Infantry: A Cacophony Of Camo

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December 22, 2018: With the proliferation of different camouflage uniforms since the 1960s it was only a matter of time before someone collected images and data on the thousands of different camouflage patterns that have been put to use in the last century or so. The site in question is camopedia.org and it organizes the patterns by nation with another section for non-military patterns (for police mainly). The adoption of camouflage patterns for uniforms accelerated after 2003, in part because so many of them could be seen via digital pictures posted on the Internet. That proliferation of camouflage patterns led to their use for non-camouflage uniforms. In other words work and dress uniforms began to use camouflage patterns. And so it continues, but the process was not without its bumps, detours and utter failures.

The camouflage pattern proliferation goes back to the 1960s when the U.S. military developed a renewed interest in camouflage pattern uniforms and kept going. The American military first widely adopted the use of camouflage pattern combat uniforms during the 1960s and several different patterns were used. American marines were the first U.S. troops to use camouflage pattern combat uniforms during World War II but the practice did not last past the end of that war. That was mainly because existing technology for “printing
the camo pattern on cloth did not survive many washings. This was not a problem during wartime when combat uniforms did not last long enough to endure multiple washings and have the pattern fade in strange ways. There were few camo uniforms in World War I, usually for special uses like raiding parties or scouts. Some officers remembered this experience when World War II came along.

Most of the major powers had some “camo” combat uniforms during World War II but few continued the practice after the war. The same thing had happened during World War I, only on a smaller scale as nations first implemented subtle colors for their combat uniforms rather than bright ones that made it easier to spot troops.

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army continued to look into camouflage patterns and developed digital camouflage in the 1970s. Printing camo patterns on cloth was also much improved and could be done so that it would survive multiple washings. Lieutenant Colonel Timothy R. O'Neill, a West Point professor of engineering psychology, had first noted the "digital camouflage effect." It was never adopted for use in uniforms but was used for a camouflage pattern on armored vehicles of the U.S. Army 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Europe from 1978 to the early 1980s. Why hadn't the army adopted it for uniforms back in the 1970s? It seems that the key army people (uniformed and civilian) deciding such things in the 1970s could not grasp the concept of how digital camouflage worked on the human brain and were not swayed by field tests. Strange, but true, and it's happened before. In 2003, the U.S. Army decided to use digital camouflage patterns for their new field uniforms.

Digital camouflage uses "pixels" (little square or round spots of color, like you will find on your computer monitor if you look very closely), instead of just splotches of different colors. Naturally, this was called "digital camouflage" when it was first used for uniforms during the 1980s. This pattern proved considerably more effective at hiding troops than older methods. For example, in tests, it was found that soldiers wearing digital pattern uniforms were 50 percent more likely to escape detection by other troops. What made the digital pattern work was the way the human brain processed information. The small "pixels" of color on the cloth makes the human brain see vegetation and terrain, not people. One could provide a more technical explanation, but the "brain processing" one pretty much says it all. Another advantage of the digital patterns is that they can also fool troops using night vision scopes. American troops are increasingly running up against opponents who have night optics, so wearing a camouflage pattern that looks like vegetation to someone with a night scope, is useful.

So impressive was the effectiveness of digital camouflage patterns that in 2007 China decided to spend over a billion dollars to buy new combat uniforms for its troops that used a digital camouflage pattern similar to the one used by American soldiers and marines since 2003. It took China about two years to get nearly two million troops equipped with the new uniforms. There were four camouflage patterns (urban, forest, desert and ocean), although the woodland pattern also works in urban areas, just not as well as the special urban pattern. The new uniforms had a lot of other improvements, based on feedback from the troops. The new uniforms were also sturdier, and are able to survive 700 washings, versus about 140 with the uniforms they replaced.

Once digital camouflage patterns were in wide use further research found even more effective patterns that were not quite digital. That proliferation of camouflage pattern uniforms led to some amusing dead ends, especially when the U.S. Navy adopted camouflage pattern uniforms for use by ship crews and the U.S. Air Force did the same for people who worked in offices and as aircraft maintainers. This led to some rapid changes as these non-infantry troops rebelled (or, more accurately, ridiculed) their camouflage pattern work uniforms.

