As they prepare to enter the streets of Baghdad for the final assault on Iraqi
President Saddam Hussein's bastion, U.S.-led soldiers are
counting on what many consider their ultimate weapon: a 500-gram,
Multi-thousand dollar device that gives them the power to
see through pitch blackness.
This is the AN/PVS-7B Night Vision Goggle, a state-of-the-art
device that turns night into day. Through the PVS-7B, a soldier
sees an image far sharper and brighter than the green-tinted
nighttime combat scenes that run on television news. "It's
incredible how well it works," says a U.S. army colonel
who specializes in weapons and tactics. "It's as close
as you're going to get to daylight. If you're fighting someone
who doesn't have it, they have one hand tied behind their
In the view of many military experts, night vision is the
single biggest technical advantage the coalition possesses.
Because of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations
that began when Mr. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, his army
has an extremely limited supply of night-vision equipment,
all of it outdated.
David Bercuson of the University of Calgary's Centre for
Military and Strategic Studies considers the U.S. night-vision
superiority an "incalculable" tactical advantage.
"You can see," Prof. Bercuson said. "They
can't. That's very hard to overcome."
Although night-vision technology made its debut near the
end of the Second World War when the army experimented with
huge, truck-mounted infrared beams that illuminated the enemy
and allowed officers to see through special binoculars, night
vision didn't come into common use until the mid-1970s, in
the Vietnam war. This was the era of the Starlight scope,
which operated on the same principle as current systems, amplifying
light from the moon and the stars.
Since then, improved sensor technology has produced better
and better results. By the time of the 1991 war in the Persian
Gulf, night vision worked so well that General Barry McCaffrey,
who commanded the 24th Infantry Division, decreed it was the
most important advantage he had: "Our night-vision capability
provided the single greatest mismatch of the war," he
The technology has improved markedly since then. The latest
systems, such as the AN/PVS-7B, are known as third-generation
night vision and can amplify light up to 50,000 times, producing
extremely clear images even on moonless nights.
But goggles are just one small part of the U.S. military's
vision arsenal. Night-vision systems are now installed in
almost every vehicle used by the U.S. forces, including Humvees
and transport trucks, which use a device called a Driver's
Vision Enhancement System that shows an image of the road
ahead on a screen in front of the driver.
Combat vehicles such as the Abrams M1A1 tank and Apache attack
helicopters are equipped with both light-amplifying viewers
and thermal sensors, which let commanders see the heat emitted
by vehicles or bodies.
"It's a very significant advantage," the colonel
The U.S. military has spent billions on seeing in the dark,
and has set up a centre to study its use and development:
the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, at Fort
Belvoir, Va. The Iraqi military, by comparison, remains in
the dark ages.
According to military analysts, only a small number of Iraqi
military units are equipped with night-vision equipment. Most
of these, they believe, are outdated systems that have been
bought through the military black market and civilian channels
that sell to hunters and others who want night-vision systems.
Military experts say the vast disparity in the number of tanks
lost by each side -- the Iraqis have lost an estimated 100
tanks or more, while the U.S. has lost only a few -- is largely
owing to the superior ability of the U.S. forces to see in
"They have a huge disadvantage," said Martin Rudner,
a security and intelligence expert at Carleton University
in Ottawa. "They're blind."
This device collects the tiny amounts of light - including
the lower portion of the infrared light spectrum - that are
present but hard for our eyes to see, and amplifies them so
we can easily observe an image.
How the generation 3 night vision device works
Starlight, moonlight and infrared light enter through the
The light strikes a photo cathode which has a high-energy
charge from the power supply.
The energy charge accelerates across a vacuum and strikes
a phosphor screen.
The eye piece magnifies and focuses the image.