“We own the night” has been an Army mantra for decades. It is also growing increasingly less true. Despite the current ubiquity of night-vision and thermal imagers, the Army has failed to adequately codify its night-fighting doctrine and remains overly reliant on technological advantage, which it wielded for nearly two decades of counterinsurgency operations against a poorly equipped enemy but which is steadily disappearing. Even as late as 2017, elite units like the 75th Ranger Regiment have failed to recognize friendly signals at night, resulting in tragedy. Though the Army may have owned the night for decades, the pressing reality of large-scale combat operations against a similarly equipped force means it cannot expect to continue that dominance without a major effort to codify its night-fighting doctrine, reduce the signature of soldiers operating at night, and re-examine its overreliance on night dominance at the combat training centers.
The Seductiveness of “Owning the Night”
Night operations have historically been a valuable but niche capability units employed to gain a temporary tactical advantage. At the end of the Second World War, all major belligerents began experimenting with infrared light sources to improve vehicle mobility and provide an enhanced night targeting capability for key weapons systems. In the Korean War, the Army faced adept North Korean and Chinese opponents, leading the service to develop an expanded night operations doctrine. In 1954, Field Manual 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations devoted considerable attention to night combat, discussing tactical and technical strengths and weaknesses of night operations, as well as special considerations for attack and defense.
In the late Vietnam War era, the Army began fielding first generation starlight optics (AN/PVS-1 and -2) to provide ground forces with an enhanced ability to counter the Viet Cong’s aptitude for night infiltration. During the following decades, night vision proliferated to the lowest tactical level, so that, by the late 1970s, the Army could observe that “among the technological races the US Army must run and win against potential enemies, few will have higher combat payoff than an edge in night-fighting capability.” By the early 1990s, the Army’s enthusiastic embrace of new technology led one concerned infantry officer to note that “the current doctrinal thrust is to treat darkness as the nearly exclusive medium in which we conduct operations.”
While US forces operated at night with near impunity during the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential enemies have rapidly closed the technological gap. The Russian PN21K monocular bears a striking resemblance to the US-made AN/PVS-14 and boasts similar capabilities. Having experimented with night-vision and thermal optics for infantrymen since the Cold War, Russian forces now field highly capable systems in large numbers and have re-emphasized large-scale night exercises. Likewise, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army trains extensively for night combat, while Chinese industry regularly produces reverse-engineered night-vision and thermal imaging devices that rival the capabilities of similar Western devices. In any future conflict with a peer or near-peer opponent, the Army must expect to face an adversary force with an equal ability to operate at night. Infantry leaders need to ensure this reality is glaringly apparent in their tactical training scenarios and impose costs for neglecting it to drive lessons learned.
A near-peer adversary is not the only concern. Commercial technology has proliferated a host of near-military-grade infrared and thermal devices that could be used by insurgents, in addition to night-vision equipment raided from US technology transfers. The United States has already been forced to contend with this issue as reports of Russian-made systems and pilfered US systems used by Taliban Red Unit members continue to stream in. Whether the Army’s next conflict involves large-scale combat operations against a peer or counterinsurgency operations against a nonstate force, US tactics must come to grips with the fact that the technological gap has been closed.
The technological advantage these devices provided over the nearly two decades of warfare has proven both overwhelming and seductive. Night operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have had the unique advantage of nearly total situational awareness, with an unsurpassed ability for soldiers to distinguish friend from foe and with overhead manned and unmanned platforms able to rapidly identify the edges of friendly battlespace. Fighting an enemy with limited or no night-vision enhancement has atrophied doctrine and tactical development. In an era when even insurgent forces can employ these devices and peer adversaries carry them as standard equipment, the Army has neglected to adequately incorporate the technology into modern tactics.
The Problem Today
For an anecdotal assessment, infantry unit commanders today should consider how often they conduct night rifle qualification compared to the standard daylight qualification table. Likewise, despite a longstanding recognition that night operations are tactically inherently different, day and night live fire exercises are carbon copies of each other. They should consider how often they conduct night and day operations, respectively, during rotations at the combat training centers or during other large exercises. Army doctrine demonstrates a profound lack of attention to employing night vision technology against a peer opponent. In fact, Field Manual 21-60, Visual Signals was not updated from its 1987 publication until 2017, and the new visual signals manual, Training Circular 3-21.60, includes no doctrine regarding the use of infrared or thermal signaling for night operations. In fact, the only reference is to strobes and states that soldiers should reduce signature by placing the strobe in a hole so it is only viewable by aircraft. Despite this, many units field a wide range of soldier-mounted systems.
Army Techniques Publication 3-21.8, Infantry Platoon and Squad devotes two pages (out of 826 total) to operations under limited visibility. It makes only passing references to the ability of night-vision devices to be used in conjunction with target designators, aiming lights, and target illuminators. The manual includes no recommendations as to how leaders should incorporate signals to identify friend or foe. It largely avoids discussing peer opponents, though it ends with a telling note: “If the enemy is equipped with night vision devices, leaders must evaluate the risk of using each technique and ensure the mission is not compromised by the enemy’s ability to detect infrared light sources.” The Army must assume that any enemy it faces in the future will field a night vision–capable force. Future revisions of ATP 3-21.8 should embrace that challenge and use it as the foundation of a more robust night-fighting doctrine, rather than relegating it to a cautionary footnote.
