Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Ghillie suit sniper camouflage enemy

Being invisible, or nearly so to the enemy would give soldiers on the battlefield a decisive tactical advantage. While we are currently many decades away from stealth camouflage like the Predator movies, developers have made some significant improvements over the years to make troops blend in better with their surroundings.

In early warfare, up until about 80 years ago, being invisible on the battlefield was a bad thing. Armies would wear uniforms with bright colors so that the commanders could see and control the battlefield through the fog of war. Individual units would carry bright flags into battle so infantry units would know where to follow. Commanders wanted bright and gaudy uniforms and patterns of the past to frighten the enemy as well. One situation in particular would be Manfred von Richtophen, widely known as the Red Baron, painting his fighter bright red. This would indeed frighten enemy pilots, as his reputation for downing aircraft was world-renowned. The British redcoats were famous for their intimidating uniforms and this over the top look helped to attract new recruits, and prevent desertions.

After the invention of the rifled barrel, firearms became far more accurate. Sharpshooters could now pick out officers from a great distance and showing yourself on the battlefield was becoming far more hazardous. Tactics quickly changed, and the open field pitched battles of the Napoleonic and American Civil war were giving way to trenches and heavy artillery. During the Second Boer and First World Wars, a Scottish highland regiment known as the Lavat Scouts became the first military unit to wear a ghillie suit, sniper units still use these around the world today.

After World War II, behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists began employing mathematical algorithms and clutter metrics—the study of how the eye locates and detects objects—to create interesting and complex designs. The familiar U.S. M81 Woodland pattern, which has been adopted by armies in Ghana, Zambia, Uganda and Liberia, replaced the tiger stripe pattern of the Vietnam War. The M81 Woodland pattern also has the distinction of serving all branches of the U.S. Military in some capacity, and was the standard issue uniform until very recently. Troops during the first Gulf War donned chocolate chip or cookie dough patterns, nicknames outdone only by the scrambled egg scheme used by Egyptian forces.

In 2002, the Marine Corps adopted MARPAT, which stands for MARine PATtern. It is a digital camouflage pattern, which uses a number of small rectangular pixels of color. In theory, it is a far more effective camouflage than standard uniform patterns because it mimics the dappled textures and rough boundaries found in natural settings. Following their example, the U.S. Army adopted the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) for their new Army Combat Uniform (ACU). Manufacturers and soldiers alike often mistakenly refer to the UCP pattern as ACU, which is the name of the uniform, not the camo pattern. The Air Force followed suit with the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU), which has a similar pattern to the UCP, but the uniform itself is nearly identical in function to the old Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), only heavier and warmer. The ABU has drawn a large amount of criticism from airmen being deployed overseas. The U.S. Navy adopted the Navy Working Uniform (NWU), which is also a digital pattern similar to  MARPAT, but with much darker blue tones to tie it to the traditions of the Navy. Developers did not design this uniform for tactical purposes, as the ABU and DCU are still available for use.

Today, many troops in Afghanistan are using the Multicam pattern on ACU uniforms. The Multicam pattern blends better with the mountainous muddy terrain of Afghanistan. We have come a long way since the early khaki and guillie suits of the Scottish Highlands. Camouflage is sure to be a part of modern combat from now on. We can all agree that soldiers operating downrange prefer to be a little harder to see.

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Comments (3)

  1. So the Navy *skoff* BDUs is a case of ME-TOO ism? Thought so, because dungarees are a lot more traditional than the Navy Working Uniform (NWU), which is also a digital pattern similar to MARPAT, but with much darker blue tones to tie it to the traditions of the Navy.

    Because if you get blown off a carrier, you’re going to want to spend the time unlacing your boots and unblousing your pants before you can use them for flotation devices…

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