Russia is equipping some of its tanks in Ukraine with the new Nakidka camouflage fabric designed to reduce the possibility of detection by thermal, infrared or radar sensors. Nakidka fabric is issued in sets that are designed to cover the turret and most of the rest of a tank, especially the engine compartment. This sort of fabric has been around for some time and Russia claims Nakidka is more effective than earlier versions of MCS (Multispectral Camouflage System) cloth. Developing and manufacturing new versions of this cloth is continuous because MCS sensors used in combat keep improving and rendering earlier MCS cloth less effective.
For example, in 2021 an Israeli firm (Polaris) introduced Kit 300, a new MCS cloth that was stronger and more effective at defeating detection by thermal, infrared or radar devices. Polaris said the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) had already tested Kit 300 in operations and found it effective enough to buy. Polaris was one of those defense firms that hired former IDF special forces to join the team developing Kit 300 and make sure new products meet actual needs. In this case Israeli firms have been trying, since the 2006 war in Lebanon with Hezbollah, to develop an MCS material that could be used by vehicles and ground troops to neutralize thermal sights like those Hezbollah used in 2006. Islamic terrorists have been using captured or black-market night-vision devices for over a decade, which has made it clear to Western forces that something like MCS was needed.
Thermal sights are the latest capability of infantry night vision devices that have been around since the 1960s. These portable devices first reached American soldiers in the 1960s, and amplified light so troops could see more in moonlight or starlight than the enemy. These devices became smaller, lighter and more powerful over subsequent decades.
In the decade after 2001 the advances were faster and more revolutionary. Russia and China have access to this technology so developing MCS materials that will hide vehicles and troops from detection by digital thermal sensors became a priority. That’s because thermal devices look for differences in heat. Hiding that has always been difficult and the Kit 300 MCS cloth does it better than any earlier material. Improved MCS materials usually appear first for vehicles and are too heavy for use by ground troops. It doesn’t take long for MCS manufacturers to develop lighter versions for the infantry.
For example, in 2017 the U.S. Army tested a new type of Swedish (Saab) MSC camouflage material for vehicles that provided an unprecedented degree of concealment. That’s because the SAAV MCS camouflage netting can be fitted to a particular type of vehicle like a second skin and provide protection while moving, even in combat. The U.S. and many other nations are looking for an MCS that provides this sort of protection. Saab had already sold Canada a lot of this MCS material and that encouraged the Americans to take a look.
For the 2017 tests Saab provided, at their expense, four sets of this netting fitted for Stryker wheeled armored vehicles and the U.S. conducted field tests in Europe with them. If the U.S. military placed a large enough order, Saab was willing to set up an MCS manufacturing facility in the United States. The tests found the Saab MCS effective, but not enough to justify a large order. Saab has made some sales to Western nations and more are interested in trying it out.
This new generation of camouflage material has been evolving for several decades as a way to protect vehicles and mobile bases from aerial reconnaissance that increasingly used infrared (heat/thermal) sensors. The latest generation MCS material began showing up twenty years ago and the U.S. bought a lot of it after 2006 when it seemed there would be a return to peer-versus-peer warfare against any enemy possessing air or satellite reconnaissance capabilities. The new MCS netting provides a degree of concealment from infrared, thermal and radar sensors. Some of the new material was used in vehicle soft tops and it was found that this provided a degree of protection. Combat uniforms contain cloth treated to make it more difficult for thermal sensors to quickly spot a soldier in the dark.
Saab and Polaris took this a step further and developed MCS cloth that rendered aerial or ground based thermal sensors much less effective. That can be a major advantage in combat because getting off the first accurate shot can be decisive. The Saab MCS was available in various camouflage patterns and colors so vehicles can quickly “change their skin” to cope with a new climate or season. The Israeli Kit 300 is a step beyond that and provides invisibility against thermal, infrared and radar sensors. Beyond that Israeli and other MCS developers are working on new materials that will render troops and vehicles invisible to the naked eye as well as multispectral sensors.
After 2006 there were fears that the basic stealth netting, because it was relatively cheap, might become popular with Islamic terrorists and drug gangs in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The result would be enemy positions that were more difficult to spot via airborne or satellite sensors. Enemy irregulars have been known to obtain high-tech gear, like night vision sights or encrypted radios, and use them to their advantage. Of course, terrorists with commercial infrared sensors would find their gear less effective if they scanned the hills one night, and missed the Special Forces team out there, hiding beneath their new MSC camouflage net. This did not become a major problem in counter-terror operations. But the effectiveness of the new netting is real.
Camouflage is an ancient technique but technology caught up with camouflage in the 20th century. First came aircraft, which were initially used primarily for scouting. Camouflage that hid you from someone on the ground was usually ineffective when enemy aircraft flew over, unless they employed something to hide under. Now camouflage became a life saving measure for troops normally out of sight of the enemy. Through the middle of the 20th century, troops developed efficient techniques to hide themselves from aerial observation. The most ancient camouflage techniques are still very effective. These involve covering the troops, or their positions, with foliage most of the year, or white cloth when there's snow. The use of winter camouflage is a recent development, because winter warfare did not become common until the 20th century. Whatever the season, the principal function of camouflage is to make your troops invisible to the enemy. This invisibility is sometimes achieved, but usually the invisibility is not complete and the result is that the enemy is never sure exactly what you have and precisely where it is. The use of infrared (heat) sensors has made it possible to quickly tell what is live vegetation, and what has been cut down for camouflage. Infrared can also see into foliage and detect the warm bodies of troops, and the heat from engines and recently fired weapons. Other sensors can detect large masses of metal (tanks and trucks). By the late 20th century camouflage was still very effective against troops who did not have the latest sensors. Even against high tech armies, camouflage will hide you a lot of the time if y0u can keep up with the detection technology. Any degree of concealment is still an advantage. In electronic warfare, camouflage is anything that makes information look like something other than what it is. That’s why by the end of the 20th century camouflage paint and nets were modified to be less visible to radar. Now MCS netting has degraded many of the recent advances in sensors.