Though infrared strobes are not usually included in an infantry unit’s modified table of organization and equipment, individual soldiers have purchased them at a rapid rate to ensure friendly-force situational awareness. During the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the ubiquity of Army attack aviation and close air support, identification from the air provided a rapid way of determining a unit’s front line to distinguish friend from foe. Facing off against a near-peer adversary, however, negates this advantage. With a proliferation of anti-access/area denial systems, close air support availability evaporates as fixed-wing aircraft can no longer linger over a battlespace and will be diverted to deep-strike operations. Likewise, while insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan had limited man-portable air defense systems, near-peer adversaries engaged with US forces will field them as standardized equipment, creating a substantial threat to attack aviation assets. All of this combines to create a situation where infantry units on the ground engaged in close combat can expect little, if any, air support. Despite this, many soldiers leave strobes on continuously during operations to maintain accountability, which in virtually any future conflict scenario would only serve to alert enemy ground and aviation units to their location. Instead, it should be doctrinally dictated that strobes are only activated when air superiority is achieved and final coordination for incoming ordinance is occurring.
Infrared flashes from an AN/PVS-14 are similarly used as signaling devices for ground units to gain the attention of fellow soldiers. This signaling method similarly puts friendly forces at risk of being detected by enemy ground and aviation elements. Night operations conducted with night-vision devices give the false impression that units can operate with the same dispersion possible during daylight, only to falter when elements lose contact with one another, triggering a host of infrared signaling efforts. In fact, the Ranger Handbook states, “While navigating during limited visibility, the unit uses the same techniques as in daylight, but leaders exercise more care to keep the patrol oriented,” and only references reducing intervals once as a precaution. The Ranger Handbook also notes that leaders might use infrared equipment as signaling devices, but makes no recommendations for how to use them or any mention of the potential for enemy compromise.
The Army has transitioned through several variations of night-vision devices and is now moving beyond third-generation systems with the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle – Binocular. Despite beginning to field night-vision devices widely across the Army with the AN/PVS-7 in 1987 and a proliferation of vehicle-mounted thermal imaging devices that gave an overwhelming advantage during the Gulf War, over thirty years of persistent training and combat operations at night have yielded no fruitful doctrine determining their employment. The technology continues to advance without the corresponding doctrinal refinement that would solidify tactical advantage. As a result, standardization of their employment and the nonverbal communication they enable during night operations are determined at the individual unit level, causing confusion between units looking to coordinate.
Even during the Army’s honeymoon with night vision during the 1990s, approximately 70 percent of night attacks conducted at the National Training Center (NTC) failed, and the situation has not improved. The trend of underestimating enemy night capabilities now regularly manifests itself at the combat training centers. In a recent NTC rotation, one unit sought to mask the displacement of its command post by moving under cover of darkness, a choice that actually made it easier for the night vision–equipped opposing force (OPFOR) to target it. The annual NTC Observations Analysis notes that “the training unit failed to recognize that in a decisive action (DA) rotation fighting a peer enemy with the same, if not better, capabilities as their own, it is much easier to spot a moving target than a stationary target with monocular night vision.”
Despite the difficulties of night operations against a peer adversary, the overwhelming majority of commanders continue to opt for night attacks at the combat training centers. One current field-grade observer controller at the Joint Readiness Training Center observed to the authors that, in fifteen rotations, he has never seen a unit choose to conduct a major daytime operation, though most struggle mightily at night anyway. Such an inflexible preference for night operations would have mystified commanders only a few generations ago.
Recommendations for the Future
Several concrete steps would help to rectify these problems. First, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) must produce a revised edition of its Visual Signals training circular that incorporates at least two additional chapters. TRADOC should codify signaling during hours of limited visibility, incorporating nonverbal, infrared signaling methods and putting a premium on reducing a unit’s signature. A chapter should also cover nonverbal thermal signals and markings. What is old is new again: morse code, for example, has not been a standard communication medium for decades but can easily transmit messages through infrared signaling without radio transmissions susceptible to enemy direction finding. Similarly, TRADOC should significantly expand the limited visibility section in the Infantry Platoon and Squad manual to drive home the reality of night operations against a peer opponent.
Second, the Army’s future publications should emphasize signature reduction as the cornerstone of its night-fighting doctrine. Signature reduction could be accomplished by fielding new technologies that reduce the Army’s traditional reliance on aiming devices that actively emit and betray a soldier’s position, as well as a move to adopt technology to mask the thermal signature of individual soldiers.
