9 reasons why military camouflage works — or doesn't

Sun Tzu once said that he who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.

To be honest, in a way, that is exactly what camouflage is all about. It is not about colors, shapes, or ninja stuff. It is about knowledge, patience, and the manipulation of anything anywhere.

All to achieve one goal: to become the environment. In this article, I am going to give you a small, bitter taste of the art of camouflage.

When I was in the Israeli Airborne SF, I served with one of the SR groups. My secondary specialty in my team was what we call in the IDF, a ‘builder.’ Basically, someone who is capable of concealing anything, from one man to an entire team or vehicles in any environment.

Photo courtesy of Breach Bang Clear.

Eliran Feildboy. Photo courtesy of Breach Bang Clear.

What is camouflage?

Back in the days, when I used to assist as an instructor for the next generation of builders, one of the first questions I asked the young soldiers in every introduction lesson was, ‘’What does the word ‘camouflage’ mean to you?”

The majority of the answers were split into two: hiding or disappearing.

While both might sound correct, those two words describe a long-living misconception that one experiences when he gets involved with task-oriented concealment work.

Long story short, the majority of the time camouflage begins with understanding the nature of observation.

Applying standard camo. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

Applying standard camo. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.

The purpose of it is not only to hide, but to make you part of the environment, allowing you to safely observe, document, and, when necessary, respond.

Being a master of camouflage means being able to live off nature’s hand for 72 hours (or more), being just hundreds of meters away from the objective, and being able to observe the point of interest all the while.

Let’s say camouflage is the art of manipulation–the controlling of reality.

Fundamentals of Camouflage

There are three fundamental camouflage actions. These are the main principles that are found in any concealing construction.

  • Hiding: The action of hiding is setting a barrier that separates you physically, and often visually, from the surrounding environment and its unfolding reality.
  • Blending: Resembling your surroundings by combining different, like elements into a single entity. The main difference between success to failure lays in properly blending subtle details.
  • Disguising: In short, disguising is an action we perform to alter an existing shape or form. We do that to eliminate or create intentional target indicators, such as smell, shape, or shine. Disguising, for example, is adding vegetation to a Ghillie suit or collecting branches to conceal my hide side.
Photo courtesy of Breach Bang Clear.

Photo courtesy of Breach Bang Clear.

Target Indicators

Knowledge is power. One of the keys to perfect camouflage at the tactical level is the ability to understand what kind of X or Y signatures my presence creates that will lead to my exposure.

TI, or target indicators, are about understanding what signatures my enemy creates in a specific environment. Those target indicators suggest presence, location, and distance in some cases.

There are two dimensions to consider when detecting and indicated presence. The first–and oldest–dimension is basic human sense. The other is technological.

Human Sense

While smelling, hearing, and touching are obvious senses, but those senses normally only come into play in short distance.

Let’s focus on ‘seeing.’

 Snipers with 1st Sapper Company, Burundi National Defense Force, observe enemy movement, donning field-made ghillie suits. USMC Photo by 1st Lt. Dominic Pitrone

Snipers with 1st Sapper Company, Burundi National Defense Force, observe enemy movement, donning field-made ghillie suits. USMC Photo by 1st Lt. Dominic Pitrone

The visual sense is, by far, the most reliable sense for humans. We use it up to 80% of the time to collect information and orient ourselves. So, what kind of visual signatures could I leave that may lead to my exposure? In short:

  • Shape – The perfectly symmetrical shapes of tents or cars, for example, don’t exist in nature. Those, and the familiar shape of a human being, are immediate eye candy.
  • Silhouette – Similar to ‘shape,’ but with more focus on the background. A soldier walking on top of the hill or someone sneaking in the darkness with dark clothes against a white wall–the distinction of a foreground element from its background makes a target indicator sharp and clear.
  • Shine – Surface related. Radiance or brightness caused by emitted or reflected light. Anything that my skin, equipment, or fabrics may reflect. Popular examples would be the reflection of sunlight on hand watches, skin, or optics for example.
  • Shadow – Shadows are very attractive and easy to distinguish for human eyes, depending on a shadow’s intensity. For example, caves in open fields stand out for miles and are very easy to recognize. As a result, we never use caves for hiding, as they’re a natural draw to the eye.
  • Color – Let’s make it sure and simple–wearing a pink hoody to a funeral is a good way to stand out. Match your environment.

Army photo by Pfc. Dixie Rae Liwanag/Released

Technology-Based Target Indicators / Multi-Spectral Awareness

Oh boy, this is where the real challenge begins! I’m actually going to risk it and say that ghillie suits are becoming less and less relevant today due to increases in technology.

Before we will dive into all that Einstein stuff, these are the main wavelengths used by different devices to find your ass:

  • Infra-Red / NIR – Used in NVGs, SWIR cameras, etc. Night-vision devices, for example, use active near-infrared illumination to observe people or animals without the observer being detected.
  • UV – UV radiation is present in sunlight. UV-capable devices are excellent, for example, in snowy environments for picking up differences undetectable by the naked eye.
  • Thermal – Your body generates a temperature different from any immediate background, such as the ground in the morning or a tree in the evening. Devices tend to set clear separations between the heat or cold of different objects, resulting in pretty nice shapes that are easy to distinguish for the observer.
  • Radar (radio)– A radar system consists of a transmitter producing electromagnetic waves, an emitting antenna, and a receiving antenna to capture any waves that return from objects in the path of the emitted signal. A receiver and processor then determine the properties of the object. While often used to detect weather formations, ships, structures, etc., there are numerous devices that can give you an accurate position of vehicles and even humans. It’s a long story, hard to manipulate. Such devices exist already in the tactical level.

It is nearly impossible to eliminate your signature against devices who work within the wave length. The only solution is to understand what the human being sees through advanced optics and manipulate the final result.

Army photo by Andrew Zimmer

Army photo by Andrew Zimmer

Buckle up and get your aspirin – we’re moving into the science stuff.

The human and its environment emits different signatures that can be picked up by different technological devices that make use of different types of waves.

Cones in our eyes are the receivers for tiny visible light waves. The sun is a natural source for visible light waves and our eyes see the reflection of this sunlight off the objects around us.

The color of an object that we see is the color of light reflected. All other colors are absorbed.

Technically, we are blind to many wavelengths of light. This makes it important to use instruments that can detect different wavelengths of light to help us study the earth and the universe.

Army photo by Sgt. Jeffrey Alexander

Army photo by Sgt. Jeffrey Alexander

However, since visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes can see, our whole world is oriented around it.

Until recently.

With the advancement of technology, humanity slowly cracked and understood the existence of other light waves.

We began to see those dimensions through different devices.

Since the visual camouflage has foiled many plans throughout a history of wars and conflicts, militaries around the world began researching the possibilities of using non-visible wavelengths in detecting the signature of specific objects in specific environments.

Summary

Camouflage is not about hiding and it’s definitely not only about wearing a ghillie suit or digging deeps foxholes.

Soldiers with the Estonian Defense Force defend their position May 12, during Operation Siil in Oandu, Estonia. Army photo by Sgt. Juana Nesbitt.

Soldiers with the Estonian Defense Force defend their position May 12, during Operation Siil in Oandu, Estonia. Army photo by Sgt. Juana Nesbitt.

It’s an involved, looping process that starts with understanding how humans detect and continues with manipulating this detection.

The old standards, such as ghillie suits, are becoming less and less relevant to the modern battle space as detection technologies advance.

New predators such as SWIR or advance thermal cameras are hard to beat unless you know the device, the interface, and the humans who use it.

As Albert Einstein once said, technology has exceeded our humanity–so get creative.

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