Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The (Camouflage) Things They Carried
This article originally appeared in Small Wars Journal on 23 October 2012.
Those who never served in the military would find it hard to believe the degree to which a soldier’s appearance is regulated. Army Regulation 670-1 governs the wear and appearance of the Army uniform and is constantly revised. But it goes far beyond just uniforms. It covers shaving, haircuts, and hairstyles, fingernail polish, length, and cleanliness, tattoos, piercings, dental work, and even extends to appearance off duty. AR 670-1 is the reason you won’t find soldiers with their hands in their pockets. Admittedly, this degree of micromanagement is one of many reasons I decided not to make the Army my career and left after nine years. I followed regulations like a professional soldier, but after I came back from combat each time I found it increasingly difficult to care about trivia like what color gym bag I could or couldn’t carry or enforce it on others. These regulations naturally extend to the camouflage fatigues soldiers wear into battle.
After years of testing and developing new colors and patterns, the Army decided in 2005 to adopt a new all-purpose field uniform, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU), of pixelated grey hues. The decision was met with a great deal of skepticism among troops and veterans. The first day I wore the pixels an old Army retiree told me, “You look like a truck hit you with a mud puddle.” Many leaders in the field complained that the new pattern didn’t blend in with vegetation at all. Delays in fielding and replacing equipment and uniforms in Woodland or Desert camouflage led to units deploying with a confusing mixture of uniforms, wearing a grey pixel uniform with a Desert ballistic vest and Woodland ammunition pouches. My Sergeant Major remarked at the time, “We look like a ragtag circus.”
The blend of pixelated colors is officially dubbed ‘urban grey ’, ‘desert sand’, and ‘foliage green’ arranged in a digital pattern. The grey pixels were selected in an effort to find an all-purpose uniform fit for any terrain. Though predominantly grey in appearance, when viewed in a woodline at a distance the colors appear green when combined with the shadows in vegetation and differing intensities of sunlight. The grey and khaki colors also compare with shades of grey and brown in urban terrain. In testing, the pattern was referred to as ‘urban track.’ The khaki color also melds with brown rock or sand. The shades also compare with the skyline when silhouetted against the horizon. It has been claimed that this relates to the historically-informed military tactic that attacks often take place in the grey of early dawn. These are the arguments made in its favor.
The new uniform came with changes other than the camouflage pattern. They allow units to automatically reorder replacement uniforms for deployed soldiers after a field-life of six months – a great logistical improvement. In early 2003, many Army units, including my own, deployed to Iraq with only two sets of so-called desert camouflage uniforms, or DCUs, because they couldn’t be produced and fielded fast enough to meet the demand. They were also quickly and poorly sewn and didn’t stand up well to the effects of daily combat. Our uniforms would be ringed in white salt stains from sweating profusely in the heat. We had to constantly wash them in buckets by hand like old washerwomen and hang them out to dry like a back-alley laundry. Some of the desert uniforms were threadbare and almost white in color, not to mention all the oil, dirt, and bloodstains picked up from daily combat, when we returned from Iraq in 2004. We were all issued new DCUs to fly home from Kuwait in. On the plane, we all felt like we were being prettied up for the public. Things improved once the procurement and supply system caught up, but not fast enough for troops in Iraq with ripped pants or cut-up tops. But, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked when pressed on Army equipment shortages at the time, to much consternation, “You go to war with the Army you have, not with the one you want.”
In the end, after $5 billion worth of testing and fielding the uniform to every American soldier and eight years of discussion and complaints from leaders in the field, the Army has decided to nix the grey all-purpose pixels in the coming years. The Natick Army Soldier Center in Massachusetts, the organization charged with developing Army camouflage, says they have a replacement for the pixels, what some have come to call an expensive mistake. Officials at Natick have claimed that the original decision to go with the pattern was rushed and influenced by politics among top Army leaders, not based on a complete, full assessment by field and scientific testing. But one question lingers: Is all this costly concern about camouflage as relevant as it once was to future combat for the Army?
