Friday, June 29, 2012

The Army Corrects Its Camouflage, and Musings on Mimetics (Update)

I have always had a certain professional interest in camouflage (not so direct since I retired, but I have progeny who still rely on it), and I have been through and seen a number of variations during my previous military career, both in the American services and in the variety of foreign countries I have worked with as well.  So my interest was piqued when I saw that the US Army (the vocation of two of my sons) is finally looking for a replacement system of field camouflage uniforms and associated gear.  Part of the story comes with the admission that the Army royally screwed up the process in selecting the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) for the current Army Combat Uniform (ACU).

Not so effective

Does this really come as a surprise to anyone?  This story on the subject quotes a regular grunt who doubtlessly speaks for us all:
Essentially, the Army designed a universal uniform that universally failed in every environment.  The only time I have ever seen it work well was in a gravel pit.... As a cavalry scout, it is my job to stay hidden.  Wearing a uniform that stands out this badly makes it hard to do our job effectively.  If we can see our own guys across a distance because of it, then so can our enemy.
'Universal' Camouflage Pattern

There is a process for working out these details, but that was waylaid by up-the-chain apparatchiki and arm-chair experts who rushed a supposedly universal camouflage on to the soldiers who had to actually rely on it, wasting some $5 billion on the uniforms and gear.  It was clear from the outset that this pattern, which was supposed to be effective in all climes and places, was targeted primarily at cost savings, not combat effectiveness.  Having to produce only one uniform, not to mention the cost of all the associated web gear and load-bearing equipment, was far less expensive than producing several matching sets that would be more applicable to forests, jungles, deserts and mountain areas.  The one-word explanation for that sort of thinking – if it were actually sincere, and given the technology of the time – is ‘chimerical’, but more on that later.

[Note, May 2014: If you wish to cut to the chase, the Army is finally closing in on a replacement pattern.]

To better understand the problem, first some background.  Our first use of camouflage started in 1942 for limited use, primarily by US Marines fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific.  There were two versions, ‘brown’ and ‘green’, but the issuance of uniforms never really made it into full production before the end of the war.  In a static position, it worked fairly well, but some officers evaluating its use complained that the utility broke down when troops were in motion.  The pattern was introduced briefly into the European theatre by way of the 2nd Armored Division, but was quickly withdrawn due to its dangerous similarity to the designs used by some Wehrmacht units.

US field uniforms reverted to olive drab for some time thereafter, but the general ‘leopard spot’ design, as it came to be known, survived into the 1970s with our reversible helmet covers, giving the Marines endless complaints about the inevitable ‘green side out/brown side out’ mixed signals – requiring that everyone disassemble their helmets to turn the cloth cover over, then reassemble the helmet – that would always come down the chain of command, depending on the level of command (and sometimes from the same headquarters), prior to an amphibious exercise or operation.  As a platoon commander, I quickly developed a determination to ignore all such directives in favor of keeping the green side out until about 30 minutes before launch, and I was never aware of any end result being in favor of the brown, even in areas where there was no green whatsoever (such as the Spanish exercise area near Carboneras).

 US Woodland

One of the major tactical principles for a soldier is that he should always be improving his concealment, and that applies no less to armies as well.  The US military had relied on the basic Woodland camouflage pattern of dark green, brown, light tan, and black since the early 1980s, based on a greener version that was in limited use during Viet Nam, referred to officially as 'ERDL' for its developer, Engineer Research & Development Laboratories, but generally called 'jungle cammies'.  This supplanted the general olive drab 'fatigues' (for the Army) or the identical 'utilities' (Marines) that had existed in minor variations since the 1930s.  The woodland pattern sufficed because of the focus in the 1970s and 1980s on jungle warfare (though waning) and possible warfare in Europe against the Soviets or in Korea, arguably rather similar areas geographically.

ERDL pattern, or 'jungle cammies'

