Military vs. Civilian Tech: Debunking Night Vision Classifications

by Greg Pearson

The use of night vision technology has been around since the beginning of World War II. Back in those days, it was pretty much limited to prototypical testing purposes by the most elite of military forces, and the technology used was pretty poor compared to today’s level of available technology. However, as the technology has improved and subsequently became somewhat less expensive and produced more, it became used more by both the militaries around the world and civilians who could afford it. But during the roughly 70 years since its conception, night vision has taken on different generational name for each era before each major technological renovation . . .

For instance, the first generation (aptly named Generation I) describes the models of night vision that utilize the technology that was available from the beginning of World War II through the end of the Korean War. This generation of night vision is obviously the least advanced in terms of technology, and thus requires an ample amount of ambient light, some needing the equivalent of the light from a full moon. The images produced were quite grainy and had a fairly short range.

Generation II included the technology developed from about midway through the Vietnam War until the late 1980’s. Gen II included the use of an additional plate in the night vision tube that allowed for a brighter clearer image compared to Gen. I. The second generation allowed to the optional use of an attachable infrared light emitter. The light emitted is invisible to the naked human eye, but would act as a flashlight for night vision.

Generation III is characterized by the technology used from about 1990 through about 2010. Gen III included an additional plate gallium-aresenide — a quite expensive process to make — and thus increases the price of production. The payoff however is unrivaled clarity, responsiveness and range. This is the current technology employed by many militaries throughout the world.

There’s also a fourth generation in existence, but Gen IV is still being developed and is in the experimental stage. It actually removes the added plate in Gen. II models so that only the gallium-arsenide plate is active. The result so far has been an almost unimaginable reduction in graininess which allows for the image to effectively be magnified, allowing for absolutely incredible range.

Despite the different generations of night vision gear, all of the generational technologies are still in production, mostly for cost reasons. However, due to the extreme technological differences and improved qualities and benefits of the latest technologies, there are standards which much be adhered to for use in many military applications. For instance, the United States military requires that all night vision equipment that’s to be used in the field must be of Generation III (or higher as Generation IV becomes more available).

With the restrictions on the type of night vision used for the military, there arises a question as to why are the previous generational technologies still used and produced. The simplest answer is cost. Whatever the cost, the military wants the latest and greatest in order to obtain the best possible night vision capabilities. But the average cost for a single set of Generation III goggles is around $3000.

While that may be fine for governments that can print their own money, the average individual wishing to purchase their own gear usually can’t afford the steep price. As such, they can choose the cheaper, less effective Generation I and II technology models that are still out there in production, with average costs around $300 for Gen I and $1000 for Gen II equipment.

Of course, civilians can purchase any generation of night vision as long as they are willing to pay the price. They’re all made by private companies that will sell to anyone. The only reason why some night vision models are considered ‘military grade’ is because most militaries have the image/range quality requirements that can only be met by Gen III models. Which is why it’s generally accepted that Gen I and II are considered civilian technology while Generation III (and newer) are considered military.

Craig Pearson is an avid hunter, outdoorsman, and adventurist. His main passions are hog hunting in Texas and writing about his many adventures. He currently blogs for nightvision4less.com, a supplier of high quality night vision equipment.

12 Responses to Military vs. Civilian Tech: Debunking Night Vision Classifications

  1. avatarMichael says:

    I think the video is fake.

    No way horses actually eat at night. They’d be asleep, right?

  2. avatarThomas Paine says:

    after watching those hog hunters with infrared way back, i thought infrared was the way to go, especially with a scope.

  3. avatarChris Dumm says:

    From my own playing with and owning Gen I NVDs, I’d describe them as not much better than toys. For their dramatic increase in cost, I would certainly hope that Gen 2 devices are vastly more useful.

  4. avatarHuman Being says:

    So is that video Gen II or Gen III?

  5. avatarAlphaGeek says:

    In what way is this “debunking” anything? It demystifies and enlightens (heh) for sure, but debunking implies that there is some deliberately perpetrated falsehood which must be torn down.

    Also: Gen-III optics have a very low WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) given the number of actual yearly hours of use they’d get in my household, which makes me sad. Even worse, here in CA I can’t mount a night-vision optic (magnified or not) onto a firearm and use it to take predators under low-light conditions.

  6. Um, I don’t even know where to begin…

    The .mil started buying Gen III (GaAs photocathodes) in the mid 80′s. The US Navy had Gen III aviation goggles and associated specs and procedures as early at 1986, the USAF didn’t really get into the game until about 89.

    Gen III units utilize a GaAs photocathode instead of a multialkalai (S20) photocathode. The primary problem with GaAs is that the active layer gets poisoned over time by ions which outgas from the tube (these are all vacuum tubes) to prevent the decay of the photocathode manufacturers added an ion barrier to the multi-channel plate (MCP).

    The US has two NVG tube manufacturers left. Like the rest of the defense industry, there was massive consolidation and buyouts during the early to mid 90′s.
    Lots of folks make goggles, but the I-squared tubes only come from a handful of manufacturers.

    When the last two US manufacturers came up with unfilmed (no ion barrier) tubes with improved power supplied they tried to get these declared Gen IV, but the US army balked stating that it was not a big enough improvement to constitute a new generation.

    Currently only L-3 (the same guys who own Eotech) makes these unfilmed tubes. ITT (the other US manufacturer) only builds Gen III. All Gen I and Gen II is now imported. In fairness some of the new Gen II tubes being built by Photonis/DEP easily rival or surpass the early Gen III stuff.

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