The Science of Camouflage Uniforms
The dead man knows that camouflage is all in the mind./ He has seen in the human need for shape the undoing of shape./ He has witnessed the displacement of up-and-down, across and slantwise./ He has curled the straight lines and unbent the curves, he has split the wishbone and painted outside the lines./ The dead man has undone the map by which to get there./ It is not what the dead man looks like, but what he no longer resembles.
-Marvin Bell, from More About the Dead Man in Camouflage
As science has progressed, so has the study and use of camouflage. In layman’s terms, the job of a camouflage pattern is to break up the familiar outline of the head, shoulders, torso, and legs of the human body while standing or crouching. Uniforms of various colors help soldiers blend in with terrain colors. Desert and wooded patterns mimic the shapes of features of the terrain and shadows in addition to their colors. Pixels, rather than focusing on color or shape, rely on the confusion they create in human eyesight. From further distances, the pixels become just blotchy patches of color.
So why grey? American armies do have some traditional connections with grey. Cadets at West Point, members of ‘The Long Grey Line’, have worn grey since its founding. The army of the Republic of Texas wore grey uniforms, as did the Confederacy. German armies wore ‘field gray’ from the turn of the century up until the early Cold War period. Though green is the first color that comes to mind when one thinks of the Army, grey also has a place. Politics and economics, as always, had their effect on the decision as well.
Indeed, the decision to go grey didn’t come from Natick. In fact, testing consistently rated the current grey as the worst among four competitors, one of which was MultiCam. The call to go with a pattern that did not contain strong shades of green or black was questioned from the beginning. This has led many to ask who and why the decision was made and what considerations it was based on. No answers seem to be forthcoming. In another possible change, Natick has also developed four different terrain-specific patterns for desert, snow, and urban environments to possibly be issued in the future as well. The Army will now repeat the cost and time of fielding a new uniform again by around 2014.
The new all-purpose uniforms have greatly improved utility from previous uniforms, the basic design of which hadn’t changed much since WWII. The material is a lighter mix of cotton and nylon. The old uniform tops had four pockets on the torso, all of which were covered over while wearing a ballistic vest. The new uniform tops eliminate the waist pockets and move them to the shoulders where they aren’t covered under the vest. The tops are shorter to allow better ventilation. New tops made specifically to be worn under the ballistic vest feature torsos made of moisture wicking material. The pants have two new pockets below the knees in addition to the usual cargo pockets. Buttons were eliminated in favor of Velcro, zippers, and drawstrings. Rank and insignia are velcroed or pinned to the uniform rather than sewn on.
To the cheers or jeers of many, the ACU doesn’t require ironing and the ‘rough side out’ leather boots don’t require polishing. This provided for quite a wave in Army culture. When I joined the U.S. Army in 1999, I wore the standard Woodland camouflage fatigues. As an eager young soldier I starched and pressed my uniform every day with creases so sharp you could cut bread with them. I polished my boots to a shine so high you could see your soul in it. Some soldiers used to soak their uniforms in buckets of starch and iron them until they could stand up on their own. Others used hair dryers to melt and re-melt their boot polish. A few used floor wax. Many would turn their uniforms in to the cleaners every week to be pressed. Some even bought their own industry-grade machines. Every Monday morning at 9:00 am there was a showdown to see which platoon had the sharpest looking troopers.
The elimination of the old traditions of pressed and starched uniforms and spit-shined boots has generated much discussion. After I came home from Iraq the first time in 2004, a pressed uniform and shined boots just weren’t that important to me anymore. Other things seemed more important, such as teaching soldiers who hadn’t been to Iraq yet skills that would help them fight there. I found it increasingly hard to care about trivia such as what color gym bag I could carry while in uniform, much less enforce it on others. Many were sad to see the press-and-shine Army go. They felt it built esprit de corps and showed discipline and commitment. Some were not sad, however. Soldiers had easily spent around a thousand dollars annually on uniform maintenance. Some leaders were too easily impressed by a ‘squared away’ uniform over a soldier’s actual ability to do their job at war. Many of my former colleagues privately felt leaders should be focused on fighting wars, not looking good in garrison. These arguments will never die.
