<XMP><BODY></xmp>Fundamentals of Camouflage

Added 19-5-14
Updated 21-5-14
The Emperor's New Combat Suit. The Problem with Some Modern Camouflage Patterns.

        Patterns for Camouflage clothing have become a political issue in recent years. The US Army spent five billion dollars developing UCP/ ACUPAT. In a not unfamiliar process, they conducted extensive trials and then rejected the results they did not like. The result is a universal camouflage pattern that works virtually nowhere. It has been joked that the only thing ACUPAT has ever managed to make disappear is money. Several commercial concerns have actively been marketing their alternatives but as is often the case what is being offered is what the customer thinks they want, rather than what they need. Some of these companies boast that they have developed scores or even hundreds of patterns. If someone offers hundreds of answers to what is essentially the same question one is inclined to doubt that all the answers are equally valid! Some of the recently adopted camouflage patterns seem to have been influenced more by marketing than by empirical trial. Not a good policy when the wrong choice is likely to get our Soldiers killed.

        For camouflage clothing to be effective it must do a number of things. One thing that it must do is not standout against a likely background. Matching the colour of the background or surface of an environment is a common camouflage strategy for many small animals. In many instances it is shade rather than an exact match of colour (hue) that is more critical. Soldiers are likely to operate in a range of environments and their size means that blending cannot usually be relied on as the sole camouflage mechanism.

        Another mechanism of camouflage is shape disruption. If the garment has a pattern the pattern should serve to break up the apparent shape of the wearer. Essentially a human appears as a collection of convex cylinders, the limbs and torso. Thus to camouflage a human we need to obscure the cylindrical shape of the components and make them appear less convex. The human brain is very adept at picking out certain shapes so a good camouflage pattern should disrupt the outline of the figure and create an illusion of greater depth and texture. Achieving this requires that there should be some contrast between the different elements of the pattern. It also requires that the distinct elements be discernible at likely viewing ranges. There is little point in having elements of less than an inch in size when normal human vision lacks the acuity to pick them out at ranges beyond 100 yards. Some modern camouflages have elements that are too small so the eye does not even notice them at usual viewing ranges. Many camouflage patterns are composed of elements that lack contrast so the viewer's brain simply averages the colours to perceive a single-coloured man-shape. The CUEPAT-1 Urban camouflage adopted by Canada and frequently shown in the TV series “Primeval: New World” is a good example of this. The pattern printed on the clothing can clearly be seen to have no contribution to the camouflage effect and the wearers appear to be wearing plain grey-beige outfits. I have had the chance to view the British Army's new MTP at varying ranges. On the plus side, it is light which should reduce body shadowing over previous designs. On the negative side there is little difference in values between the various colour elements and as you might expect there is very little shape disruption, the colours blobbing out to create a brownish-olive coloured figure. This is a good colour for blending into many types of terrain but the actual pattern is not contributing to shape disruption as much as it might.

        The shape of the object being camouflaged also needs to figure into the choice of camouflage scheme. If a vehicle is painted with very small spots or stripes the pattern will “blob-out” and a mono-coloured vehicle will be perceived. If you watch a few video clips of soldiers wearing camouflage you will notice that they often stand out as dark, man-shaped objects. The human shape tends to throw shadows onto itself. Equipment such as webbing increases this effect. Even if the soldiers are wearing an exact match in colour and shade to their background they will appear darker. The solution to this is that some elements of the camouflage pattern must be much lighter than the background to compensate for this shading effect. Colour value is one of our primary mechanisms in judging depth. Light elements in a pattern are assumed to be closer than the darker. Contrasting light and dark elements create an illusion of depth and texture. Interestingly, lighter spots are also perceived as background being viewed beyond an object and create an illusion of insubstantiality.

        Other factors will also come into play. Clothing will get dirty. On the plus side this may create a better match to the environment. On the negative side it may reduce the contrast between different elements of a pattern. Clothing patterns that are wetted by rain may also appear different. Patterns may fade with wear and washing. Laundering of garments may be an issue that has been commonly overlooked. I have read observations that the usefulness of US Woodland pattern garments depended on whether they got browner or greyer with washing. The less desirable greying seemed more common with army-washed items. ACUPAT is supposed to be grey, tan and sage green but in actuality most items appear to be several shades of grey, making me wonder if the laundering process may be one contributor to ACU's many shortcomings.

