Weapons and Kit

The Evolution Of Military Camouflage

It's often key to the success of military operations, so much that NATO is working on a variety of new materials...

An international team of scientists from NATO member and partner countries met in rural Germany to carry out field trials on a variety of camouflage materials.

The ultimate goal? Creating camouflage systems able to elude hyperspectral cameras.

But how has military camouflage evolved through the years?

From the dawn of time, humans have found ways to conceal themselves. It starts with nature, where many animals find ways to hide from predators thanks to camouflage.

But as Marek Strandberg from NATO's Science and Technology Organisation says, at first it was more about the smell:

"In human history, we can imagine that the first camouflage was not about the colour, but about the smell to cover yourself with the mud to reach some prey in the nature.

"Since this time, the camouflage history is quite important to protect yourself, hide yourself - in the nature, in the city, in the urban environment, everywhere - to be not detected, because if you are not detected you cannot be hit by weapons."

The research these scientists are carrying out aims to improve soldiers security:

Two British zoologists, Hugh Cott and Sir Edward Poulton, were key in translating camouflage in nature into techniques that could be used by the military.

Sir Poulton, who wrote the first book on camouflage in 1890 ('The Colours of Animals'), believed that animal imitation for concealment was proof of natural selection.

A brief history

Blending in with your environment didn't always focus on covering yourself in mud, in fact, the British Indian Army started dyeing their white uniforms with tea and curry.

Military khaki arose in the mid-19th century and stopped the endless struggle of keeping one's uniform sparkling white, while also reducing soldiers’ visibility from a distance.

Despite this, brighter military garb tended to dominate until the early 20th century as uniforms performed a psychological function of making soldiers feel 'battle-ready'.

But why didn't militaries adopt a darker coloured uniform?

According to several military historians, the orderly lines of brightly clad soldiers marching in formation gave them the psychological edge they needed.

It was a key feature of musket-driven warfare, which then gave way to guerrilla warfare. To fight and win in this new era, stealth was a core advantage.  

Before the invention of the modern rifle in the mid-1800s, militaries all over the world dressed their soldiers in bright colours – like British troops in their iconic Redcoats. 

Redcoats at Culloden (image from 'Culloden Moor 1746', by Stuart Reid © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The First World War: A 'hidden' combat

In the run-up to the Great War, a new threat was on the horizon - enemy aerial reconnaissance.

From this, militaries first used camouflage patterning and tactics to hide locations and equipment - not people.

Modern camouflage as we recognise only began in 1915 when, after being defeated by the Germans, the French army abandoned their white gloves and red pantaloons.

They enlisted a cadre of artists to develop stealthier uniform and formed the first units of 'camoufleurs' – specialists in camouflage.

Initial tactics were confined to painting vehicles and weaponry in disruptive patterns to blend into the surrounding landscape.

They later taught other militaries how to disguise their equipment with paint, how to erase truck tracks and cannon blast marks, as well as using netting interwoven with fake leaves to hide sheds holding military equipment. 

The Second World War and aerial attacks

A fresh threat of aerial attacks prompted militaries on both sides to use camouflage more widely.

All First World War-era camouflage tactics were revived and expanded, except dazzle painting.

Two Allied wins during the Second World War owed their success largely to camouflage: El Alamein in 1942, and D-Day in 1944.

During the second battle of El Alamein, the Allies blocked the Germans from seizing the Suez Canal with an intricately detailed camouflage-plan involving inflatable tanks, fake artillery blasts and even hiding the entire Suez Canal from aerial view. 

Post Second World War

The Second World War saw the rise of printing patterns onto fabric - with nations having several unique camouflage patterns, each designed to fit in with the battle landscape (e.g. snow, jungle, forest, desert).

In the late ‘90s, the Canadian military adopted a digital pattern that replaced swirls with a pixilated design.

The idea was not to make the uniforms undetectable, but rather to create ambient visual noise that the roving glance of an enemy would disregard.

In 2001 the US Marines adopted a similar design. Today all branches of the American military have some version of digital camouflage. 

Modern camouflage tactics

NATO now wants to create camouflage systems able to elude hyperspectral cameras.

Dr Karen Stein, of NATO Science and Technology Organisation, said:

“Years ago there were rapid developments of infrared sensors so now we have to change camouflage to make it possible to camouflage against thermal sensors.

“And in the past years we have a development of shortwave infrared sensors and this is why we are still challenged to do measurements in the shortwave IR.”

The data from the experiment will be shared between nations, which Dr Stein said was a great advantage.

“The costs of such an experiment are enormous and a nation by its own couldn’t afford it so this is really the advantage of this experiment.”

Anonymous soldier

The Future of Camouflage

According to Guy Cramer, President and CEO of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation and one the world's best camouflage experts, the future of camo will be chameleonic, with uniforms that can change colour, shap, and brightness.

The fabric he has engineering to do this, which he calls SmartCamo, changes hues through electromagnetic fibres running through the garment.

Because of the high cost - currently a single uniform runs for about $1,000 - the technology is more likely to be used for tanks and aircraft first.

An even more inventive innovation is his “Quantum Stealth” project, in which Mr Cramer plans to create a uniform that bends the entire spectrum of light around its wearer. 

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