Despite some points of approval, Army leaders in the field continued to voice concerns about the effectiveness of the pixel pattern. I wore both types of uniform between 1999 and 2008. I also wore them in combat in Iraq from 2003 to 2006. From my personal experience, the woodland and desert patterns were more effective. I remember wearing the grey pixels on night missions in the city and palm groves of Baghdad. We were often the only grey objects in the terrain. The pixel grey doesn’t work as effectively as the terrain-specific patterns. The success or failure of a mission and soldiers’ lives often depend upon stealth or concealment and it is easily understood why one would rather have a pattern made specifically for the environment over one that is all-purpose. Many soldiers and veterans would agree, though some may find the new pixel pattern effective enough. It does cost more money, time, and effort to produce and issue terrain-specific camouflage uniforms and gear before a deployment. An all-purpose uniform would be an answer. It would indeed be more cost effective to have such a uniform in an era of Pentagon spending cuts. But that doesn’t make it effective in combat.
The problem with grading the effectiveness of camouflage patterns comes with finding the proper method to conduct the analysis. Scientific methods rely on the mechanics of how human eyes and electronic sighting devices work, but this may produce a different result than sticking guys in the woods and trying to find them. The pixels are designed to confuse human sight. A person scanning or seeing the pixels only peripherally will not pick up on them as easily. The pixels supposedly also have a blurring effect on electronic night vision sighting devices as well. However, the field method of testing is closer to the reality of the battlefield and fits with the Army’s ‘train as you fight’ mantra.
In any case, the science of sight would appear to have won out with the grey pixel pattern. This also seems to be in keeping with the current trend toward a tech-heavy, ‘transformational’ Army. However, the Army’s mandated adoption in 2010 of a different brown and green non-pixel pattern called ‘MultiCam’ for troops deployed to Afghanistan recognized that there are shortcomings with the all-purpose grey pixels. This uniform again consists of green, brown, and tan blotches of a solid, non-pixelated type. This change came only after Congress passed H.R. 2346 sponsored by now-deceased Korean War veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) who received many complaints from noncommissioned officers.
The Evolution of Camouflage
It is ironic that something designed not to be seen is so instantly recognizable. U.S. Army uniforms remind us of our history, an ever-present visage during our national holidays. There are the blue and grey coats of early America; the brown of WWI; olive drab of WWII and Korea; ‘tigerstripe’ of Vietnam; Woodland of the Cold War and Balkans; ‘Chocolate Chip’ of the Gulf War; the desert pattern of the Iraq War; and the grey pixels and ‘MultiCam’ of Afghanistan.
The U.S. Army’s uniforms have evolved over several centuries along with the conflicts they have fought in, even as the need for camouflage has remained an important constant for the military in the modern era. The twentieth century saw the end of pitched battles between armies in colorful and often heavy wool uniforms arrayed on opposing sides of a large field. America’s first army under George Washington had no official uniform. The Continental Congress ordered Minutemen to dye their clothing brown, but most didn’t have the time or means to do so. As the American experience at Valley Forge showed, they were at times lucky to have coats or shoes at all. The original thirteen colonies fielded their own small organized militias and their uniform styles were as varied as the states they served. Though some were brown, green, or red, those who had uniforms most often wore different types of heavy blue coats with shiny brass buttons, largely similar to that famously adopted by General Washington himself.
Already colorful European uniforms were often augmented with different colored trims to designate the type or function of military units. British Dragoons, a type of light cavalry, wore green rather than red. The type of headgear soldiers wore also informed which and what type of unit they were with. Grenadiers, infantry sometimes armed with grenades and often the biggest and strongest of troops, wore miters, tall pointed hats with a flat front. Mounted cavalry wore light metal or leather helmets with fur or feather plumes. The infantry wore cocked hats. An informed observer of the time would know instantly from looking at a soldier their unit, function, and rank.
The American colonials largely lacked the funds and time to develop and implement such a system during the revolution. Americans often improvised rank insignias by pinning white or blue bands to their arms or hats. Today this tradition is carried on in the U.S. Army with each branch having designated signature colors. For example, infantry is light blue, cavalry and armor are yellow, and artillery is red. Today’s Army rank insignia for noncommissioned officers, known as chevrons, also carries on the tradition.
