ROANOKE, Virginia -- There's a pair of buildings on Plantation Drive, just past the tractor supply store, and right in front of the barn belonging to the local women's college. From the street, the cream-colored structures don't look like much more than typical office buildings; only a wire fence distinguishes them from their neighbors. Inside, however, is a laboratory and fabrication facility where engineers produce one of the U.S. military's most important advantages over its foes: the ability to see in the dark, when others are all but blind.
Night vision technology – and these buildings – have been around for more than an half-century. The green-tinged view from inside the goggles is now yawningly familiar. But this ITT Corporation facility doesn't make the rudimentary night vision gear found in kids' toys or sex tapes. Here, they design and build the military-grade gear. And it can peer further into the dark, with greater fidelity, and under darker conditions, than any civilian equipment. (Sorry, Paris.)
That's not all. The latest generation of ITT's night vision gear, issued to a relative handful of American forces, comes with thermal sensors inside; that allows troops to detect the heat from an insurgent sniper, even when he's completely camouflaged. The generation after that -- currently under development here -- will send digital maps, mug shots, and drone footage to that same night vision eyepiece. In other words, U.S. forces will be able to ambush, apprehend, and identify suspected militants -- without the target ever seeing what the hell just happened to him.
The work is sensitive enough that export of the equipment is strictly controlled, and reporters are not ordinarily allowed inside these two buildings. "People are freaked out that you're here," one ITT executive told me. "You're the first one." Truth be told, the company didn't exactly open up the place to me, either; I was mostly confined to a lone conference room. But I was able to try out a prototype of their latest night vision gear before many generals had the chance. And I learned about the mind-meltingly complex manufacturing process that enables troops to "own the night," as the military cliché goes. Here's what I saw.
Noah Shachtman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the editor of this little blog right here. Follow @dangerroom on Twitter.