It did occur to some that there existed the possibility of fighting elsewhere (it certainly did to me), so I was glad to find myself at a point in the 1970s – a Marine platoon commander with my platoon – doing long range desert training at the Marine combat training center at Twentynine Palms, California.  Our arrival there was coincident with an experiment in desert camouflage, and as we were about to move into the outback, we were shuffled into a classroom and addressed by a small group (I don’t recollect who they were) to the effect that we were to also do a trial for a set of desert field uniforms.  (Nothing secret or special – like so many situations like this, we just happened to be the troops available when these guys showed up.)  They then handed out utilities (trousers, jacket and boonie hats) that were identical to the ones worn in Viet Nam, except that they were what these gentlemen called ‘light tan’.  We immediately pointed out that they appeared to have a definite pink cast to them.  They hesitated a moment and then agreed that yes, they were pink to some extent, and asked if that were a problem.  A few glances and non-verbal cues led me to reply that no, there wasn’t a problem at all; why did they ask?  They were apprehensive that Marines would object to the color on some quasi-cultural, anti-macho grounds, and were relieved when I told them that we were exclusively focused on what would work, not making a fashion statement.  (At some point, I told them in a friendly way that they had spent too long in college classrooms.)  The tests went well while we were engaged in our primary training mission – we were observed in various situations and at various distances, and occasionally overflown.  As Marines at that time, we were still primarily using our standard M-1941 system of olive green pistol belts, backpacks, haversacks, and the like left over from World War II, and this mixture with the pink(ish) uniform detracted from its effectiveness.  There were times when we removed most of that gear completely (as at a rally point prior to an assault), with best results.  We jointly concurred with the opinion that adding some darker mottling, though larger than the woodland design because of observation over greater distances, would be more effective.  We then turned in the uniforms before we departed.  Everyone seemed satisfied, but that was the last I ever heard of the experiment.

Incidentally, the later standard woodland Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs) were based on the design of the Viet Nam jungle fatigues.  To my mind, the BDU design was a poor imitation, more cheaply made.  Such features on the earlier jungle fatigues as the slant upper pockets of the jacket, its longer length to allow easy use of the lower pockets, the inner pocket inside the left cargo pocket on the trousers, made them superior to the later uniforms, in addition to the fact that I think they were better made.  The BDU's appearance had less to do with effectiveness than with garrison appearance, a mind-set that continues.  Complaints that I hear today about zippers (capable of breaking, difficult in muddy environment) and velcro (very noisy, less effective in sandy environment) on the uniforms would be allieviated by the buttons of the 'jungles'.

While at Twentynine Palms, I stumbled across the first desert camouflage uniform that was already packed away in the system.  This was the six-color Desert Battle Dress Uniform, which was rarely seen up until the First Gulf War.  Besides the (actual) light tan, very pale green, and two tones of brown (one rather too dark, in my opinion), it was overlaid with white-on-black facsimiles of pebbles.  (I assumed that our previous experiment involved some future upgrade to this design.)  I asked how this DBDU design came about and was told that it was based on the desert patterns found in the American Southwest.  I remember replying that if the Mexican ‘Ligera’ Infantry Brigade ever attacked us, then we’d be set, but I questioned the applicability of a standard desert design that was based on American geography if we had to fight in Morocco or Jordan, for example.  In my later career, I saw quite a variety of deserts, including those in the Empty Quarter and the Nafud, as well as the Sahara, and I came to find how incredibly short that estimate came in terms of the great variety of desert terrain that there is.

Desert Battle Dress Uniform camouflage, or 'chocolate chip'

In short order, and especially while I was later entertained as a participant in the First Gulf War when it became widely recognised, the design came to be known as the 'Chocolate Chip' Desert Pattern.

The run-up to that war was intriguing in many aspects, particularly in light of the surprise of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.   Our vaunted logistics system was pushed to extremes to create and funnel the necessary supplies and equipment to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield and through what turned out to be the unexpectedly short-lived time of conflict in Operation Desert Storm, supplying a much greater force than our military can field today.  Not the least of these problems involved the ‘discovery’ that our chocolate chip camouflage was insufficient to the task in that area, and that our field gear to accompany it was still almost exclusively the dark olive and woodland colors of the area around the Fulda Gap in Germany.  (As a stop-gap, I was given a chocolate-chip patterned bag with elastic around the opening, to slip over my ruck sack.)  It was during this time that we were also issued a one-of-a-kind desert night camouflage (light parka and over-pants), a two-tone dark sage and dark green checked pattern with a dark form of the pebbles of the chocolate chips superimposed.  It looked intriguing, and we thought it novel that so dark a pattern would work well in the desert at night.  The primary purpose, we were told, was to guard against what we knew of the Iraqi night vision capability.  It turned out that, although it looked cool, it was practically useless as camouflage, both in the visual and infra-red spectra.

