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Forward to the point: the key to winning a ground engagement is to be found in the accurate placement of devastating firepower. Whether this firepower comes from artillery or from air strikes is arguably immaterial, what is vital is that it destroys the intended target rapidly, on first strike with minimal collateral damage and risk to friendly forces.


The importance of fire accuracy has caused the role of the forward observer to dramatically increase in significance over the last century. Part of the reason being that as artillery has increased in range and accuracy, so the gunners have moved further away from each other. The old European and colonial battlefields where cannon fire would engage the enemy in relatively close quarters, often in visual range, have disappeared and from 1911 military aircraft began to appear en masse in the skies. This has made the forward observers' role ever more important, as they have become the eyes of the gunners, issuing their targets and correcting their fires, hunkered down near the front line in visual contact with the enemy.

Accompanying these tactical changes has been the parallel development of forward observer systems, which have grown in sophistication and complexity as laser and location technologies have evolved. The relatively simple laser ranging and pointing devices of the 1960s have been augmented with satellite positioning devices, goniometers to measure angles of elevation, and even datalink systems to allow co-ordinates to be transmitted to close air support aircraft or to other ground units via battlefield management networks.

The Job

In Afghanistan, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (Jtac) played a vital role during the high-intensity aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom. particularly during the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. during which their calls for fire devastated Taliban and Al-Qaeda positions. In the words of one senior Royal Air Force pilot who was working in the Combined Air Operations Centre in Saudi Arabia during these particular clashes, it was the Jtacs who 'bought home the bacon' and allowed Coalition air power to engage the enemy.

The success of the Jtac and their decisive effects has caused the United States Army to look afresh at the role of the forward observer. As the Army develops its so-called Future Force Warrior programme it is also enhancing the forward observer's importance--so much so that it is considering the inculcation of observer skills to be of equal importance to basic marksmanship and is investing in training procedures and technology accordingly. Every soldier joining the US Army will now be instructed in foundation forward observer skills such as performing a basic call for fire. In addition, specialist fire support soldiers will be trained to perform indirect fire calls, while so-called 'universal observers' will be tasked with close air support and indirect call for fire.

The need to train all troops to be able to perform basic calls for fire makes sense. If the war against terror has illustrated anything then it has been the demise of the linear battlefield. This is not surprising, as campaigns against guerrilla movements are rarely characterised by fixed positions of troops and frontlines, but this demise brings its own attendant problems, according to Roar Langen, Executive Vice President for Sales and Marketing at Simrad Optronics. He argues that today forward observer skills and technology is especially crucial, <<Because in the early days you had the Flot--the Forward Line of Own Troops--and the enemy was on the other side and your own guys were on this side and now they are all mixed up. All of these things require you to have the exact position of your target>>.


Therefore, technology has had to grow in sophistication and versatility. Today's forward observers not only perform calls for fire. They may also be gathering intelligence on enemy positions and movements and then transmitting this information to headquarters to generate a database of targets that can be prioritised. They will also be acquiring 'time-sensitive targets' like the fast-moving jeep of a retreating guerrilla commander that needs to be struck immediately before it gets over the border and out of the rules of engagement norms. The system that the forward observer is using must be able to acquire and transmit these targets at high speed with little or no fuss. Moreover, after the strike the observer will need to perform battle damage assessment to give an accurate picture of the effects of the artillery or air support. The equipment must also be rugged and portable, particularly if the forward observer is operating in harsh terrain or weather. Crucially, according to Kostas Tigkos, an analyst with Documental Solutions, modern forward observer systems can't have enough versatility because, <<A lot of these systems will be used to either designate land-based artillery or Joint Direct Attack Munitions (Jdam) and Paveway aircraft-delivered bombs.>>


The modern forward observer system must operate in all weathers, day and night, to provide fire solutions for both ground-based artillery and air-delivered bombs, be portable and be able to transmit this information to other users. It is the link between the target and the commander's intent--and to assist them a host of systems are on the market that vary greatly in cost and sophistication.

The Tools

The Astroscope 9350Niks-3 Pro from Electrophysics is a low-cost gen-3 image intensification system that mounts onto a Nikon (or Canon) SLR camera or a camcorder enabling the user to perform night-vision photography or filming. The Astroscope uses the camera as its power source, needs no additional focusing and all camera functions including image stabilisation are retained. It is a small, highly versatile system, but while it gives a means to photograph or film in the very low-light situations, it does not provide range-to-target information or have a laser designation function. Nevertheless, it is a useful addition to the forward observer's toolkit for performing nighttime reconnaissance.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Atlas-LT and Atlas-Pro tripod-based systems from Azimuth Technologies of Israel. The design is a mature tripod-based system that includes an integrated mission computer and goniometer, electronic compass, a data modem that can connect with any available tactical radio system and a GPS. Over 2000 of these systems have been built and they equip several Nato forces and the Tsva HaHagana Le Yisrael (Israel Defense Force). The Atlas-Pro is a third-generation system that takes the previous Atlas-LT system forward and includes electronic northing and levelling, the ability to transfer video, text and voice messages and a GPS. The Atlas-Pro is also able to accommodate the customer's preferred electro-optical sensors, such as thermal imaging binoculars for example.


