April 9, 2009: Although about a year behind schedule in reaching the troops, the U.S. Army has now started issuing a new generation of night vision goggles, the PSQ-20, which combines light enhancement (the "start light scope") technology with thermal imaging (showing a picture via heat differences). The two pound PSQ-20 can operate for about seven hours on four AA batteries. This new sensor enables a soldier to spot man sized objects out to about 300 meters. The closer the object is, the more accurately it can be identified. The PSQ20 can use both detection technologies, overlaying them, or either. The thermal imager is most useful in places where there is no star (or moon) light to enhance (like inside buildings or caves). The army already has a software update in the works, that will make the digitally created thermal images even clearer. Troops can also capture and transmit the digital images.
The PSQ-20 costs $10,000 each, three times more than the light enhancement goggles issued to most troops now. Because it is heavier than the current goggles, it will not be issued to everyone. But the next generation of the PSQ-20 will be lighter. That version probably will be issued more widely.
In addition to being easier to transmit, digital images from the PSQ-20 are easier to combine with other data. This sort of thing has been a staple of science fiction for years, but is working in prototype form now. It will take a few years to get the equipment light enough, reliable enough and rugged enough for battlefield use. By then, there will also be more "battlefield Internet" capability out there, and more opportunity to share digital images. That means commanders, and particularly intel people, can see what the troops are looking at. This makes it easier to identify targets, and quickly bring in smart bombs or missiles.
Troops have had helmet mounted night-vision gear for over a decade, and for most of the time it was just light enhancement. But the gear has gotten lighter and more reliable. The helmet mounted (that square thing you see on the front of helmets is where you mount it) night vision enables the troops to move quickly at night. In addition, over 20,000 rifle and machine-gun counted night-vision scopes have been issued. Many of these now have thermal capability as well.