Desert Night Camouflage (DNC)

Natick Laboratories, the source of our camouflage systems as well as so many other technologies, rushed a new design to the theatre of operations, but practically none of it was available for actual combat operations.   This new pattern consisted of only three colors (thus making it less expensive to produce): light tan, pale green and dark brown, and was called the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) with the nickname of ‘Coffee Stain’.  I was aware of the design but didn’t see it in theatre until I was walking along the ‘Highway of Death’ (actually one of two, with casualties highly exaggerated, but that is another story) outside of Kuwait City, some few weeks after the end of hostilities, and encountered a small group of military intelligence reservists who had just arrived in theatre, engaged in digging through some ruined Iraqi military equipment.  They were dressed in the brand new DCU  coffee stain camouflage uniforms, accompanied by a couple of troops in the chocolate chip version.  I made a point after our conversation and my moving on down the road, to turn and look at them from a distance, and I was pleased to see that this new design was certainly more appropriate to the area than the old.

Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) or 'Coffee Stain'

I was also taken by the notion that the ‘light tan’ in the new design likely had the same pink hue that I encountered many years ago – that old experiment had come full circle.  There was also some question about the pale green color as well – after all this was a desert – but I couldn’t discern that it detracted from the camouflage effect.  A few years later, though, I was in the Sahara of southern Algeria and the Western (formerly Spanish) Sahara that has been in dispute between Morocco and the Polisario, as a UN observer in the MINURSO peacekeeping mission.  I traveled extensively throughout the area (probably more than any other Westerner) and occasionally encountered areas of good camel-grazing, with small tufts of pale green, almost sage colored, grass spaced about one every square meter.  When standing there looking down, they appeared sparse indeed, but looking out over an area, they gave the terrain that pale green hue, identical to the one in the DCU uniform that I was wearing by that time.

The use of the DCU carried us through our initial assaults into Afghanistan in late 2001 in response to 9/11, and Iraq in 2003 to clear out the festering remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Part of the increased energy of this counter-attack against Islamic Supremacists was poured into an update to our camouflage, and that was seen first with the introduction of the new Marine field uniform comprising the new Marine Pattern or MARPAT design, consisting of pixilated borders of colors rather than amoeba-type splotches, divided into a forest version of black, green, and a new ‘coyote brown’ (discovered by the Marine researchers checking through the Ralph Lauren selection at Home Depot), and a desert version of tans and light brown now worn by the Marines in Afghanistan.  A major part of the design included the ability to manufacture both the cloth and ink, as the cloth and printing capability had to be rather advanced to accommodate the design as well as the inherent infra-red concealment capabilities.  Little known in the US is the fact that it was the Canadians who first developed the design and technology (and who directly assisted the Americans in adapting it to our needs), incorporated into their standard Canadian Disruptive Pattern or CADPAT design, with a temperate woodland (TW) and arid region (AR) variations.  (Both the CADPAT and MARPAT designs also have an arctic variant.)

Marine Pattern (MARPAT) forest

Canadian Disruptive Pattern (CADPAT) temperate woodland (TW)

It was the introduction of the revolutionary Marine design that set the Army camo program into high gear.  Initially a design called Desert Brush had held the lead in 2004, but that was forestalled by a new Army office charged with gear procurement, the oddly-named Program Executive Office Soldier.

The defunct Desert Brush design

The word came out to take the colors in consideration at the time, pixilate them like the MARPAT design, and quickly produce the entire Army collection of ACU uniforms and gear.  As explained by Cheryl Stewardson of the Natick Army Research Center:
It got into political hands before the soldiers ever got the uniforms. . . . It was trendy.   If it’s good enough for the Marines, why shouldn’t the Army have that same cool new look?
While this answers the problem of the mismatched gear, the rush to market does partially address the universally bad choice of colors, or the fabric which tends to quickly wear out, first in the crotch.  I believe that the Army was trying to quickly introduce the updated design of the ACU, but at the expense of the unfortunate color scheme of the UCP and a less-than-adequate test of the fabric.

USAF Airman Battle Uniform

The Army wasn’t alone in this rush to the new spring collection, as it were.  The Air Force soon came out with a strange combination of the colors of the UCP but in some version of the old popular tiger stripe design from early Viet Nam, based on the French jungle design of those days.  This new Air Force design is perhaps even worse, but it feeds into the Air Force attempt to try to remind their personnel that they are warriors too.  (I witnessed an example of the Air Force Warrior Program when I visited a remote Air Force Base in the 1980s.  Martial tunes were broadcast at lunchtime as the airman walked to chow.  They told me that they felt that the sentiment was misplaced.)

Navy Work Uniform I

Even worse, though, is the Navy, with its bizarre Navy Work Uniform I (NWU I) in shades of mostly blue and some grey and black.  Why the Navy would want a camouflage uniform on ship or at naval stations is beyond the reasonable observer, and the grim joke is that it makes a sailor harder to detect when he’s fallen overboard.  The general idea, as officially explained, is to have colors that are less likely to show dirt and grime in those work environments.  At any rate, I would hope that they have provided a fire-retardant capability to the uniforms.  The issue of flame-retardant uniforms was an issue after the Kennedy/Belknap collision in 1975, but that slowly died away in favor of a better appearance with polyester uniforms, which would melt into your skin before flames became a more bothersome problem.

