube were seven times higher than that of the Pinnacle and by opting for the Pinnacle over the filmless tube, the Army would save in operation and sustainment costs $29 million and $21 million in operation and sustainment costs for aviator and ground force goggles, respectively.

So, while the filmless tube Gen 4 technology exists, it was has not been proven to be better in performance and certainly not proven to be as reliable or durable to this day.