Night vision

A Squad Binocular Night Vision Goggle with a clip-on thermal imager sold by Elbit Systems of America and manufactured in Roanoke County. The Marines ordered up to 14,000 units over the next five years.

The night vision goggle plant in Roanoke County marked 60 years in the business this year with a new $249 million contract for its top-of-the-line battlefield binoculars.

The new contract is driving up employment at the plant on Plantation Road, which currently employs 510 people and has a new owner.

Elbit Systems of America, which bought the plant in September, has 20 job openings for positions in production, testing, maintenance, engineering, sales and supply chain, according to spokeswoman Amber Cannaday. Applicants are asked to apply through the company website.

The hiring will support a large order for the Squad Binocular Night Vision Goggle, which depicts night scenes and other low-light situations in white instead of green. The white image looks “like an old black-and-white television set” and is clearer and crisper than the green that defined night-vision viewing for decades, according to Erik Fox, general manager of the plant.

The Marines want to swap out their green-tinted goggles for the white version and contracted for them with Elbit. The contract is for up to 14,000 units over five years for $249 million, a price that includes parts and training. The factory, which spans nearly 250,000 square feet, will deliver the first batch of more than 1,000 units in spring.

Elbit Systems of America, part of an Israeli defense contractor, bought the factory from Harris Corp., its owner for about four years. Harris got out of the night vision business to comply with anti-trust conditions of a merger with a top competitor.

Elbit, whose U.S. office is in Fort Worth, Texas, called the addition of the Roanoke County night vision business to its existing lines of defense and aerospace products “a game changer.” The company expects to expand its offerings to aviators by incorporating more night vision and applying its existing technology designed for aviators to battlefield applications. Augmented reality is one possibility.

Consider a mapping application like the ones civilians use on smart phones, but enhanced for war. “Instead of looking down at your phone, you have that map built into your visual device, in our case a night vision goggle. You can see compass heading. If you’ve identified a point of interest that you want to get to—on your phone it might be Starbucks, but for a soldier it might be an enemy position you want to get to—it’s marked and it would guide you,” he said.

The Army this spring placed a $15 million order for the plant’s enhanced night vision goggle with augmented reality, Fox said.

Image intensification, the technology behind night vision, collects particles of light, converts them to electrons, multiplies the electrons and converts the electrons back to light. A small amount of incoming light yields what Fox called a “bright image to the soldier or the Marine.”

ITT opened the Roanoke County plant to develop that technology with 54 employees in 1959 and prospered by bringing out improved generations over the years. In 1991, a four-star Army general declared that the U.S. could not have won the Persian Gulf War without the night vision equipment made in Roanoke County.

By 2009, the business had grown to 1,525 employees in Roanoke County. Two years later, ITT spun off the business, which continued as Excelis. Excelis sold it to Harris in 2015.

Harris merged with defense contractor L3 Technologies in mid-2019 and continues as a Florida-based aerospace and defense technology contractor but was required to sell its night vision business. That way, the merged company—L3 has its own night vision business—wouldn’t be able to monopolize the night vision market.

Without divestiture, the U.S. military would have been left without a competitive domestic alternative for a critical item it buys in large numbers, according to a court filing by anti-trust lawyers at the Department of Justice. The Department of Defense buys only domestic night vision gear, the filing said.

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