The impetus behind the uniforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely identification. Any school kid in America knows the British wore red. The French and Russians often wore blue or white. There was also an element of pride and flash in the uniforms, as Dukes and Counts often paid to maintain their own regiments and wanted them to look sharp. Some of them paraded them about like their own real toy soldiers. They ideally used colors that stood out well in the fog of battle and were easily distinguished from the enemy. These bright uniforms may seem silly today, but they were worn in a time where there were no electronic communications to relay to commanders what was happening on the battlefield.
The brightly colored uniforms allowed generals to look across the field and see where their troops were holding, failing, or advancing. It was not the kind of warfare where anyone took cover when battle was joined, even amid artillery shelling. Armies rarely dug or constructed bunkers or breastworks unless under siege. Imagine Napoleon and Lord Wellington looking across the smoke-filled battlefield with their field glasses. They knew only what they could see or messengers could relay to them. Their staff officers had to track changes in the battle with pieces on a map. Their uniforms were hot, heavy, and uncomfortable, but they served an important function. Military uniforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were made to be seen.
But even in the era of bright, conspicuous uniforms, the need for concealment was sometimes recognized. Sharpshooters in the Napoleonic Wars were outfitted with green uniforms so they could advance within rifle range to kill individual officers to interrupt lines of authority without being discovered. Some American sharpshooter detachments of the Civil War adopted green uniforms and similar tactics as well. European armies of the 1840’s serving in the jungle and desert climes of Asia and Africa found that khaki uniforms were cooler and allowed for better concealment than their scarlet jackets in the field. Despite its proven use, camouflage was widely viewed with scorn in high military circles as being unprofessional and cowardly until the turn of the twentieth century.
The U.S. Army of the nineteenth century largely did away with the big hats, wigs, and ornamental elements of the military uniforms of the past century as time wore on, though they still retained mostly blue uniforms of thick wool with shiny metal buttons. The army of the independent Republic of Texas adopted grey uniforms. The Confederacy also chose grey to distinguish their soldiers from the federal blues in the Civil War. It was still generally the kind of warfare where units lined up and marched forward into musket or cannon fire with deadly result, as skirmishes such as Pickett’s Charge show. None of the uniforms were very functional, especially in the climate of the American south and west. During the battle for Atlanta in the summer of 1864, hundreds of soldiers on both sides suffered from exhaustion and heat stroke in their wool uniforms under the Georgia sun. Soldiers suffered similar problems in the wars against Mexico and the Native Americans on the Great Plains and in southwestern deserts.
The turn of the twentieth century brought with it the idea that uniforms should be made for utility and concealment. Previous U.S. Army uniforms didn’t take the climate or terrain much into account, other than perhaps to mercifully adjust the wear or weight of their material for summer. In 1902 the U.S. Army, following the British lead from their experiences in colonial Africa and India, adopted the khaki uniform, known as ‘drab.’ In the following years, almost every western military ditched the traditional bright colors and adopted uniform colors that aided concealment in shades of khaki, brown, or grey. At the outbreak of WWI, only the French Army maintained colorful uniforms of blue coats and red trousers.
Grinding trench warfare and the development of machine guns, tanks and warplanes quickly changed things. WWI was a much different war from any ever fought before, enveloping the whole of the continent of Europe and sapping the strength of the workforces and economies of entire countries. Everything came to a standstill. This was war to determine the fate of many nations, a much more serious affair. In 1915 the previously-resistant French military was the first to build a Section de Camouflage, comprised mostly of Parisian artists, devoted to developing military camouflage. America opened the New York Camouflage Society, which performed a similar function, and other European militaries followed suit with their own efforts.