        Recently I came across an account of how effective the Soviet WW2 camouflage suits were, wearers reportedly often being hard to spot at a few metres distance. Unlike the Germans, the Russians only used a few designs of camouflage pattern during the war. Earliest and probably the most widely used was “Amoeba” pattern which used quite large irregular brown blotches on either a light-green or khaki/sand/yellow background. Soviet “Leaf pattern” used shapes of green with very light khaki/yellow. A three-colour pattern used two shades of green on a yellow/tan base, although I expect the two greens merged at most viewing ranges.

        What is striking about the Russian patterns is they were simple but evidently worked very well. Compared to modern patterns designs such as Amoeba appear too simple to be effective but its track record indicates the opposite. As they say in the British army:- “If it looks silly and it works, it wasn't silly”. If the criteria in the first few paragraphs are considered again the reason for the effectiveness of Amoeba should become apparent. The Russian camouflages made use of contrasting very light and medium colours with bold irregular patterns. British two-colour desert DPM was found in a Natick trial to be the most effective pattern that they tested for desert terrain. Functionally this is very similar to a yellow and brown amoeba pattern.

        The pattern was not the only element that made Russian camouflage successful, of course. Camouflage was issued in one or two piece suits that were a loose fitting coverall rather than also being intended to serve as a uniform. This created a shape less easily identified as a man or woman. Such suits also had natural materials and pieces of cloth and netting added to further break up the shape.

        It seems that the fundimental principles upon which the design of camouflage should be based have often been neglected in recent years. Elements lack the contrast and size to disrupt the shape that is supposed to be camouflaged. We have fallen into the trap of thinking more colours or novel concepts are automatically an improvement.

        In the 1906 edition of “Camping and Woodcraft” Horace Kephart notes:-
        “Most shades of cloth used for men's clothing are darker than they should be for hunting. What seems, near by, to be a light brown, for instance, looks quite dark in the woods. The light browns, greens, and drabs are indistinguishable from each other at a few rods' distance. The color of withered fern is good; so are some of the lighter shades of covert cloth, such as top-coats are made of; also the yellowish-green khaki. White (except amid snow) and red are the most glaring colors in the woods. An ideal combination would be a mottle of alternate splotches of brown or drab and light gray, which, at a short distance in the woods, would blend with the tree trunks and would not look entirely opaque.”

        I don't have the millions of dollars budgets that teams such as the developers of ACUPAT had but I have attempted to illustrate the principles that I have described above. If some agency wants to slip me a mere few million they are welcome to develop these! The colours for these patterns were firstly selected to have contrasting values. Only when I was satisfied with this were the hues selected. It may prove that the contrast range needs to be wider or the base colour even lighter. Likewise the sizes of the colour elements may need to be changed. I have added some RGB noise and canvas texture to the image to make it a little more realistic.

        On the far left is a verdant pattern intended for use in summer and jungle conditions. The right pattern, which I call “bronze” is designed for arid, autumnal and urban environments. A soldier would have a camouflage smock with the verdant pattern on one side and bronze on the other. For desert conditions a smock would have a desert pattern on one side and bronze on the other.

        This pattern is based on the proven British two-colour desert DPM. The darker sections have had an even darker green or grey-brown added. The large areas of lightest colour contribute to depth disruption and counter the shading effects of the human shape.

        The pale yellow would work well in open fields, even in bright sunlight. Light yellows and browns are more common in our environment than we consciously acknowledge. The darker elements will break up the basic shape and appear as leaves or shadows. Within forests and jungles the natural shadows of those environments will provide additional shape disruption and the lighter elements will look like sun dappling. Very few environments are actually dark coloured. Most are composed of light or medium colours that are shadowed. The olive-brown and yellow of the bronze pattern will work well on various surfaces such as dried leaf litter, earth and rock. The darker shapes are to be necessary to break up the shape of the wearer at longer ranges, while the lighter areas decrease the tendency for the wearer to appear as a distinct dark shape. The contrast between elements also helps in simulating depth and this can be seen in the smaller scale images. Famously, UCP did not use black, the justification being made being that this was a rare colour in nature. That may be so but darkness and shade are not uncommon. The patterns I illustrate therefore also use a third darker colour such as dark green or grey-brown.
        Below is a desert pattern based on the same template. It is intended for very light environments such as sandy desert areas.

        The image on the far right brings together several concepts from my other articles on camouflage. While it is easy to reverse a smock it is not so practical to reverse your trousers when out in the field, so a two colour pattern that will work well with either the bronze or verdant variants is shown. The lighter overal shade of this pattern helps counter that the legs are more shadowed. The webbing uses a neutral-grey based pattern variant that can be used in a variety of environments including forest, jungle, desert, arid and urban. With the addition of white tape it can be used in snow too. The hat and gaiters use a multienvironmental pattern designed for small items such as these.

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