FORT A.P. HILL, VA. -- Under the cold autumn stars, Paul Travesky is proving there is nothing random about the phrase "a shot in the dark."

Gaze into one of his helicopter-mounted infrared viewers, and from almost a mile away you can watch deer graze placidly beside a battle tank. Pick up an M16 rifle equipped with a laser gunsight, aim through "starlight" night-vision goggles, and even a novice becomes a marksman.

This is the high-tech gadgetry that helped Army helicopter pilots on Sept. 21 locate and disable an Iranian ship laying mines in the Persian Gulf, and later sink an Iranian gunboat and capture two others. Not one American died. And everything was done under cover of night.

"In the early '70s, I would go up to Congress and they were saying, 'You'll never fly a military helicopter at night.' Now we do it all the time," said Travesky, director of the Army's Night Vision and Electro-Optics Center at Fort Belvoir.

"And what you're seeing here is 1972 or 1973 technology. For what's on the drawing board right now, use your imagination."

A few evenings back, Travesky and his staff assembled an audience of Pentagon staff members, defense contractors and reporters at the Night Vision testing range here and put their wares on display. It marked the first time in five years that the center demonstrated its equipment to outsiders and it was, well, enlightening.

"It used to be that the night was your mortal enemy" in wartime, said Lester L. Mackay, an assistant director of the center. "You were always shooting up flares to see what was out there in the dark.

"Now, because of what you can do, the night is your friend. This changes everything. And you have to change the way people think about fighting a war."

Certainly, night vision technology has made itself felt in the Persian Gulf. The helicopters that engaged the Iranian ships relied on two types of vision equipment, both of which were developed by Travesky's center.

The most basic device is a set of goggles that scientists call "image enhancers." They look like a small pair of binoculars and clip onto a pilot's flight helmet. These goggles alone can permit combat on all but the blackest of nights.

"Image enhancers" collect starlight or moonlight through a system of fiber optic conductors, magnify its intensity and reflect it on a small phosphorous eyepiece. The result is a picture that makes the world resemble a green computer screen.

But a second type of night vision equipment needs no light at all. Thermal, or infrared, devices gauge the amount of heat given off by people or objects and compose an electronic picture based on the contrasting temperatures of different surfaces. This image looks like a fuzzy, black-and-white television picture.

Infrared sights also share another feature with television: the picture can be magnified from long distance, just as a zoom lens can bring a picture up close. This allows pilots to use long-range weapons in pitch blackness.

The Army has coupled night vision technology with awesome firepower in its Apache attack helicopter.

Essentially, the Apache is a real-life version of the helicopters celebrated in the movie "Blue Thunder" and the television show "Airwolf." The helicopter's control panel can be projected on a video viewer mounted on the pilot's helmet and he can aim a turret cannon just by swiveling his head.

"We can do anything 'Airwolf' does except look through walls," Travesky quipped.

Flying these machines requires intensive training and is extremely risky: high-voltage cables, which are almost invisible in any light, are deadly obstacles for low-flying aircraft. And critics say that keeping such high-tech equipment operable under combat conditions is difficult at best.

"This is the Army, and we're fighting at the front," Mackay acknowledged. "Whatever we build, it has to be cheap and there has to be a lot of it."

Travesky said the night vision goggles, in particular, meet those requirements. The components for the goggles have been standardized, he said, enabling several manufacturers to produce them and the Army to choose from multiple bidders. And recent advances in technology have produced clearer vision at the same time that the cost of each pair has dropped from $4,000 to $3,000.

The goggles are not only being used by pilots; a slightly different version has been issued to infantrymen, who have adapted them to one particularly deadly task.

The night vision center has coupled the infantry goggles with a rifle-mounted laser sight that allows an infantryman to focus the beam on his target and fire with tremendous accuracy.

Night vision technology also is being put to use outside the military. The equipment has been used widely by law enforcement personnel to aid surveillance. Commercial versions of the image-enhancing goggles are available to people who suffer from night blindness. And infrared viewers also have been used to help fight forest fires and to locate leaks in the Alaska pipeline.

All of which is a source of considerable pride to Travesky, who like almost all workers at the night vision center is a civilian. "When I started here 21 years ago we had 30 people; now we have 500," Travesky said. "Back then, one of our major products was searchlights.

"Now we're looking at the next generation of thermal sights and counter-countermeasures to laser weapons. We've come a long way since the James Bond sniperscope. And we've still got even farther to go."