For the first time, military uniforms were not meant to be seen. The U.S. Army changed from brown ‘drab’ to the green ‘olive drab’ in the interwar period. The M-1943 olive drab uniform is what most Americans picture when they think of G.I. Joe serving in WWII. WWII marked the first war where climate and concealment were given primary consideration in developing uniforms. The M-1943 wool uniform and its successors were designed with the cold, wet, and verdant climates of Europe in mind. Uniforms made of tightly-woven cotton ‘Byrd cloth’ were designed for service in the tropics to stop mosquito, flea, and leach bites and allowed for better cooling than wool. However, these uniforms took longer to make and field and there was an acute shortage of them. Some old soldiers found it hard to shed military formality completely in favor of utility. General George S. Patton famously insisted that officers under his command still wear their ties into combat.
The U.S. Army field uniform remained largely unchanged with only a few minor alterations until the 1980’s. When we think of the Korean War, we often picture men freezing in olive drab fatigues and coats huddled around fires wearing their pile caps. Grunts wore generally the same green uniform made of cotton in the jungles of Vietnam. The famous ‘tigerstripe’ camouflage uniform worn in the 1960’s by American advisors and special operations units in Vietnam was never officially authorized, though effective in the dense jungle. It also mimicked the uniforms worn by South Vietnamese soldiers and allowed U.S. troops to blend in with their counterparts as well as the terrain. Beginning in 1968, many U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were issued uniforms in a new interlocking pattern called ‘ERDL’ which for the first time featured blotches of dark green, light green, brown, tan, and black. But the Army returned to solid olive drab uniforms following withdraw from Vietnam in 1973.
In 1981, the U.S. Army adopted the well-known cotton Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) featuring the M81 Woodland camouflage pattern, an enlarged version of the ERDL pattern from the end of Vietnam. This was the uniform soldiers wore during the late Cold War and in Grenada, Bosnia, and Kosovo. This was the first time that the Army adopted into force-wide use a uniform that not only mimicked the color, but also the shapes of the terrain. Natural vegetation includes many shades of green and brown and tan as well as black shadows and mimicking these shades and shapes breaks up the recognizable human outline.
Along with the BDUs and Woodland pattern, the Army adopted the Desert BDU (DBDU), a six color desert pattern comprised of shades of tan, brown, and light green with spots of black and white meant to compare with stones. The pattern was tested in seven different desert landscapes before adopting it. The 1991 Gulf War presented the Army with much different battlefield terrain than it had faced in major combat operations before and the nightly news was filled with pictures of Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf wearing the uniform, which the troops had dubbed ‘chocolate chips’ or ‘cookie dough camouflage.’ It was determined by war’s end that the DBDU was too dark and rocky a pattern for most of the world’s deserts and it was more costly to make than other alternative patterns. It was discontinued in 1992. Many Middle Eastern militaries continue to wear the pattern today.
The Army found itself fighting in desert terrain again in Somalia in 1993. Following the withdrawal of the DBDU after the Gulf War, the Army adopted the three-color Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU), using shades of light tan, light brown, and lime green. It is often referred to as ‘café au lait’ or ‘coffee stain’ camouflage. This was the uniform worn by most troops in early Afghanistan and Iraq and remained the Army’s desert combat uniform until 2005 when the decision to adopt the new pixelated ACUs was made.
Is Camouflage Still Relevant?
A question that must be asked is if all these costly camouflage and uniform changes really are as relevant in modern and future combat. A large share of the fighting in Iraq took place in urban terrain in territory the enemy knew much better. All U.S. movements issued from large fortified camps and bases that were often watched from the outset by enemy observers. A force that rides around in armored Humvees and Abrams tanks accompanied by attack helicopters isn’t exactly hiding. In Afghanistan where the fighting is in much more rural, rocky, and remote terrain, the battle consists of trying to draw the enemy out of hiding among the local populace to be engaged. Pulling the enemy out of hiding is the only way to know they’re there. They usually know where our troops are well before we know where they are. The U.S. Army isn’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. Essentially, U.S. troops want to be attacked by their clandestine enemies so they can engage and destroy them.