The Navy has announced though that it is introducing a NWU II and NWU III (or Area of Responsibility (AOR) 1 and AOR 2, just to be confusing) for operators, primarily SEALs, when down range in a combat environment.  (Other Navy personnel in Afghanistan such as EOD wear DCU for the time being.)  These are in desert and forest colors, respectively, and are somewhat similar to the MARPAT design and coloration.  (Note that authentic fabric has small subtle logos -- like the eagle, globe and anchor for the Marines, or a Navy eagle in the NWU -- printed in varying spots throughout in sort of a 'Where's Waldo?' fashion.  Civilian versions for sale to the general public do not have these, nor do they have the IR cover capability.)

Comparisons of Marine with new tactical Navy designs, with Navy shipboard and Army UCP

Other quick observations on the topic: I was at one time participating in winter training operations at Fort Drum in upstate New York, with our troops split into two opposing forces. We were issued the winter coverall trousers and the winter parkas, both solid white. There seemed to be a natural reaction to wear the parkas but to disregard the trousers. I assembled my troops and pointed out that the snow typically lies on the ground, with green trees above – we would wear the white trousers and keep to the green field jackets. All involved, particularly the opposing force, conceded that to be a far more effective method. And as for the popular Hollywood idea of ninja-like black BDUs, we quickly found that any environment dark enough for black fabric was also dark enough for any pattern. We discarded the idea of black BDUs as a fashion statement, and focused more on the additional idea of tamping down the infra-red signature of our body heat, seen through the increasingly available infra-red options on night vision devices.  (I’m not familiar about recent technology as it regards the NVDs, but we found in the late 1980s that they were less effective in the early hours of the evening due to the residual heat of the day absorbed by the surrounding environment, particularly rocks. We focused on movement during those hours when that would help mask our presence. I’ve been told that that option has been largely corrected. Members of the Taliban and al Qaeda are invited to test it.)

Infra-red view of a NWU I jacket with MARPAT forest trousers for comparison

The pace of change for the Army is accelerating.  Due to the ineffectiveness of its UCP, the Army has now equipped its troops in Afghanistan with a new Multi-cam system by Crye Precision (officially naming it the Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern or OCP), incorporating seven colors that more effectively pick up and coordinate with the colors of the surrounding terrain.  I’ve seen US Air Force Pararescue personnel wearing this in training too, and it has been adopted for use by British, Australian, and Polish troops in Afghanistan.  (The Canadians will retain their CADPAT pattern, but will adjust the design of their field uniforms to incorporate some functions of the US ACU, including the mandarin collar, into their Enhanced Combat Uniform.)  This comes far closer to answering the desire for a universal camouflage, but I feel that this idea still falls far short of the mark.  It is now being adjusted to three or four varieties that enhance certain colors to better blend in with different terrains (presumably the jungle, forest, desert and mountain), with a standard color for gear that would coordinate with all the variations of uniforms.

Multicam or OCP

This is supposed to be temporary. The Army is working on the follow-on system, depending on budget, I'm sure, in its Phase IV Camouflage Improvement Effort.  That should be interesting, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that appearing anytime soon, if at all.  But be sure to look for ADS, Hyperstealth, Crye, and the name of Guy Cramer (Canadian, of course – they seem to have cornered the market) in the news on that topic.

And for the next generation?  What about this?

(Additional H/T to OC Tactical)

Update: Strike - Hold! has a similar viewpoint about the plan to update the Army field uniform.

Update: This has been a rather popular post.  I have provided a newer post which expands on thoughts on some foreign designs.

Update:  A new article (10 December 2012) about Guy Cramer of Hyperstealth on his Quantum Stealth material.

Update:  Congress attempts to make sense of our kaleidoscope of combat uniforms.

Update:  The Army seems to finally be arriving at a conclusion.


  1. Sounds like McNamara has been resurrected, what with the emphasis on cost savings. Have I mentioned that I participated in a test of paper fatigues back in '62. Do try to imagine how well that worked out in Panama.

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  4. Well that is a nice display of the best camo pattern in variety of coloration and brilliance. Some are looking really effective. You know I did not know the meaning behind using such patterns before reading this blog.

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  6. Hi There, I just spent a little time reading through your posts. Please continue to write more because it’s unusual that someone has something interesting to say about this. Will be waiting for more!
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