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Home | Camo Facts | Hidden in Plain Sight: A Brief Rundown of Military Camo

Hidden in Plain Sight: A Brief Rundown of Military Camo

Learn about the path of US camouflage from the battles of the Revolutionary War to the modern-day conflicts in the Middle East. Discover how uniforms have evolved from simple, drab forest colors, to the pixilated, computer generated styles used today.

Given the asymmetrical and unpredictable aspects of the world's battlefields, the proper employment of camouflage, a practice that dates back centuries, is more pivotal than ever.

For those not savvy with military terminology, camouflaging is the practice of using materials and color to conceal troops, their equipment, and vehicles.

Whether it's the Army's MultiCam or the Marines' Digitals, the sight of camouflage-clad combat troops has become an indispensable part of our nation's modern military might.


Techniques

Camouflage tactics and techniques generally fall into two categories: those that help conceal troops and their equipment, and those that make them appear like something else entirely.

The former, called "crypsis," often plays upon principles of natural camouflage. Soldiers using this type of camouflage look to blend into their surroundings, much the way predatory (and prey) animals do. This is often accomplished by using colors and patterns indigenous to their operational environment.

It can also be done by using an organic and artificial material to break up or distort shapes that are easily recognizable to the human eye, such as the silhouette of a human body or vehicle.

The latter, mimicry, works to disguise troops as something else entirely. The most commonly known application of this technique is that of the sniper's ghillie suit. Also called "yowie suits" or "camo tents," these covers are designed to mimic the surrounding bushes and shrubs. Based on designs of Scottish origin, the suits are comprised of layers of burlap or cloth, augmented with bits of foliage from the surrounding area. Some US snipers go as far as using mud and other natural scents to complete the mimicry illusion.

With the advent of infrared and night vision technologies, masking troops' low-light and thermal signatures (think the movie Predator), has also become crucial. The military's combat uniforms now incorporate special textiles and designs to help provide additional concealment.


History

The term camouflage came into vogue during the WWI and is of French origin. The practice, however, is much older. While sources differ on the first recorded tactical application of camouflage, it gained notoriety by way of German scouts (or Jägers) during the 1600s. Though originally of European design, camouflage has been an important part of the American military since its inception.

The famous Rodgers Rangers, a specialized company from New Hampshire created during the French and Indian War, chose to don uniforms of gray or green. This allowed them to blend into the forests of the North-East far more easily than their bright red counterparts (later to be mockingly dubbed "lobsterbacks").

Given the disproportionate number of Continental Army soldiers during the Revolutionary War, Ranger units were again employed to stalk the British military. These units often wore more muted, natural colors, as opposed to the brass-buttoned, red, white and blue uniforms of Continental Regulars.

Gradually, warfare moved away from the traditional paradigm of soldiers simply standing rank and file, each waiting patiently for the next round of shots. With the arrival of new offensive weapons, like machine guns and long-range field artillery, the ability to conceal the number and location of troops became increasingly important.

During WWI, the US enlisted camouflagers, civilian artists and designers (some American, but mostly French), to help conceal their troops and equipment. This strategy was time intensive and not yet practical for widespread use.

WWII saw more use of camouflage, particularly by the Marines in the Pacific theater. There were, however, several drawbacks to these two-sided, reversible green-brown "frog" uniforms. They were extra hot due to the dual fabric, and by the end of the campaign were turning pink from many washings (interestingly, the Army recently reencountered this problem with their flame-retardant uniforms).

While the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War saw some limited use of camouflage, the next big advancement came in the late 1970s. M81 woodland was a pattern designed for use by all US forces and was intended to help them blend into the forested environments of Europe, should another large-scale conflict break out.

In the 1980s, the military made standard the well-known woodland BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform), which were used in the Grenada invasion. The "chocolate chip" camo, a six-color, desert camouflage, that would later be heavily used during the Gulf War was also introduced. In addition to the previously mentioned camouflage of the Gulf War, the early 1990s saw the introduction of camouflage designed to interfere with night-vision equipment. This took the form of black and white checked jackets US forces donned to stave off the cold desert temperatures, after the sun set.

During America's latest military incursions, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, BDUs and other older camouflage uniforms were phased out in favor of the several next generation styles of digital camouflage, like the Army Combat Uniform and the Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform. As well as the Navy Working Uniform, referred to by some as "blueberries."

Surprisingly (or maybe not), digital camouflage had originally been designed in Germany for the Nazi SS during WWII, but was never put into widespread use. Over time, Germany and the Soviet Union continued to perfect designs. Eventually, the Canadian Army created a modern version of digital camouflage and assisted the US in designing similar patterns to disseminate to their troops.

These pixilated designs allowed for superior concealment from night-vision and infrared devices, as well a better breakup of soldier's figure at a distance. Additionally, during recent conflicts, the military began to introduce fire-resistant materials on a widespread scale, due to the increased use of road-side bombs and the resulting vehicle fires.

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