In mid-2016 the U.S. Navy finally decided to replace its new (since 2010) blue pattern camouflage pattern work uniforms with newer and improved (by popular demand) ones. At the end of 2016 the navy announced that the new uniform would be the NWU Type III (green and tan) already used by NECC (Navy Expeditionary Combat Command) since 2010. NECC is the new ground combat force the navy formed in 2006, staffed by 40,000 sailors. NECC required a more familiar camo uniform because they operate along the coast and up rivers, as well as further inland. NECC units served in Iraq and are ready to deploy anywhere else they are needed. NECC needed a camo pattern that would work ashore and not look radically different from what other American ground troops were using. NWU is practical for when ship crews have to go ashore for an emergency and is not an embarrassment to wear, as was the old blue camo pattern work uniform.

More importantly, the new work uniforms are more fireproof and better able to handle heat when not burning. The original camouflage pattern work uniforms turned out to burn a lot faster than expected and cause more injuries to the wearer in the process. Even when not on fire the old uniforms did not “breathe” and were stifling in hot weather or the often very hot conditions often encountered below decks.

When first forced to use the blue pattern camo work clothes back in 2010 U.S. Navy sailors thought their new work uniform was mainly silly. It consisted of shirt and pants in a gray, blue (mainly) and black camouflage pattern. Most sailors wear the work uniform while on a ship. What's the point of camouflage there? This has at least led to some entertaining humor. For example, sailors called the new camouflage "Aquaflage" and tried to find some purpose in it. Some believed it was a safety measure since if you fell overboard while wearing it there was little chance you'd ever be seen in the water, so there was no need to turn the ship around to try and find you. Along those lines, some believed that if you fell overboard, the aquaflage would make it more difficult for any sharks to spot you. Actually, sharks detect prey via smell, not sight, but no matter, it was better to laugh about this blue clothing nightmare rather that look hard and cry.

There was more to cry over. Aquaflage came along mainly because of the herd instinct at the top. Since 2001 all the services had gotten new camouflage uniforms, or gotten them for the first time. Even the air force had a blue type camouflage pattern. The admirals felt compelled to replace the traditional (and popular) dungarees and blue work shirt with the much less popular aquaflage. For more formal occasions, junior enlisted sailors were still allowed to wear a khaki shirt and black pants (an arrangement the U.S. Marine Corps has made famous). The navy "dress blues" remained unchanged.

When sailors encountered the heat and burn risk problems with the new uniforms it was no longer a laughing matter and the navy had to pay attention and came up with a new work uniform in record time. The new work uniform will be mandatory for everyone by 2018 and already members of NECC are complaining that stocks of NWU Type III have been quickly depleted since the late 2016 announcement. That helps senior admirals appreciate that they did the right thing by killing off aquaflage.

At the same time, aquaflage appeared in 2010 there was a more useful but less well-known proliferation of camouflage pattern uniforms as commandos sought to gain every advantage possible before carrying out a high-risk mission. In response to that, there appeared firms that could quickly get camouflage uniforms optimized for the local terrain, colors and structures. This is because there was then available "direct-garment-printing" that enabled the special camouflage pattern and colors to be quickly applied to "blank" (monochrome) uniforms and shipped to the troops planning the mission. While this special camouflage may only make the troops wearing them a few percent more difficult for the enemy to detect, that is one more edge the commandos have.

Other edges include years of specialized training, lots of intel on the target, careful planning, some kind of mockup of the target area for practice runs and, most importantly, the element of surprise. None of these advantages, by themselves, will assure victory. But all together, they make a decisive difference. Thus it should be no surprise to hear that elite troops like commandos and paratroopers have, on average, suffered lower casualty rates than regular infantry. These elite forces also tend to accomplish more difficult tasks. Instant custom camo is one more reason why. The instant camo concept never caught on in a big way but it still exists, usually as a way to quickly make prototype samples of new uniforms for testing or marketing.

 


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