Heat and light are silent allies for U.S. forces

Night-vision goggles, thermal imagery help to hunt down Taliban

Army motto: `We own the night'

War On Terrorism

November 12, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Deep within Afghanistan, the U.S. military is making use of two silent but stalwart allies: heat and light.

Special-operations soldiers raid a Taliban leadership compound outside Kandahar in darkness, wearing night-vision goggles, their rifles equipped with thermal sights. The Army's latest portable targeting systems, resembling large video cameras on tripods and able to detect an enemy several miles away, have been dispatched to this front.

In the skies above the embattled country, sophisticated MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, heavily armed AC-130 gunships and, more recently, high-flying drone aircraft are joining the fight. They are laden with sensors that can pick up the heat of a body or idling truck against a cold landscape. Meanwhile, an Air Force F-16 warplane swoops in at night for low-level attacks, a heat-seeking pod under the engine searching for targets.

The armed services, meanwhile, are asking industry to accelerate all sorts of defense programs, including more sophisticated sensors that can help in the fight in Afghanistan and on future fronts in the war on terrorism.

"We are working very hard to find capabilities that are useful," said one senior Air Force official, who has about 200 programs under his supervision. "We are leaving no stone unturned."

`A key part of the arsenal'

John Pike, an analyst with globalsecurity.org, a defense think tank in Alexandria, Va., said the United States, unlike most other countries, can conduct operations "around the clock" through its night-vision equipment and thermal sensors. But it's easier to explain how these tools work than to determine how useful they will turn out to be, Pike said.

"If [an enemy] is out in the boondocks, thermal could pick them up," said Pike. "If some guys are hiding in the back of a tunnel, they might be hard to detect under any circumstances."

But the Air Force official said the thermal sensors "are pretty sensitive" and are proving useful in the bombing of Taliban and terrorist targets. "They're a key part of the arsenal," he said.

Among the latest thermal tools dispatched to Afghanistan is the Global Hawk, a 44-foot-long drone that is making its combat debut. It can fly higher than 65,000 feet and is equipped with a variety of sensors, including infrared devices that can relay real-time pictures of potential targets to commanders.

Defense officials said Global Hawk and other aircraft can detect heat rising from cave entrances and ventilation shafts, one of the ways that war planners hope to find the enemy's subterranean lairs. Last week at the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem said Navy warplanes were attacking a number of caves.

"These are caves that, through intelligence sources, we would believe have been or would be used by al-Qaida and Taliban forces," he said.

The Army, for its part, is sending its newest night-vision and thermal equipment into the field.

Three weeks ago, special-operations forces, dropped into southern Afghanistan by parachute and helicopter, attacked two sites near Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold and spiritual center.

In green and grainy footage released by the Pentagon, U.S. soldiers could be seen crouched at a Taliban command center, night-vision goggles attached to their helmets. Boxy thermal sights on their M-4 rifles can display an enemy soldier as a dark outline against a milky-white background.

"We own the night; that's the Army's motto," said an Army official, boasting that an enemy should be wary of a special-operations soldier with night-vision equipment and a thermal sight. "You're not safe at distances up to a mile."

The special-operations soldiers were provided with the latest night sight for their rifles last year. While the previous sight worked in starlight, the newest version can detect a target in very low, overcast starlight.

An Army general who took part in the 1989 operation in Panama said starlight sights and night-vision goggles can mean the difference between life and death. After parachuting into Panama, he saw enemy soldiers through his night-vision goggles.

"I ran into two guys and I whacked them," he recalled. "I could see them looking for me. They didn't know where I was."

Improved capabilities

The Pentagon knows the importance of improved fighting at night. As a result of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, the $300 million budget for night-vision and other surveillance systems is expected to increase by 50 percent, the Army official said. Most of the money would buy additional equipment, while the rest would be spent for research and development.

"The interest in our equipment and the money to support it has gone way up," the Army official said.

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