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US Marines JTACs to get next generation handheld targeting system

U.S. Marines will soon have a new state-of-the-art targeting system that increases their precision on the battlefield. The Next-Generation Handheld Targeting System, or NGHTS, is an innovative, man-portable targeting system allowing Marines to rapidly and accurately conduct target location and laser guidance during combat operations, a precious asset for the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. Tonya SmithMarine Corps Systems Command, reports.
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A Marine peers through a prototype version of the Next-Generation Handheld Targeting System in March 2021 at U.S. Army Garrison Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia. The Next-Generation Handheld Targeting System, or NGHTS, is an innovative, man-portable targeting system allowing Marines to rapidly and accurately conduct target location and laser guidance during combat operations (Picture source: USMC/Tonya Smith)

Years of market research, technology maturity and miniaturization resulted in NGHTS. The unit, lighter and less bulky than past targeting systems, includes a selective availability anti-spoofing module GPS, a celestial day and night compass, a digital magnetic compass, a laser designator and a laser range finder, all in a single handheld system weighing less than ten pounds.

"NGHTS will allow the deployment of laser designation and target location at extended ranges, day and night, in a GPS-denied environment with high accuracy," said Maj. Patrick Heiny, Fire Support Coordination Team Lead. "It allows Marines to prosecute targets at increased standoff ranges – increasing survivability and decreasing collateral damage."

Higher accuracy, lower signature

NGHTS is one of the first systems the Marine Corps has invested in that uses such a high accuracy multilayer azimuth capability. This will increase the warfighter's lethality and precision while reducing exposure and lowering the overall signature.

"The celestial compass automatically operates upon power up, searching for the sun or stars to provide a high accuracy azimuth reading,” said Olivia Melli, Fire Support Coordination Team NGHTS Systems Engineer. "This is a great capability and new to Marines who are used to relying on a digital magnetic compass."

Weight can be a critical issue on the battlefield. As a result, MCSC continuously identifies ways to lighten the warfighter's load without compromising lethality. NGHTS, lightweight and rugged, will allow Marines to haul the unit in a field pack and carry additional gear.

Four legacy systems in one handheld capability

"It is the first target locator that weighs less than ten pounds and takes up 60% less volume than its predecessors," said Heiny. "NGHTS provides the capabilities of four legacy systems in a single unit."

NGHTS will combine the capabilities of the following four systems into one handheld: the Portable Lightweight Designator Rangefinder, Joint Terminal Attack Controller Laser Target Designator, Enhanced Joint Terminal Attack Controller Laser Target Designator, and Thermal Laser Spot Imager.

Previously, Marines used multiple sensors to accomplish various tasks on the battlefield. NGHTS can perform these tasks in a single system, allowing a team of Marines to properly spread-load additional equipment, increasing overall efficiency.

"The range of capabilities combined into and provided by a single system is a definite force multiplier for the Fire Support Marine”, said gunnery Sgt. Joshua Gage, Joint Terminal Attack Controller SME. “The number of systems, gear and batteries required to do the job prior to NGHTS was significant and taxing to not only the Marine, but also to the unit. The biggest issue I experienced as a user with our current systems was our night capability; this was solved by the development of NGHTS advanced IR imaging systems," said Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Gage, Joint Terminal Attack Controller subject matter expert.

Interoperability, increased lethality

NGHTS is interoperable with other technologies, including the Target Handoff System Version 2.0. It will communicate a minimum of self and target location data to THSv2 for further mission processing.

The NGHTS and THSv2 teams are working closely to ensure the timely integration of both systems. The communication between NGHTS and THSv2 will provide enhanced mission effectiveness.

The system also increases Marines' lethality by pinpointing targets farther than Marines could with similar past systems. In addition, NGHTS enables the warfighter to generate data during combat operations and more accurately dedicate laser energy to targets.

"NGHTS allows Marines operating in a battle space to rapidly recognize, identify, and accurately designate to prosecute a target at a significant distance," said Heiny. "This increases safety while shortening the kill chain in employing areal or long fires munitions across the Joint Force --- all while maintaining a low signature."

Force Design-forward

NGHTS aligns with the Marine Corps' Force Design 2030 goal to target ranges Marines could not reach before. Marines not only need the ability to reach further distances but also to shorten the kill chain, improve the warfighter's safety, and remain undetected on the battlefield. NGHTS accomplishes this goal.

"Maintaining that low signature is important for the battlefield,” said Heiny. "It's hard to stay hidden in today's world, so reducing that signature is critical."

Heiny said Marines who have interacted with NGHTS have shown support and excitement for the system: “We brought [Marines] to key events before the NGHTS prototype was produced,” said Heiny. “We had them provide feedback on 3D printed models of the NGHTS and got input from the user community perspective before the prototypes had been built.”

Master Sgt. Daniel Hack, a Tactical Air Control Party program manager with 1st Marine Division explained how NGHTS is a progressive win: “First, units will finally have access to a full spectrum of observation, targeting and marking capabilities - all sourced by a tactically appropriate and portable device,” said Hack. “Second, it is the direct result of effective efforts from both [MCSC] and regular input from the fleet Marine Corps."

MCSC is currently in low rate production and expects to have systems in FY23 dedicated to operational and environmental test events. MCSC plans to begin fielding the system in FY24.


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