Central War Gaming Blog

Central War Gaming Blog


Sunday, February 11, 2018


For most of the history of warfare, night vision meant letting your eyes acclimate to the darkness, and night combat would have been met with blank stares as it simply was not done. In only the past half century or so, as the industrial era moved to the technological era, have we gotten the technical capabilities to do things like see better at night.

Not all new technology can or should supplant old methods, and for night fighting in many cases the earlier, ones are still very applicable. We should understand how to keep our eyes acclimated for darkness, and we should use cateyes.

The cateye is a common name for glow in the dark tapes worn on the back of the helmet, hat, ruck, or rig. Glow in the dark technologies were ready for the consumer market in the 1950s, and mostly were used for toys and other novelties, Remember, we had radium for serious uses!

By the early 1970s glow in the dark tapes were available, and began to be used by individuals and on a unit by unit basis in some armies, such as the US in Vietnam. In May of 1981, the previously experimental addition of two panels of glow tape to the issue helmet band became standardized.

How Glow In the Dark Works

Phosphorescent, or "glow in the dark" paints, inks and dyes absorb UV radiation, and covert it to visible light. The transition between these states is, conveniently for us, very slow, so you can "charge up" the glow in the dark cateye, or your compass, watch, etc. and it will remain glowing for many hours, though it slowly gets dimmer over time.

Note I said they use UV light, not white light. Just a few years ago, this was unimportant, as incandescent light bulbs are a mess, so put out lots of heat, and light in frequencies we don't use including UV. LEDs, on the other hand, are very narrowly focused so have no spare frequencies they emit. Charging a cateye with a white light today is pretty ineffective.

So, you shou also have at least one UV light—a keychain light will be plenty—for each fire team or squad, to make sure everyone's cateyes are charged every few hours.

Cateyes Are Not For You

Some use of glow in the dark patches is for you, and works well even if working alone. It is common to stick small pieces of glow tape to key parts of radios, handsets, tent openings and the like. Then you can find them in the dark, and orient yourself to your location, without turning on the lights. I even have some glow tape on an Army issue typewriter, though it is hard to imagine night typing being a thing. The Army even issues a 2x2" velcro glow patch for placing on your rucksack, so you can find it when returning to a cache point, OP, or patrol base.

But the primary tactical use of cateyes is when moving as a team at night. Generally, you follow each other in a long line. Without night vision it is very common to be arm's reach away from each other at night, and when you cannot see them even that close, you simply grab onto the back of their rig or ruck. Cateyes allow you to move much, much more easily.

Cateyes glowing (slightly) on a helmet in dim light.

With night vision, cateyes still work, just the same way. It is often still very, very dark, so hard to pick out where the guy you are following is, so the cateye in front of you is much easier to follow. And easier is safer. When that part is easier, you can spend more time making sure you step safely, don't get snagged by branches, and looking out for the enemy.

Night vision doesn't eliminate the value of cateyes.

Cateyes on the back of a 3-day assault pack, viewed under night vision

Cateyes, Two of Them, Not Just One

Note the term, cateyes. Plural. And look at the helmet bands. There are two, not one. Why is that?

Some of this is for the usual two is one, one is none, (in case one is obscured, damaged, or destroyed) but the real reason is about the smallest perceptible difference. It would be very hard to follow a tiny pinpoint of light, as you would have no idea if you are following the proper person, or some distant bright light, and where they are going.

Giving the cateyes dimensionality with two distinct glowing panels allows you to tell how far away you are following, and to tell if they are turning (or at least turning their head as in the example above), so in true darkness you get a heads up about where the trail goes.

Larger things like the custom name tapes we're ordering are fine also, as they have a similar dimensionality. At close range, like when hiking in a line, you can read the name (or at least tell that it's a wide shape), and notice when the aspect ratio changes so determine when the person you are following is likely turning.

Pragmatic Light Discipline

One of the things many soldiers have been taught is to turn their helmet bands inward when closing with the enemy, because of light discipline.
Sniper candidates from 2nd Cavalry Regiment of Battle Group Poland have used the flap on the back of their helmet covers to obscure their cateyes, in 2018

However, cateyes are not that bright, and as we well know, light falls off with distance, until you cannot see a light at all far enough away.

Cateyes are very dim, so are invisible even through night vision just a couple hundred yards away.

Light discipline is important, but it's hard to come up with situations where something as small as the cateye, usually facing away from the enemy anyway, is at all likely to give away your position. In fact, covering up identifiers like your cateyes it's more likely to cause issues of unit coordination, communication, and identification; I've been shot in the back (in FoF exercises!) by my own team when we had problems with identifiers like this.

Cateyes on Everything

So, I've convinced you to go out and buy a helmet band with cateyes on it, or to install some on your hat if not a helmet guy. But what about when the hood of your rain jacket is up? Or you are moving with your ruck, and the top is so tall it blocks your head?

You need to think of the cateyes as a system, and plan for them to always be visible. I like to put cateyes on the back of my:
  • Helmet, hat, and nightcap
  • Assault pack
  • Rucksack
Hell, we even got glow in the dark patches silkscreened into our CWG base layers.

This way, at least one is always visible, no matter what I wear. When I tried wearing a poncho again a couple years ago, I glued a few to the back of the neck of the poncho also.

What you'll figure out pretty soon is not everything will take a helmet band, or has velcro. So, you have to make your own cateyes. Glow in the dark tape is easily obtained, cheaply, and self-adhesive tapes seem to make it easy.

But not so fast. The adhesive is not great, on any of these. They will fall off eventually. The material itself is somewhat rigid, so sewing is messy, and will eventually cause the material to crack and fall off again.

My favorite method is glue. Get a strong contact cement, apply to the cateye, stick it on, pull it off, let it dry for a few seconds, and put it back. Once cured, it won't come off. I have done this on ponchos, webgear, pouches, patrol caps, and more.

Already bought some self-adhesive ones? No problem. The adhesive isn't glue, but is double-sided sticky tape. Just cut off a piece, and peel it off or rub firmly and it will start to peel away. Remove it and you have a clean back to applying your glue.

Another favorite of mine is to attach to small bits of velcro to make re-positionable glow tabs. For larger pieces, the self-adhesive velcro plus self-adhesive glow tape will usually work well.
Two pieces of glow tape attached to velcro to simulate twin cateyes on an assault pack.

Learn More About Night Operations and Night Fighting

Try out marching with cateyes, using IRR panels, night sights, NODs, thermal, and learn much, much more about working at night at our training event, coming up in less than one month!

Night Team Operations Training10 - 11 March 2018
Farmington, Missouri

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