The pre-9/11 U.S. Army I first joined was a much lighter force than today. Virtually none of its Humvees or trucks were armored; only tanks and other tracked vehicles were. The old flak vest was usually only worn to the grenade range. Soldiers on combat training maneuvers lived in foxholes they dug or tents in the woods and jumped locations every few days. This is in contrast to today’s Army, where all vehicles are armored, soldiers’ individual body armor makes them seem like the knights of old, and they live and operate from hardened, permanent posts and bases. During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, we wore less personal armor and I was able to, on a few occasions, sprint after bad guys down the streets of Baghdad. By my second trip to Baghdad in 2005, wearing virtually my own body weight in gear made this unlikely. The Army had to change and ‘turtle up’ out of necessity to protect troops and convoys from ambushes and IEDs on supply routes. The U.S. Army of today is not a nimble beast that moves stealthily; it is more like a rhinoceros that is a force to be reckoned with. When fighting like this, camouflage isn’t as important.
It can be argued that the U.S. Army is today fighting in a position more similar to those of the armies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. America’s military leaves an enormous logistical footprint in every conflict it fights today, with the roads, seaports, and airports of countries like Germany, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Italy, among others, jammed with U.S. troops, contractors, supplies, and equipment. This all happens in plain sight. We don’t hide it and likely couldn’t if we tried. The U.S. military flies, drives, and floats into battle dressed in armor and essentially says, “Here I am; come out and fight.”
We are in some ways like the British Redcoats of old who stuck out in the fight like a sore thumb. Our enemy today knows they cannot stand up to those kinds of odds, so they hide amongst the locals and choose softer targets to attack. American colonials adopted much the same technique when facing the overwhelming superiority of the British military during our own revolution. It may perhaps be called cowardly by some, but it has been effective nonetheless. Ironically, military commanders of earlier centuries used to think camouflage was cowardly, too. Even the New York Times as late as 1917 called new idea of military camouflage “hocus pocus.” It is no wonder some make comparisons between America today and the empire of Great Britain then.
Special operations forces, especially Green Berets, often operate by speaking the language, living with, and training indigenous populations to fight for or alongside U.S. forces. They operated like this effectively among the Montagnard people in Vietnam, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the Kurds of northern Iraq, among others. To do this, they often shed their Army uniforms in favor of native dress and mannerisms, grew beards, carried local weaponry, and even took to horseback to gain the support and trust of local populations. This naturally attracted criticism from the rest of the Army, which has very strict uniform and appearance standards. Some regular Army units partially embraced it by encouraging soldiers to grow moustaches and let their hair grow a little longer than usual among Middle Eastern cultures that view facial hair as a sign of masculinity. These special operations units are among the most effective and successful in counterinsurgency operations. What we discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan is that wielding an AK-47, growing a beard, and learning to grin and bear ‘man kisses’ and male hand holding may be better camouflage than any uniform.
Their tactic is to camouflage themselves not with the colors or shapes of the terrain, but to camouflage themselves among the ‘human terrain.’ In doing so, they attract the respect and trust of peoples who have a natural mistrust of western outsiders, especially Americans. This idea of taking advantage of the ‘human terrain’ may be looked at as yet another revolution in camouflage. When the enemy camouflages and infiltrates himself among the rest of the population, it can be effective for U.S. forces to do the same. There is no real reason why other U.S. Army units could not adopt some of the same techniques, other than the large-scale institutional resistance by military purists who see such moves as ‘lax’ and unprofessional in appearance. However, the results speak for themselves.
Camouflage uniforms do remain important in many military scenarios. It is essential to downed pilots and special operators making ground infiltrations. It will always remain important to scouts and snipers in the field or when soldiers are separated from support when an operation begins to go bad and they have to pull back. These are scenarios in which concealment remains and will likely always be very important. One of camouflage’s earliest proponents, Sir Winston Churchill, became convinced of its utility after his escape from a prison camp during the Boer War in South Africa. He went on later to become First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI and, of course, Prime Minister during WWII. Churchill felt camouflage adds an "original and sinister touch, which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten."