Using the Atlas-Pro's cellular phone-style keyboard, the forward observer can view his call for fire data on a screen along with maps showing friendly and enemy force positions. The keyboard allows the observer to enter corrections to a fire solution or to add messages and text as an accompaniment to a call for fire. The system is controlled using the keyboard menus and information can be transmitted using a rapid, digital 'burst' via the modem. This same modem can also be used to transmit voice.

In 2002 Flir Systems won a contract from Simrad Optronics to provide the thermal imaging module for the forward observer 1-2000 system that was being designed to Norwegian and Swedish Army requirements. Flir Systems provided thermal imaging components to the Scandinavian system, which also includes a gyroscopic compass, laser rangefinder, GPS and goniometer. Flir Systems' thermal imager can be mounted on a tripod or hand-held.


Flir Systems also builds the See Spot-III thermal imaging camera that allows the user to see a laser beam being projected onto a target. The benefits of this according to David Strong, the company's Vice President of Marketing, are clear, <<The See Spot-III [...] gives the user very, very positive control over where that laser spot is. Is that laser spot actually on the target that I expect?>>

In developing the forward observer system for the Norwegian and Swedish armies, Flir Systems contracted Kepin to provide the VGA-resolution cyber display 640M modules for the infrared display on the thermal imaging system. The 640M module gathers the images from the thermal system and presents them on a liquid crystal display. The advantage here is the clarity of the image, which sharpens the forward observer's accuracy and comprehension.

B. E. Meyers of Washington State builds the Izlid- 100P infrared pointer and illuminator system.The Izlid-100P can be used either as a stand-alone system, integrated onto thermal imaging binoculars or tripod-mounted forward. The Izlid-100P can paint a target at distances out to five kilometres.

The French Armee de Terre is currently equipping itself with 850 Jim LR thermal imaging and laser range-finding binoculars following a contract award to Sagem in January 2006 for over 3000 units. The 850 Jim LR binoculars include a compass giving the soldier a handy, portable forward observer targeting system. The contract includes the binoculars and accompanying equipment to allow the broadcast of video footage from the binoculars, and optical accessories to increase the forward observer's field-of-view and also a tripod mount. The company believes that the 850 Jim LR will fit perfectly with its Fe1in (Fantassin a Equipements et Liaisons Integres--Future Soldier Infantry System) system, currently being fielded by the French Army.

Roar Langen of Norway's Simrad Optronics notes that the company has been involved with laser rangefinders, 'since the late nineteen-sixties. <<We built the LP7 from 1967 in huge numbers and licensed production in large numbers and it was one of the first and one of the best laser rangefinders. The system is still in use in some parts of the world. We still get orders for parts as it was delivered in the late sixties, early seventies and also through the nineteen-eighties. The systems have been in operation for around 37 years. The LP7 was a hand-held laser rangefinder. What we did was we mounted that onto a goniometer and a tripod to make it into a forward observer system. The LP7 was a daylight-only system, but that was in the early days.>>


In 2002 Simrad began developing the LP10 Target Locator, which, according to Roar Langen, << Has an embedded computer, and on your left eye piece it has a thermal imager and on your right it has the eye piece that you actually see through. So in your head you have a kind of 'sensor fusion'. Through your left eye you see the thermal image presented on a small display. On your right eye piece you see the optic channel.>> A laser rangefinder, digital compass, GPS system and computer are included in the LP10. By using the LP10 the forward observer is able to obtain all of their targeting and fire-correction co-ordinates. Moreover, the system can also be connected to external accessories such as a data communication systems or an external power source. An external GPS can also be connected to the LP10. Official company literature says that the LP10 can give ten-digit grid co-ordinates at distances up to 20 km.


Along with the Flir Systems See Spot-III thermal imaging camera, the LP10 is a component of the forward observerI-2000 system, along with the Diehl Mk 11-7 north-finding gyrocompass and Vectronix Gonio Light electronic goniometer. The LP10 is also being evaluated by the US Army. The 11th Air Cavalry Regiment has put 22 systems through a series of sand and moisture tests.

Forward observers and their equipment have been in the news in the United Kingdom in early 2008, not only because it was revealed that Prince Harry, third in line of succession to the British and Commonwealth throne, has been working as a Jtac in Afghanistan, but also because Thales UK won a contract from the British Ministry of Defence worth 30 million [pounds] for a new surveillance system and rangefinder. The solution is the Joint Targeting Acquisition System. This can provide laser range-finding for targets out to five kilometres, GPS and thermal imaging. Service entry for the Jtas is scheduled for 2009.

Switzerland is home to Vectronix, which builds a variety of forward observer systems including the Vector family of binocular laser rangefinders. Launched in 1992, this product series includes an eye-safe laser rangefinder, digital compass and inclinometer. This family of binoculars has proved popular with the US Army, Marine Corps, Navy and the US Special Operations Command.

