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11 Nov 15. Night-Vision System for Army Soldiers Demands Unusual Collaboration Between Industry Arch rivals. The US Army is poised to invest more than a billion dollars over the next decade in a James Bond-like targeting technology for infantry troops. A riflescope wirelessly transmits video to a night-vision goggle, allowing a shooter to kill a target without having to bring the weapon up to eye level. This project, known as “rapid target acquisition,” has been in the works for years and still has a way to go. Much of the technology — digital night-vision systems and thermal weapon sights — already has been developed. But the individual components, made by competing vendors, now have to be integrated into a seamless wireless network, which will require unprecedented teamwork between two contractors — DRS Technologies and BAE Systems — that will later go head-to-head to win production orders. The Army is buying an “enhanced night vision goggle” dubbed ENVG III that is worn on a helmet. It will be linked wirelessly to a “family of weapon sights individual,” or FWS-I, which can be mounted on rifles and carbines. If the system works as envisioned, soldiers will be able to point the weapon and shoot around the corner, staying out of the line of fire.
While there is nothing magical about this technology, the industrial agreement that the Army required vendors to sign is far from ordinary. It compels them to share sensitive details about their products with each other to make sure they are interoperable with each other.
DRS Technologies and BAE Systems were each awarded contracts to produce both ENVG III and FWS-I systems. Both vendors are to produce sights during the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the program, said Lt. Col. Timothy Fuller, product manager for soldier maneuver sensors. The systems will be used for “developmental testing during EMD.”
FWS-I systems, additionally, may be produced for the follow-on “production qualification testing” in 2016. After these tests, the companies would compete for low-rate initial production orders. For ENVG systems, both suppliers are expected to deliver systems for production qualification testing, which is ongoing, Fuller told National Defense in an email.
“The real possibility exists that a soldier could employ an FWS-I from one vendor and expect it to work with the other vendor’s ENVG,” he said. The Army project manager for soldier sensors and lasers, DRS and BAE officials have “worked hard to make that a reality while being careful not to divulge any inherently proprietary information.”
Cross-vendor interoperability “certainly adds a layer of complexity,” Fuller noted. The Army believes this was essential for the program to succeed, he added, “because it will ultimately alleviate potential problems down the road for soldiers” when they take the equipment to the battlefield.
DRS officials called this approach unprecedented in a military acquisition program. “It’s an interesting process to go through, we haven’t seen it before,” said DRS Technologies vice president Shawn Black. “It’s a forced a level of interaction between competing primes that we haven’t seen historically.”
From an initial pool of five competitors, DRS and BAE were selected in 2014 over Raytheon, L-3 and ITT Exelis. DRS is working under a five-year $367m contract, and BAE under a five-year $434m deal. The companies have been longtime competitors in the night vision and broader military electronics industry. Both are gunning for big FWS-I and ENVG orders.
The goggle is ready for production but the sight is lagging two years behind. Before the Army makes large purchases of either system, program officials want to be certain that a DRS goggle works with a BAE sight, and a DRS sight works with a BAE goggle.
“The Army program executive officer does