As the U.S. disengages militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, new possible enemies and conflicts present new challenges. America is engaging other foes in the War on Terror largely from the air using drone strikes and giving financial aid and targeting intelligence to local governments in places like Yemen and Pakistan. The terrain we fight on and way we fight may be changing again. Future conflicts with possible foes in Asia may likely require greater control of the seas. Current Pentagon planning reflects this by making greater budget provisions for the Navy and Air Force. Other than Somali pirates, America hasn’t fought any sea battles since WWII. Conflict with China may involve greater naval engagements than the world has seen in seventy years. China seems to be attempting to put as much distance between itself and America and its allies as possible by pushing forward claims to disputed island chains. As was made clear in the Pacific in WWII, denying ‘island hopping’ and logistical and air bases is important to warfare in that theatre.
As camouflage technology has developed, methods to defeat camouflage have developed as well. A foe, such as China, equipped with modern military technology may have the capability to identify and engage targets in much the same way the U.S. military does, using thermal imaging and night vision capable devices and weaponry. America is continuing to develop its observer drone technology, including variants that will allow ground troops to carry and launch their own small drones to give instant feedback regarding the terrain and troops ahead. Such military technologies, among others, have been the target of directed espionage efforts by the Chinese and other governments. If the U.S. has the capability, it is a sure bet China will attempt to develop its own variant.
Last year China unveiled its own version of the stealth fighter with many reports claiming it is based on acquired U.S. technology. It is well known that Chinese operatives spent a lot of time acquiring pieces of an American stealth bomber that was mysteriously downed in Serbia in 1999. It is also known that operatives of China and other states attempted to buy parts of the advanced U.S. Army helicopter downed in the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. These espionage efforts and the technological capabilities developed from them may render scientific and physical camouflage systems irrelevant by providing ways to defeat America’s technology or to use these technologies against us.
Despite our technological advances and military superiority in the air, and on the sea, there will never be a replacement for ‘boots on the ground’ as imagined by Hollywood. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have shown that understanding the ‘human terrain’, gathering human intelligence, and winning hearts and minds is very important to modern asymmetric warfare. No computer or drone can replace a soldier in this regard. The Army’s ground troops are and always will be a vital, if not the most vital component of U.S. national security. As long as there are U.S. troops on the ground, they will have the need to be concealed by camouflage systems.
Testing and study of camouflage systems, whether scientific or physical, continues. The military is still looking at pixels, tiger stripes, layered blocks, 3D layering, and ‘fractals’-- roughly background shades and shapes seen naturally in terrain. Some of the technologies being developed sound like something out of a comic book. Laboratories are testing a cloth that has the capability to mimic exactly the background behind it as if it were a chameleon and make objects covered by it virtually disappear before one’s eyes. Projects to develop an ‘exoskeleton’ that gives soldiers greatly increased strength, stamina, and load bearing abilities look promising. Uniforms that use the human body’s electrostatic discharge and conductive properties may mean soldiers themselves will be used to recharge their electronic equipment and send communications signals in the future.
Government funded programs at agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and public-private funding partnerships with defense contractors and universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) continue to turn out exciting and innovative ideas that have application in the civilian world as much as to the Army. Despite its controversies and that it sometimes sounds like they’ve been playing too many video games, the U.S. Army remains focused on developing ‘soldier systems’: the idea that the uniforms and equipment should become as useful, intuitive, and integrated for the soldier wearing them as possible so they can win in combat. Camouflage, no matter the type, has become as important to warfare as bullets and bombs.
Picture General Washington’s Minutemen, shuffling around on watch in the snow of the frigid winter at Valley Forge, blowing their warm breaths into frozen hands, shouldering their own hunting muskets and clad in thin linen shirts, old leather breeches, and worn out shoes, thoughts of hearth and home and doubts about the coming spring campaign against the vastly superior British in the back of their minds. The aristocratic English generals and Lords of the Admiralty didn’t take these upstart colonial farmers and merchants seriously, much as they scoffed at the idea of camouflage. Change doesn’t come easy to military culture; it is often resisted. The U.S. Army’s recent uniform fiasco has shown changes may not always be for the better. But for better or worse, America’s Army has shown itself to be a greatly adaptable and resilient organization, a fact often reflected in Army uniforms. U.S. Army soldiers today are the best equipped and outfitted in the entire world’s history. The American fighting man has certainly come a long way from those hard days at Valley Forge. Pixels or no pixels, General Washington would have approved.