Like Sagem, Vectronix is also furnishing the French Army and won a contract in 2005 to provide Vector-21 eye-safe laser range-finding binoculars with a ten-kilometre range. The French Army has purchased around 1800 Vector-IV systems that are used for infantry observation tasks. Meanwhile, the armed forces of Latvia have purchased 20 Vector-IV Nite and ten Vector-21 Nite systems for night-time forward observer operations, which were delivered between December 2006 and April 2007. The principle difference between the Vector -IV and Vector -21 systems and the Vector-IV Nite and Vector-21 Nite products (see cover) is that they include an autogated image-intensifier tube which can be activated at the flick of a switch. The Vector-1500, -IV and -21 products weigh 1.7 kg and offer a range in excess of one, four and eight kilometres respectively. Meanwhile, the 1.8-kg Vector-23 can provide x7 magnification out to 20 km.


One of the company's latest products is the Moskito hand-held target acquisition system. This product has been through trials with a number of armed forces, which has provided Vectronix with important feedback on modifications to the product. For instance, following field trials Vectronix introduced a dot-matrix eye display to ensure clarity and also to reduce the risk of image misinterpretation. A shoulder strap was also fitted so the Moskito did not impede the soldier's agility, along with a shutter to prevent light damaging the image intensifier tube, thus prolonging the system's life.

According to Kurt Hegetschweiler, Marketing Communications Manager at Vectronix, one of the most challenging aspects of the forward observer business is to understand the customer's requirement in order to tailor a solution. <<Unfortunately, it is not always clear with armies, or to the artillery or mortar branch, for example, what they actually want. Can the same solution serve several service branches (artillery and mortar, for example?) They have to weigh how important precision is, how important is the cost consideration and their performance requirements. You can get something that measures up to one kilometre or ten kilometres, something that can work in the day or something that can work at night or both. It's very difficult for the armies to make up their minds.>> The result is that, like Flir Systems', Vectronix's customers often require a high degree of customisation: <<Most, if not all forward observer systems have some kind of customisation and are not exactly the same. For example, the SE12 Gonio Light has 20 different versions because of different connectors, different software to communicate with different laser rangefinders, image intensifiers and data terminals. Everybody resolves to standardize, to make things faster and more affordable, but in the end, it's probably the perfect solution that's more attractive than the standard solution, and often fits better and is worth the price.>>


Always More

The march towards greater accuracy continues apace and will persist in the coming years as manufacturers work to make their systems sharper with the addition of laser ring gyro to provide highly accurate position fixes that can supplement existing GPS or for when GPS is unavailable. This is an important consideration on a battlefield in the era of the GPS jammer and the ability of some to shoot down satellites.

The US Army will train every soldier in basic call-for-fire skills, and may also look towards hand-held 'all-singing, all-dancing' forward observer systems that can equip each infantry soldier with a pair of binoculars which include a laser rangefinder, data modem, GPS or ring gyro, thermal imaging, target designation and goniometer technology. Systems such as the Vectronix Vector-series are already moving in this direction. This would also be keeping in line with the global movement towards future soldier technology, which strives to connect individual troops with the network-centric battlefield.

New Trends

Kostas Tigkos believes that current trends reinforce this argument, <<It looks like the market is moving towards more integrated solutions where you would have a compass, GPS, communications, laser designator and thermal imager all embedded in one system. The trend in the market is that the forward observer systems will have to integrate the capability to co-ordinate Paveway and Jdam-type ordnance so you have to have systems that can accommodate both GPS and laser guidance. This is the future trend and it's starting as we speaks>>.

The trend towards integrated systems is putting the means of precision strike, either with artillery or by aircraft, into the hands of the forward observer. The means to deliver accurate attack via a sophisticated forward observer system may have important cost savings. For instance, in materiel costs, a forward observer painting a target for an air strike is considerably cheaper than having a second aircraft illuminate the target for an air strike by a laser-guided bomb. This has been the order of the day for the French Air Force in Afghanistan where Dassault Mirage-2000D aircraft have had to paint targets for the Dassault Rafale-B combat aircraft which are yet to be fitted with the Thales Damocles laser designation pod.


In terms of growth markets for forward observer systems, the Middle East could be interesting to watch. High oil revenues and regional security concerns are prompting countries such as the United Arab Emirates to pour its petrodollars into modernising its armed forces with a particular emphasis on precision strike.

In terms of future technological innovation, miniaturization is the buzzword. Kurt Hegetschweiler of Vectronix agrees, seeing future forward observer innovation focused around, <<Miniaturised capabilities that integrate almost everything. Like today, your mobile telephone is also your camera, your music store and your calculator. Future forward observer systems will be something that lets you see by day or by night, that gives you your own position and allows you to determine objects that are away from you; that means measuring distances and angles. That all evolves and then the customer only has to choose how much will be integrated so that the soldier is not overburdened with information.>>

Since the end of World War Two, forward observer technology has moved in leaps and bounds and each successive conflict has had a major effect on how the next generation of technology has been designed. The revolution in precision strike has pushed out the accuracy of forward observer systems still further and this is likely to continue in the future. Moreover, these systems can be connected into the battlefield information network, ensuing that the precious information they do gather can be transmitted to the pilots, gunners and other users in real-time, with crystal clarity at the touch of a button.
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Title Annotation:Optical system
Author:Withington, Thomas
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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