The Army relies primarily on laser aiming devices like the AN/PEQ-15 to provide infantrymen with the ability to designate and engage targets with the help of an infrared laser. Against a peer opponent, however, a laser not only illuminates a target, but also functions as a beacon of light that provides an infrared-visible back azimuth to the firer’s position that any opponent equipped with night vision can see and target. At the most fundamental and immediate level, infantry squads, platoons, and companies must stress the importance of laser manipulation and sparing use of aiming aids in frequent night qualifications and live-fire scenarios. Soldiers must understand that though laser aiming devices could generally be employed with impunity in Iraq and Afghanistan, future opponents will exploit the careless use of such devices.
New technology developed under the Army’s soldier lethality modernization program may provide a key means of signature reduction. The Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), currently in the testing phase, promises to provide a multifunction system that allows soldiers to employ night vision, thermal sensors, and aided target recognition. Similarly, the Army’s Family of Weapon Sights – Individual (FWS-I), also in testing, allows the soldier’s weapon sight to link wirelessly to night-vision goggles. This technology, though untested at large scale, may allow soldiers to accurately engage by using a synthetic weapons sight projected on their night-vision devices. Until technologies like IVAS and FWS-I have been widely proven, the Army should not embrace them as a panacea for signature reduction—enforcing better tactics and night training will remain critical regardless of the success or failure of novel technology. But Army Futures Command should continue to champion these new systems for their potential to restore the Army’s night-fighting edge.
Insurgent groups have had to contend with persistent surveillance by unmanned aircraft systems for decades and have adopted novel techniques for reducing individual thermal signature, including construction of “thermal cloaks” made of camouflaged material and lined with insulation that traps the wearer’s body heat. While these methods cannot make the wearer invisible to thermal detection, they can notably reduce individual thermal signature when employed properly, making it more difficult for a scanning sensor to identify an individual as a dismounted target. In essence, a thermal cloak would function in the same manner as the Ultra-Lightweight Camouflage Net System, currently fielded to mask vehicle signatures, though a version for the infantry would have to be made lighter and much more easily deployable for individual soldiers.
Consider, for a moment, the potential effect a suicide drone swarm of the sort seen in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would have on a dismounted rifle company. While the company might feel insulated and secure as it moves under cover of darkness, a swarm of relatively inexpensive suicide drones with electro-optical targeting would find such a target irresistible and easily targetable by identifying thermal or beacon strobe patterns. Thermal cloaking carries drawbacks—for one, cloaks could not be worn for long periods without overheating a soldier and degrading performance—and may ultimately prove impractical, but the Army should seriously consider means of improving the survivability of individual infantrymen against these new and proliferating threats. The threat from small unmanned aircraft is here to stay, and its danger, particularly when coupled with pattern-matching artificial intelligence, will continue to grow. The development of mobile launch systems for drones should convince skeptics that signature reduction will be key to avoiding the fate of Armenian infantry, particularly once target acquisition becomes autonomous with man-out-of-the-loop systems.
Perhaps most importantly, the Army’s combat training centers must continue to stress that the OPFOR enjoys a level playing field in night operations. The Combat Training Center Directorate must ensure that units’ mettle is tested sufficiently at night against a peer OPFOR. The Army should prioritize fielding the latest night-vision and thermal optics to OPFOR units to reinforce this challenge. Moreover, rotational units should embrace the reality that friendly forces may well operate at a distinct disadvantage at night compared to a well-equipped OPFOR with intimate knowledge of the local terrain.
Historically, night operations were often undertaken to seize the initiative with an audacious attack against a less-prepared foe. Currently, anecdotal experience at combat training centers demonstrates that commanders overwhelmingly opt for night operations. While there is undoubtedly merit to practicing large-scale night operations in the bloodless environment of a combat training centers, history indicates that the conditions represented by a capable, peer OPFOR with superior knowledge of the terrain may call for a far more equal distribution of day and night operations. In short, commanders must not feel compelled to select a night operation as the unerringly “correct” choice but should only do so if battlefield circumstances suggest a night operation will succeed where a day operation may fail.
Changing doctrine this drastically, against nearly two decades of infrared spectrum and night operational dominance, will be difficult. Consider that those selected for the upcoming Battalion Command Assessment Program this year are from year group 2004; these officers’ entire careers have been overwhelmingly focused on counterinsurgency operations with dominance during night fighting, without even the combined-arms fight of OIF I to draw upon. The operational experience of all those serving under them, likewise, has also been principally in an environment where the United States held the definitive technological edge. Brigade commanders are similarly hamstrung by these experience constraints, with at best, platoon leadership experience before 9/11. With nearly the entire force structure available to divisions without pre-9/11 experiences to draw upon, the transition to conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary equipped with a night-fighting capability equal to our own will be challenging. But the Army must shake off years of tactical stagnation if it is to succeed in these future conflicts.
Capt. Jon Tishman is a team leader with the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade based at Fort Carson, Colorado. Jon commissioned from the Virginia Military Institute as an infantry officer in 2008 and deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Capt. Dan Schoen is an operations advisor with the 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Carson, Colorado. Dan commissioned as an infantry officer in 2014 after graduating from Augustana College and the University of Chicago. He deployed to Iraq in 2017–2018.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Steven Hitchcock, US Army